Tiananmen Square, Beijing. CREDIT: <a href="https://pixabay.com/en/tiananmen-square-beijing-sentinel-654627/">yefan/Pixabay</a>
Tiananmen Square, Beijing. CREDIT: yefan/Pixabay

China's Power and Messaging, with Bonnie S. Glaser

Feb 19, 2019

"There are areas where China lags behind other countries in its power, areas where it's catching up, and areas where China really has leapfrogged some other countries, including the United States, and is pulling ahead," says Bonnie Glaser of CSIS. Certainly, China is investing heavily in promoting a favorable narrative about China around the world, a strategy increasingly being referred to as "political influence operations."

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today on the phone I have Bonnie Glaser. She is a senior advisor for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC.

Bonnie, thank you very much for speaking with us today.

BONNIE GLASER: Thanks for asking me to do a podcast.

DEVIN STEWART: This conversation today is part of our ongoing series of podcasts which we call Information Warfare, looking at the use of disinformation, information, propaganda, messaging, and other tools of statecraft, particularly between the United States and China and the United States and Asia in general.

Bonnie, before we get to some of those tools and issues surrounding China's foreign policy, tell us a little bit about the China Power Project, which you are running at CSIS.

BONNIE GLASER: We started the China Power Project about three years ago. The concept behind it really stems from what I see as a lack of really good understanding about China and Chinese power. Some people underestimate Chinese power; others overestimate it. And, of course, power is relative, so you have to understand it relative to other countries.

So what we are trying to do with this project—we have a website as well as a podcast series, and the website in particular is aimed at unpacking and analyzing elements of Chinese power. It's data-driven, it's objective. We're trying to help people understand the complexity of China's rise. We have looked at areas where China lags behind other countries in its power, areas where it's catching up, and areas where China really has leapfrogged some other countries, including the United States, and is pulling ahead.

We take specific issue areas, and we try to do a deep dive using data, so we look at things like demography, research and development, defense spending, shipbuilding, Chinese holdings of U.S. Treasuries, and poverty. We look at economic, technological, military, and then indices of soft power.

We're having a lot of fun with it, and we're trying to provide an educational resource for people who want to understand China and also to provide information for policymakers. We want our audience to be global, not just the United States.

DEVIN STEWART: Bonnie, on the China Power Project, can you give us a little teaser on some of the things you've learned so far, maybe some of the surprises? If you're looking at China's relative power compared to other countries, what are some things that you think the attentive, educated public should know?

BONNIE GLASER: One example would be China's holdings of U.S. Treasuries. People often ask the question, "Does Beijing have leverage over the United States because it holds so many U.S. Treasury bonds?" If you go on our website, you will see that the vast majority of U.S. Treasuries are actually held domestically, by the American public. If we look at foreign holding of U.S. Treasuries, it's really about 17 percent that the Chinese hold, and Japan is about the same.

The reality is that U.S. Treasuries are a very safe investment, so if China doesn't buy them, other countries will. And if China sold part of its holdings, not all of them, it would drive down the price of the Treasuries, and then the U.S. economy would be hurt. China would be hurt, too. So that's just one example of something that I think is poorly understood.

Another example in the defense area is Chinese aircraft carriers. Yes, China is building aircraft carriers. They've already deployed the first one, the second is now conducting some tests. We've seen it sailing out for some trial runs.

But if we look at things like the aircraft-launch system on those carriers, U.S. carriers use something called a Catapult-Assisted Take-Off But Arrests Recovery (CATOBAR) launch system, and in fact the most recent U.S. aircraft carrier, the Gerald R. Ford, uses something that's called Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch Systems (EMALS) technology. This is very advanced, and China's still working to catch up. U.S. carriers are propelled by nuclear reactors; China's still working on that technology.

Five to seven years ago China had no carriers. Yes, it's closing the gap, but it still lags behind.

DEVIN STEWART: That's really interesting, Bonnie.

Both in the realm of aircraft carriers and in American Treasury bonds, the threat is less than maybe the public might perceive, if I catch your drift here. Where do you think the public misconception comes from?

BONNIE GLASER: I think there's a lot of information about China available, and it's understandable that the public doesn't know what's reliable and what isn't. There's a lot of bad analysis and bad opinions and a developing narrative, especially in the United States, that China is all-powerful, that it is going to take over the role of the United States as the sole superpower in the world.

Of course, there are areas where China is becoming powerful. Economics is the area where China has the most leverage. We see this with the Belt and Road Initiative, for example, and China giving loans around the world. But it's not like the Marshall Plan, where the United States actually donated money to Europe to try to rebuild Europe after the war. China is providing mostly loans, and not all of them are at very competitive rates.

I just think it is really understandable. It's hard to understand China's power, where China's pulling ahead, where it's lagging behind, whether it poses a threat, or whether it doesn't. So I have a lot of sympathy with people who are trying to understand China.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there an area where you think Americans should pay more attention in terms of Chinese influence or Chinese risks or a threat to U.S. power?

BONNIE GLASER: I think people shouldn't only be focused on the military. That's an important area, but we should look at the economic aspects of Chinese power. Again, there are some that are very positive for China, others not so positive. China's economy is slowing down, for example.

I think understanding China's soft power is something that's really hard to dig into and explain. I think that's an area where it would be useful for more people to do research. I look back to Joseph Nye and his definition of soft power, which is "the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction." Soft power is really non-coercive. It's culture and political values.

I think China just does not have much natural soft power. It's created top-down instead of bottom-up, and so the Chinese have put a lot of money into developing what they call "cultural soft power" since it was declared by Hu Jintao as a goal in 2007, but I think they've made very little headway.

DEVIN STEWART: How about the current president, Xi Jinping? How would you describe Xi's overall foreign policy strategy and its goals? Also, what type of message do you think Xi Jinping is trying to convey to the world?

BONNIE GLASER: When Xi Jinping first came to power as general secretary of the Communist Party in November of 2012, he articulated what he called the "Chinese Dream," and that's essentially the national rejuvenation of China. He's not the first Chinese leader to articulate this goal. I think every Chinese leader and also citizens have wanted to return China to a state of greatness.

It is central to the education in China that China experienced the century of national humiliation, beginning with really the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, and that China stood up in 1949, when the communist power was victorious in the civil war. But China still has not really returned to greatness.

I think in foreign policy Xi Jinping wants to create an international environment that is conducive to China's continued development and attainment of this Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation, and then in addition to that I think he wants to protect and advance China's expanding interests in the world. There are aspects of the international order that China is not satisfied with. We see this in the United Nations, where China is trying to take a leading role in governance. Particularly, you could look at Internet governance as one example.

So China's trying to use the various tools of national power to persuade other countries to accommodate its interests and to advance its interests in the world.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned earlier Chinese soft power and China's promotion of its own soft power has been maybe not performing as well as it could. Do you see Xi Jinping as doubling down on the promotion of Chinese soft power? What about other tools of influence like information campaigns, propaganda, or even technology?

BONNIE GLASER: I guess I would say all of the above. China has been investing a lot in really promoting a favorable narrative about China around the world. This strategy I think is increasingly being referred to as "political influence operations." The United Front Department in China plays a leading role, but there are other Party organizations that have a part, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Chinese research organizations.

China generally has longer-term horizons when it thinks about its political influence operations. It is not targeted like we saw with Russia during the 2016 presidential election in the United States. I think rather the Chinese try to develop relationships and shape narratives over a longer period of time. So that's an area where China's toolbox has been growing.

Of course, we've also seen the economic toolbox growing. The Chinese know that countries around the world want to benefit from China's economic largesse. They don't necessarily want China's political influence or its coercion, but countries have to balance between getting access to the economic goodies and fending off political pressure.

We also see China using its military as well as its government vessels like coast guards and maritime militia to influence and coerce other nations, so that's another part of China's toolbox that's growing.

We certainly see Chinese military pressure against Taiwan and occasionally against Japan as the Chinese and Japanese are present inside their overlapping Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ). So China's toolbox to promote its interests overall has very much been expanding.

You asked the question earlier about China's message. If I could just add something there, I think that China sees the United States as in decline, a relative decline, if you will, but nonetheless in decline. This has been an assessment really since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2007-2008.

So China sees its rise is inevitable and that it will overtake the United States certainly in gross domestic product probably within the next 10 years and then beyond that will overtake the United States in areas of technology. The Made in China 2025 program is one example, part of China's industrial policy, to try to gain a dominant position in ten very sensitive strategic technologies. This message is that China's rise is coming, and it wants countries to accommodate to China's rise. It also wants to weaken U.S. alliances, and it wants countries that have territorial disputes to rescind their claims and essentially show deference to China.

I think there is quite a bit of confidence in China's external environment about the trends but somewhat less confidence in the internal environment, where I think China has a bit more insecurity.

DEVIN STEWART: Those are ambitious goals, of course. People have been predicting crisis in China forever, and it has never happened, at least in the past few decades.

What is your assessment of the value of their confidence? Is Chinese confidence warranted?

BONNIE GLASER: Countries don't want to choose between the United States and China, so they try to maneuver between the two. But, given the fact that there are concerns about U.S. staying power, especially in Asia-Pacific, and maybe even the broader Indo-Pacific as people now call it, there are concerns about whether the United States has the resolve and commitment to defend its allies as President Trump puts pressure on some of these alliances and demands that countries like South Korea and maybe Japan pay more for the presence of U.S. troops. I think China sees this as an opportunity, and they are trying to woo countries toward them and sometimes explicitly tell diplomats from other countries that the United States won't be there forever, and so countries should get with the program and understand that China is going to be the dominant power, at least in Asia.

So maybe not globally for some time, but around China's periphery, yes, I think that China has reason to have greater confidence if it doesn't overplay its hand. If the Chinese move too quickly and countries see them as threatening, then of course they could push those countries away from China and toward some kind of loose coalition with the United States, and that would be a mistake.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned a little earlier about China's competition over claims with Taiwan and Japan. I would also throw in perhaps Korea might be on that list.

Looking at China's influence on democracies around the world, what do you think is important to look at there, and how much influence is China having on the future and fate of democracies?

BONNIE GLASER: I think that China's interest in again, sort of shaping the narrative of the conversations in democracies, is growing. In some democracies that do not have laws that bar, for example, political contributions by foreigners in elections for political candidates, that can be a real problem. We have seen this, for example, in New Zealand. They don't have such laws. In the United States there are laws that bar foreigners from making political campaign contributions, and Australia has recently passed a law because they recognized that was a vulnerability. So different democracies are somewhat stronger than others, basically.

I think autocratic countries are even more vulnerable, though, than democracies. Where you see dictators, they want loans from China that maybe they can't repay. They may want to take them to build palaces or projects that are not really economically viable, and there's no system that enables the people to push back. We see this in some countries, in Africa, for example. But where you have democracies where citizens go to the polls and can vote leaders out of office—and Malaysia would be a good example where Najib was voted out of power, and Mahathir came in and said, "Hmm, I want to reconsider some of these Belt and Road loans that China has given because this is unaffordable for Malaysia." We've seen that play out in other places as well. It's taking place even in Pakistan, in the Maldives, and places like Sri Lanka, where there has been enormous debt that has been taken on.

So I think democratic countries are actually in a better situation to resist some of China's influence operations than non-democracies are.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting, Bonnie.

Some people are predicting that the world might be seeing the emergence of a technological Cold War between China and the United States or a new type of Cold War of two systems, two Internets, for example, a Chinese Internet and an American Internet, or a Chinese set of regional institutions and an American set of institutions.

First of all, do you see that type of world emerging? If so, how do you see democracies faring in that type of world? Do they have the resilience that it takes to survive?

BONNIE GLASER: On your question about whether there are essentially two different Internets, that makes sense to me because the Internet is something that is controlled by individual countries. Countries have sovereignty over what kind of information they want to allow to come into their country, and China has shared this technology and approach, the "Great Firewall," for example, with other countries.

So this is something that has been evolving in recent years. I think that those who envisioned one global Internet that would bring great freedom of information and access to freedom of information for all, that was a bit naïve.

But if you look at other areas of technology, it's more difficult to envision a complete separation between supply chains for China and supply chains for the United States and other countries. First of all, lots of other countries are involved in these supply chains, and the United States won't be able to dictate to them where they should be. They may end up in both supply chains, supporting both China and the United States.

I think that it's very difficult to really decouple these two economies, which some people think about. If you look at artificial intelligence (AI) as an example, this is an area where technology and progress in AI has been made not by individual countries or individual companies but through collaboration, and we see this as multilateral collaboration. The United States and China have together made advances in AI. I think it's going to be difficult to completely separate that out.

So, when it comes to the Internet, yes, but when it comes to specific areas of technology and decoupling our economies and supply chains I doubt that we will see that.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you, Bonnie.

Finally, any concluding thoughts on this topic as well as any suggestions for our listeners on where to get a more complete picture to better understand U.S.-China relations? I know that the CSIS website is a very good resource, and I think it would be great if we could together help people gather a much broader picture. So, any resources or information sources you can recommend?

BONNIE GLASER: I always start by recommending official documents so that people understand what the real official policies are of countries, so reading Xi Jinping's 19th Party Congress Political Report from October 2017, although it's a yawner and might put people to sleep. But particularly the foreign policy parts of it are important. They really lay out where Xi Jinping and China are and what their strategies are. Xi Jinping has also given speeches at the Foreign Policy Work Conference that was held last year, so that's another example.

Of course, in the United States, the National Security Strategy, Vice President Pence's speech on China and U.S.-China relations that was given last year. That was certainly the most comprehensive speech of the Trump administration.

From there, there are a number, of course, of good books, probably too many. Books that are written by objective researchers who really try to analyze Xi Jinping or some of the specific problems in the U.S.-China relationship are especially good. There are some good books on China's economy. Identify what it is that a person sort of wants to dig into, and then read a few books.

What I always recommend is that people try to read different perspectives. You can, of course, glean different perspectives from many websites, whether it's The Diplomat or War on the Rocks or Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy. There are lots of these—The National Interest—there are so many of them where you can read articles by people and see the range and the spectrum of views about China. By doing that, I think people can begin to develop their own views and perspectives and begin to draw their own analysis and do some of their own writing, so that's what I always encourage young professionals to do: Do a lot of reading, and then start writing yourself.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you. Bonnie Glaser is a senior advisor for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at CSIS in Washington, DC. It has been great speaking with you today, Bonnie.

BONNIE GLASER: Thanks for inviting me.

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