Public diplomacy key to clear Belt and Road doubts

Ni Tao
Without the adhesive effect of public diplomacy, a necessary precondition for creating synergies and connectivity, people-to-people exchange is out of the question.
Ni Tao

THE content and implications of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are sometimes distorted due to misunderstanding.

Public diplomacy efforts are thus becoming more important. To this end, Shanghai’s Public Diplomacy Association recently held its fifth annual symposium where distinguished guest speakers exchanged views on how public diplomacy can contribute to the BRI.

Ruan Zongze, deputy executive president of the China Institute of International Studies, said that public diplomacy is essentially about bringing hearts and minds closer.

“The point is not to impose views on others; nor to accept others’ stance, but to figure out the source of our different ways of thinking,” said Ruan.

He explained that after the high-profile BRI Forum, which was held in May in Beijing, the initiative has become a global consensus — something that marks a fundamental shift in Western perceptions of China. For a long time, the country was primarily seen as a supplier of cheap goods to the West; now it is also a generator of leading ideas on global governance.

“China is exporting ideas and solutions for global problems, while Western nations are still pining for a way out of the mess they created in 2008 (the global financial crisis),” Ruan noted.

Yet due to its sheer scale and scope, the BRI was often met with suspicions and scrutiny.

Ruan said, however, that China’s BRI and other gestures of strategic repositioning came at a time when the world itself was in the midst of radical changes. He believes that “this sort of synchrony helps deflect criticisms of China being a challenger of the status quo, because the status quo itself is changing.”

Instead of accusing China of being a “free-rider” enjoying public goods offered by the West — be it security, free trade or something else — Western critics now blame China for a “plethora” of grand designs, said Ruan.

To his chagrin, some Europeans are poised to liken the BRI to the Marshall Plan, adopted in the aftermath of WWII to help Western Europe rise from the ruins. China has consistently refuted the claim that the BRI was a modern version of the Marshall Plan, but it does need a clearer definition, said Ruan.

Common prosperity

Zhao Qizheng concurred. As the former minister of China’s State Council Information Office and now the dean of School of Journalism at Renmin University of China, Zhao said some scholars’ analysis of the BRI was misleading.

For example, they regard the BRI as a geopolitical and geo-economic strategy, but it is more of an initiative aimed at common development and prosperity.

Zhao has been regularly consulted on trips abroad by foreigners curious about aspects of the BRI that he finds “fundamental.” Typical questions include: Will BRI projects built by China be managed by locals or by Chinese companies? Who will own these projects?

“Foreign policy and public diplomacy experts have a duty to explain (these),” he said. He expects public diplomacy to fulfill the five key objectives President Xi Jinping has outlined for the BRI, namely, policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people bonds.

As a result of the BRI’s growing impact, retired diplomats like Sun Yuxi are rededicating themselves to a new endeavor. Ex-Chinese ambassador to Poland, Italy, India and Afghanistan, Sun has made it his mission to communicate his perception of the BRI to a largely foreign audience. He has delivered about 300 lectures on current affairs since retirement in 2012, about a fifth of which were related to the BRI.

In a talk with UNDP officials in Nepal early this year, he discussed ways to align the BRI with the “Himalayan Consensus,” a proposal that takes a “fresh look at methods of protecting ethnic diversity and local identity through community empowerment in Himalayan countries.”

A fixture at many workshops and debates on the BRI, Sun has come to compare public diplomacy to an adhesive that glues together parts and pieces of the BRI. “Without the adhesive effect of public diplomacy, a necessary precondition for creating synergies and connectivity, people-to-people exchange is out of the question,” he observed.

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