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China: Competent Yet Constrained on G20 Public Diplomacy

Caitlin Byrne, Bond University
April 1, 2016

In taking on the G20 leadership last December, China's President Xi Jinping affirmed that the G20's ultimate goal is to "ensure people live a better life." He went on to set out three commitments to involve global audiences in the delivery of this goal.

Xi committed to an "action-oriented G20" focused on turning consensus into actions that might strengthen the legitimacy of the G20. Second, he committed to an "out-reaching G20" that would "hear voices from all walks of life." Xi declared that China would follow the precedents set by Australia and Turkey "to work with representatives from business, labor, think-tanks, women, youth and other social groups, so as to better respond to people's needs and demands." Third, he committed to a "world-embracing G20" that would take advice and suggestions from non-G20 members and promote dialogue with relevant regional and global organizations.

These commitments underscore China's approach to G20 public diplomacy. They align easily to this year's G20 theme: "Towards an Innovative, Invigorated, Interconnected and Inclusive World Economy." But, rhetoric aside, as China reaches the halfway point of its G20 leadership, just how is it doing in fulfilling these early public diplomacy commitments, and what more might be done?

In terms of action, there is some way to go — as evidenced at the finance ministers' meeting in Shanghai in February. Although China sought to refocus the G20 agenda on core finance issues, it was not able to secure consensus from finance ministers who remained divided on how best to address current global economic challenges. The meeting produced a disappointing result, but China's leadership on the agenda injected much needed momentum back into the G20 discussion.

China's public messaging plays a critical role in paving the way for consensus and perhaps action. For example, at the February meeting Central Bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan reassured finance ministers and policy makers with his message of calm amid widespread jitters about China's slowing economy and currency instability. He acknowledged the G20's shifting role from one of crisis management to longer-term structural reform and noted that while the pace of G20-led reform might vary, "the direction is not changed." For many observers, including those beyond official circles, Zhou's messages brought a sense of confidence in China's leadership. Furthermore, those messages are not isolated, but reflect a commitment to visible, official communication across the ranks of China's G20 leadership. However, the pressure for action and accountability remains.

In terms of outreach, China's early involvement of the Business 20 (B20) and Think Tank 20 (T20) communities is encouraging. The T20 process, kicked off in December 2015, is already gathering momentum. At the time of launching, China encouraged this "brain trust" to critique, reimagine and advocate the G20's contribution to longer-term global governance, with a focus on innovation, reform and development. It appears from subsequent forums that the T20 has picked up on this challenge. Similarly, the B20 process, launched in January 2016, has been called on by China's leaders to consider mechanisms to boost global trade, investment and infrastructure construction. The early involvement of the T20 and B20 signal their centrality to China's G20 public diplomacy approach, and affirms the unofficial role that both play as partners in, rather than audiences for, the ongoing G20 agenda.

The same cannot yet be said for the other identified engagement groups — Women's 20 (W20), Youth 20, (Y20) and Labour 20 (L20). Notably the Civil 20 (C20), involving civil society organizations, was not on the list. While the official calendar sets out meeting times for these groups, there is little evidence of more meaningful dialogue underway. This is unsurprising. It reflects China's constrained approach to public diplomacy more generally, an approach that tends to prefer centrally managed advocacy and outreach ahead of potentially unwieldy engagement — particularly when it comes to civil society.

Finally, in terms of becoming a "world-embracing G20," China does score some strategic points. Of particular note, the inclusion of Egypt as a special guest at the G20 summit leverages China's wider ties to bring Africa to the G20 table. Similarly, China's prioritizing of development-oriented goals paves the way for a more coherent relationship with other multilateral institutions, including the United Nations. These dynamics reflect China's desire to refocus the G20 agenda. Importantly, too, they underscore China's potential as a bridge builder, particularly when it comes to ensuring the G20 holds relevance for a global constituency.

Overall, it appears that China is performing competently to involve wider audiences in G20 dialogue. It is a public diplomacy style that emphasizes advocacy and outreach, but remains constrained in key areas of engagement and action. Yet, as the summit draws closer, China may want to step up the missing dimensions of its public diplomacy efforts. First, it could facilitate genuine dialogue with all engagement groups, especially those that represent the interests of women and youth. And second, it could call for a greater emphasis on action and accountability from all G20 members. Both are critical — that is, if China is serious about advancing the G20's ultimate goal to ensure people around the globe live better lives.

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Caitlin ByrneCaitlin Byrne is senior lecturer of international relations at Bond University in Gold Coast, Australia. Her teaching and research interests include contemporary and public diplomacy, with a special focus on Australia and the Asia-Pacific region and, more recently, the G20. She is a former research fellow of the University of Southern California's Center for Public Diplomacy (CPD). Her research is published in a range of journals including the Hague Journal of Diplomacy, the Australian Journal of International Affairs, Sport in Society, Exchange: Journal on Public Diplomacy and CPD Perspectives.

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