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Understanding Chinese Influence

Chinese President Xi Jinping meeting with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the royal palace in Riyadh on December 8, 2022. Image via the Saudi Press Agency.

By Lukas Fiala

Xi Jinping’s current trip to Saudi Arabia has been accompanied by the usual framing of great power competition between the U.S. and China. The story in many of this week’s newspapers is one in which China increasingly challenges U.S. primacy in the region, reflecting Beijing’s willingness to compete with, if not replace, the U.S. from its key position in the Middle East.

Yet, as many China-Middle East analysts have pointed out beyond the headlines, the geopolitics story alone does not capture China’s overall engagement. For our op-ed platform China Dialogues, for instance, we asked three recognized experts whether China’s growing influence in the region will replace the U.S. The response could not be clearer: No, Beijing does not seek to replace the U.S. and, in the words of one author, become “the next America” in the Middle East.

China has certainly made headway in courting regional governments to align their development strategies with China and this has produced diplomatic dividends for Beijing in terms of support on thorny issues such as Xinjiang. But by and large, China does not seek to, nor is it capable of, supplanting Washington’s longstanding posture in the region.

Regardless of whether you believe one side or the other, however, there is a broader point to be made about how to understand Chinese influence and any so-called power shift – in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Defining and measuring influence and power has been a key challenge for international relations scholarship for decades. And the endeavor of understanding how states – especially China – shape the international environment in their favor has been fraught with metaphors and simplifications that sound good in a headline but do not stand up to closer scrutiny. As one excellent and still highly relevant volume edited by Evelyn Goh suggests, even in a region such as Southeast Asia, where China arguably plays the “home game”, understanding Chinese influence is far from straightforward.

One of the main takeaways from these studies is that material power such as the size of a country’s military or economy does not always translate into influence understood as the ability to affect other states’ choices and policies. As Linus Hagström and Björn Jerdén have pointed out a while ago, China’s power is all too often equated with the ability to achieve a meaningful effect. In reality, whether or not China can influence certain policy choices of other governments depends not only on skillful Chinese statecraft but also on the domestic politics and decision-making processes of China’s counterparts, among other factors.

For some, this might sound like a no-brainer, but it really isn’t. Just this week, the newly released China Index compiled by the Doublethink Lab with the help of a global network of China watchers has drawn our attention to the complexity of understanding China’s growing global reach. The Index aims to measure China’s influence in a variety of countries across different domains including academia, media, foreign policy, the economy, and local politics.

As usual with global databases on such issues, it is debatable whether ranking countries numerically is more about politicizing the issue than delivering real insight into how Chinese actors shape the decision-making of their foreign counterparts. But some of this critique may be unfair. After all, the China Index comes with a lengthy methodology document that clearly stipulates how influence is measured. And including a truly global group of scholars and analysts in any such endeavor is certainly a welcome addition to the often one-sided China debate.

But what all this does attest to is just how difficult it is to measure Chinese influence and power in a holistic and conceptually sound way. Especially across so many different countries and regions.

Take media as an example.  In this category of the Index, one indicator covered “media outlets that have delivered cheap or free content provided by PRC state-funded media.” Answers then rank these activities from none (0) to “more than a few and significant”.

However, even if a country were to score 4 on this indicator, the number itself doesn’t tell us much about the effect of Chinese media on actual policy processes or even public debates on China in the host country. Instead, it is taking stock of exposure to certain China-affiliated or -controlled entities.

The Index critically engages with these issues throughout the methodology section. Some indicators, for instance, do ask about the pressure China is able to exert and the observable effect this creates down the line. Nevertheless, examples such as this demonstrate how much nuance is required to clearly evaluate the impact of China’s global activities.

In the context of Xi’s recent visit to the Middle East, we should thus be very precise about who does the influencing and to what effect. At the risk of sounding too academic, defining a clear mechanism that explains how China brings about a favorable outcome in a certain policy domain should be a prerequisite for arguing in favor of any shift in China’s overall position across the Middle East and other regions.

Lukas Fiala is the China Foresight Project Coordinator at LSE IDEAS

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