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Xi uses California summit to soften China's hard face

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Chinese and U.S. presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama concluded their first summit on Sunday in California. For both, the meeting appears to have been successful and accords were reached on cyber-security and military to military communication.

Perhaps the most interesting joint pledge, however, is to build, in the words of Xi, a "new model of co-operation" between the two nations. As the Chinese president elaborated, "China and the United States must find a new path... one that is different from the inevitable confrontation and conflict between the major countries of the past."

Xi's emphasis on this subject reflects, in significant part, the critical mission he has inherited to enhance China's image in the world. The central challenge he faces here is China's soft power -- its ability to win the hearts and minds of other nations and influence their governments through attraction rather than coercion or payment -- has lagged far behind its hard power built on its growing economic and military might.

This soft-power deficit could prove a real headache for the new Chinese president, for there is increasing international concern, suspicion and even outright hostility as China's international role expands. In the United States, for example, public favourableness toward China fell by more than one-fifth in one year recently -- to 40 per cent in 2012 from 51 per cent in 2011, according to Pew Global Research Projects.

At a time of continued economic uncertainty in the United States, issues such as China's alleged currency manipulation, the large size of the U.S. trade deficit with China and the large U.S. financial debt held by China, not to mention alleged Chinese cyber-security attacks on U.S. interests, has taken its toll on U.S. public opinion.

In Japan, meanwhile, public favourableness toward China fell to 15 per cent from 34 per cent between 2012 and 2011, according to Pew. With Japanese distrust of China growing, Tokyo is actively strengthening its diplomatic alliances, particularly with Washington, as it seeks to balance Beijing's growing economic and military strength.

In this context, Xi rightly recognizes the need for better diplomacy and communications to enable stronger international understanding and appreciation of the country. His summit with Obama was thus an unprecedented opportunity to begin the journey to repair China's global reputation.

What must China do, after the summit, if it is to succeed in this journey during Xi's presidency?

In the short term, Xi now needs to follow up on its ambition to build an enhanced relationship with the United States, and restart a broader process of addressing growing foreign concerns about the country's intentions as a nascent superpower. Here, the president will need to double down on long-standing Chinese pledges of securing a harmonious, peaceful transition as China rises, and being a responsible stakeholder in the international system.

Beyond this summit, there is a huge forward agenda for China to tackle that will require commitment to meaningful reform during Xi's presidency. If this happens, China will be able to potentially secure significantly more dividends from the sizeable sums of money it already spends on foreign charm offensives.

Perhaps the most difficult issue to be addressed is the sometimes yawning gap between China's attractive culture and traditions and modern achievements such as its scientific progress (admired by many foreigners and a significant source of soft power), and the Communist regime's domestic actions. One case in point was the stunning staging of the Olympics in 2008. The elaborate opening ceremonies celebrated both traditional and modern Chinese culture and society, while underlining Beijing's efficiency in staging major events.

Successful as those Olympics were, Beijing squandered much of the soft-power dividends generated when it clamped down on the uprising and protests that same year in Tibet and Xianjiang respectively. This counterproductive pattern of behaviour is by no means isolated. Beijing needs to recognize this to avoid what looks like a tendency to shoot itself in the foot going forward.

This requires commitment to political change, transparency and concrete steps toward democratization -- and matching these words to deeds. Much of the international community is unlikely to welcome China as a peaceful, responsible world power if Beijing regularly clamps down on Chinese citizens seeking domestic reform, including political dissidents, lawyers, human rights activists and journalists.

A second issue to address is that, traditionally, there has been too little emphasis from China on public diplomacy efforts to reach out directly to foreign publics. Instead, Beijing has often placed emphasis, especially in Africa and the Middle East, on improving working relationships with strategically important governments through assistance programs that may not always serve the interest of local peoples.

This is now changing. China has rapidly developed public diplomacy skills and policies. But more change is urgently needed if hearts and minds are to be won across the world.

Perhaps the biggest reform necessary for Xi is reducing the role of the state, which still initiates most of China's public diplomacy. The central problem here is the communications of Chinese state-driven public diplomacy often lack legitimacy and credibility. One solution is expanding the numbers of individuals and non-state groups -- including from civil society networks, Chinese diaspora communities, student and academic groups and business networks -- involved in public diplomacy.

As these examples illustrate, the challenges ahead are wide-ranging and deep-seated, and will require far more than one summit to overcome. Indeed, enhancing China's reputation is a generational task that will require not only sustained investment, but also significant reform, during Xi's presidency.

Andrew Hammond was formerly a U.K. government special adviser and senior consultant at Oxford Analytica.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 11, 2013 A7

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