China's image abroad has declined significantly in the past four years, a sharp revearsal from the relative popularity it enjoyed in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe from the 1990s to the late 2010s. While previous Chinese regimes stressed humble non-intervention on the global stage, distributed generous infrastructure funding via the Belt and Road Initiative, and conducted massive soft power outreach programs through media and academia, many of these strategies have been reversed or rendered ineffective.
As Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia Joshua Kurlantzick notes, “[there] are multiple reasons for China’s deteriorating global public image. China’s overall rising authoritarianism at home, its cover-up of the initial COVID-19 outbreak, and its brutal repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang have hurt its perception among many foreign publics. China’s continued zero-COVID strategy has cut it off from much of the world, undermined people-to-people relations with other states, and cast some doubt on the Chinese model of development—even among some Chinese citizens.”
Moreover, the aggressive “Wolf Warrior” diplomatic style that has become popular under Chinese President Xi Jinping has drawn the ire of smaller countries in East and Southeast Asia, and its attempts to economically coerce countries such as Australia and Lithuania have backfired. In many parts of the world, China has its lowest public perception in decades.
While a negative public image cannot completely undermine China's foreign policy goals, it certainly complicates them. As Kurlantzick notes, “Those deficits are impeding China’s economic relations with trading partners, and it is losing some traditional support among trade groups in Asia, Europe, and North America . . . some countries are working to reduce trade dependence on China altogether.” Negative public sentiment also precludes leaders who would be friendly with China, such as the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos Jr., from forging closer ties.
China's slipping reputation provides a host of challenges and opportunities for the United States. Collaboration on international issues such as climate change and pandemic response are likely to suffer, particularly given the continued distrust over the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there are potential opportunities. “[The] United States and other partners . . . can now more easily work together to create a range of informal coalitions against Beijing to limit China’s access to critical technology, impede it at international forums like the United Nations—where Beijing had been making gains—and constrain it with newly formed or closer military relationships, among other measures,” adds Kurlantzick.
Perhaps more importantly, the United States can use this period to reassess its relationship with China, strengthening its position and determining the course for a more collaborative future. “Beijing remains a major power," Kurlantzick concludes. "It has the ability to adapt and shift its foreign policies, and even though it has devalued its position as a global leader, its cooperation is still needed on many issues . . . Democratic states should leave open the opportunity that, even under Xi, China will still play a positive role in some aspects of the world economy, environment, and trading system.”
This paper was made possible by the generous support of the Charles Koch Foundation.