Taking Central Stage: China Invests in Expanding Global Influence

Mr. Xi and Mr. Trump
President Donald J. Trump (left) and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Florida.

China is working on expanding its sphere of influence: while Washington is cutting the funds allocated for the U.S. Department of State, Beijing has announced the decision to boost its diplomacy budget this year.

In a draft document presented in early March, Beijing said the government would increase its spending on foreign affairs by 15 percent to 60 billion yuan ($9.45 billion), which would almost double the budget of 2011, the year before President Xi Jinping took office.

“For the past five years we have pursued distinctively Chinese major country diplomacy on all fronts,” Premier Li Keqiang told the annual National People’s Congress.

Given the increasing need for the Chinese diplomatic representation and Beijing’s greater involvement in foreign countries, “the growth in China’s foreign affairs budgets over the last five years and in 2018 may be more reactive in nature than many think,” Malcolm Cook, senior fellow at The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, told The Globe Post.

China Vies With US for Global Influence

While the White House has been cutting U.S. spending on international programs, China has shown its desire to go global. President Xi emphasized during the 19th Communist Party Congress that China is ready to take center stage in the world and to make a greater international contribution.

“The withdrawal of American support in global governance” advances China’s move, Li Hak-yin, a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told The Globe Post.

“The United States cuts its funding to U.N. Population Fund; its funding to sponsoring human rights activities also declined 28 percent last year; [it] will withdraw from UNESCO in December this year. All are caused by Donald Trump’s America first policy,” he explained.

“Though the increasing Chinese funding does not necessarily fit into or replace the American withdrawal in the U.N., Beijing has been offering various funding schemes around the world for some years,” Mr. Li noted.

To name just a few, China has allocated $500 million toward the South-South Cooperation Fund with other developing countries, $60 billion for Africa’s development, and $9 billion in assistance for countries joining China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” a massive infrastructure drive to project Chinese influence across Eurasia.

Moreover, unlike many international institutions dominated by Western states, the Chinese government offers non-conditional funding assistance, which is widely welcomed by developing countries, according to Mr. Li.

Mr. Cook noted, however, that the biggest problem for the U.S. diplomacy in Asia is not the budget cuts but the failure to appoint people to key positions in the region and Washington D.C. as well.

“In Southeast Asia, the only change in ambassador since the Trump administration took office has been in Vietnam. The U.S. ambassadorial positions for ASEAN and for Singapore are currently vacant while the others are still manned by Obama administration appointees,” Mr. Cook said, underscoring that diplomacy and diplomats matter.

“Senior US defense officials understand this. It is not clear though that President Trump is of the same view.”

China’s Military Budget to Grow

China’s spending on the military is also on the rise: it would grow 8.1 percent from 2017 levels to 1.11 trillion yuan ($175 billion), the largest increase in three years.

China’s military budget expansion worried some of its neighbors amid increasing territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga urged Beijing to “be more transparent about its defense policy, including spending and the direction of its military power.”

“[The increase of the defense budget is] attached to China’s border ambition — to establish China as the leader of globalization, to what Xi is continuously mentioning,” Jagannath P. Panda, a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, told The Globe Post.

He suggested that Mr. Xi is pursuing a multipronged foreign policy strategy to position China as the leader of the developing world, while slowly changing the status quo of the current regional order by creating new institutions and initiatives.

For instance, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, headquartered in Beijing, was launched in 2016 with an aim to use infrastructure to facilitate economic development in the region.

“[With] a rising power like China, the increasing expenditure on foreign affairs is expected, though no one knows if China can really build up a brand name as a great power in the 21st century,” Mr. Li concluded.

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