The recent G20 Hangzhou Summit was a glitzy event for China’s diplomacy. Unsurprisingly, Chinese media immediately announced that the Summit was a huge success. On the contrary, international media gave rather limited attention to it. Nonetheless, China has fully utilized the Summit as a mean to boost its soft power. As for the importance of this Summit as a platform to promote global governance, that is a story for another day.
One of the examples that illustrate the Summit as a soft power projection tool of China is the approval of the “Paris Agreement” by the U.S. and China. The decision was jointly announced by Xi Jinping, the leader of the country with the highest amount of carbon emissions, and Barack Obama, president of the largest economy in the world. This time, Beijing held a different attitude towards the agreement, in comparison of how they acted during the Copenhagen Summit back in the year 2012. The diplomatic gesture of a joint approval not only strengthened the said agreement; it has also constructed an image of China as an equal partner to the U.S. on the current international arena.
As the host country, China has successfully removed all sensitive peripheral diplomatic issues from the agenda of the summit in order to prevent unnecessary distractions. These incidents include the Senkaku island dispute, the North Korea nuclear crisis, the installment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea, and the South China Sea dispute.
At the same time, China has set an ambiguous agenda that includes “innovation and sustainable development”, “structural reform”, “multilateral trade”, “inter-regional infrastructure investment”, “global financial governance” etc as the central theme of the Summit. With no accurate definition, these intangible agendas have provided China with room to interpret various issues differently. These unclear concepts also offer China an opportunity to link its national interests to the international arena.
For example, “One Belt, One Road” initiative has become a global economic governance issue. Another relevant example is shown in the discussion of “global economic and financial reform” where Xi Jinping has urged the inclusion of more voices from the developing nations in the process of global governance. By claiming itself as the largest developing countries, China’s power of discourse has been obviously promoted.
In other words, China has been seeking to incorporate its hard power to the mechanism of global governance through multilateral platforms. In this case, China can legitimize its military presence through the engagement in existing diplomatic mechanism or the establishment of new diplomatic platforms. This strategy has not been unique and rare. In fact, the U.S. in the post-war era had been using the same means to incorporate itself to post-war global governance institutions, which allows it to eventually become a world leader.
Lastly, as the hosting country of G20, China has grasped this opportunity to promote its soft power. In order to construct a sense of grandeur for the Summit, China has invited not only the leaders of G20 members but also the leaders of various global governance institutions and non-G20 members, setting a record of the largest number of participants in a G20 summit.
To ensure the success of the summit, China has fully utilized the resources of Hangzhou by providing over a thousand volunteers, all of whom underwent months of English and international etiquette training, demonstrating the capability of an authoritarian country. However, these arrangments can be quite costly. For example, China has relocated some of the local residents to other regions and shut down their shops for the sake of security. These arrangements were criticized as a disturbance to citizens’ livelihood.
One could definitely question whether all of these can be regarded as “soft power”. However, it is essential to understand that China and the West do not share an identical definition of soft power. For China, “international gestures” and “the manner of a great power” are projected through means described above. China has also further enhanced its reputation amongst developing countries through the viral video on how Obama and his crew were treated on the tarmac of Hangzhou Airport.
After the summit, Chinese media were pushing for the “Hangzhou Consensus”, packaging it as a replacement to the U.S.-led Washington Consensus. The “Hangzhou Consensus” can be seen as a mere propaganda scheme that will not gain any traction globally, but China’s implicit strategy in the utilization of renowned international events to enhance its national capability should not be neglected.