China’s Asia-Pacific neighbors perceive its rise with a certain level of anxiety, stemming from China’s ambiguous strategic ambitions. Especially among some Asian countries and the United States, political and strategic concerns drive perceptions of China. According to the 2014 Pew Global Research survey, the percentages of people with a favorable view of China are as low as 35 percent in the United States and 7 percent in Japan.
China’s economic engagements have greatly contributed to the favorable perceptions of China in these regions via channels such as trade, investment, and infrastructure financing. As China continues to grow and expand its global economic and political outreach, it is critical for the United States to understand the origins of China’s popularity and the lingering concerns of each region. Each region’s attitude is nuanced and subject to constant fluctuations stemming from Chinese policies and practices.
According to the survey by the Pew Research Center, nowhere is public opinion more positive about China than in Africa. This result should not be surprising, as China’s engagement with Africa comes at a time when the continent is developing and pursuing its agenda for economic transformation and is in need of strong economic partnership.
Indeed, after a long delay in the post-independence era, African countries were only able to restart growing their economies in the 1990s, and they did so at a robust pace. Some African countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Rwanda have even joined the club of “growth miracles”, countries that have experienced 7 percent or more gross domestic product growth for 25 years or longer. But to reach Asian levels of income, African states needs to transform their economies to achieve a more sustainable and inclusive growth. This agenda starts with addressing Africa’s large infrastructure gap.
This context for Africa’s growth is important for understanding why perceptions of China are so positive. Indeed, China’s economic engagement with the continent through bilateral trade and foreign investment has increased dramatically in recent years. Some countries such as Angola, which exports half of its oil to China, rely heavily on this new economic partner for trade. Chinese investments go to a relatively broad range of sectors (not just natural resources) and to broad range of countries (from fragile to middle income countries). China is also a major financer of African infrastructure and the only player in some sectors such as railroads.
China’s rising economic engagement with Africa has, however, not been without criticisms. For instance, concerns about violations of labor rights, investments with relatively low local content, and insufficient transparency in loans to African countries (especially when they are in exchange for natural resources) have been relayed loudly by the global press.
Africa is in need of economic partnership and China is engaging the continent on the economic front at an unprecedented scale and scope. As a result, Africa is becoming increasingly globalized through China. These all contribute to the rather positive perception of China on the African continent.
Latin America’s perceptions of China are largely driven by economics, and the China-Latin America relationship has undergone dramatic changes recently. From 2000 to 2013, trade increased 22 fold, from $12 billion to over $270 billion. Between 1990 and 2009, China invested only $7 billion total in Latin America. After 2010, China has invested between $10 and $14 billion per year in the region, with Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela as the largest recipients.
Chinese trade and investment with Latin America will continue to grow: at the first meeting of the China-Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (China-CELAC) forum in January 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a goal of $500 billion in trade by 2019. China needs Latin American products, and Latin America needs Chinese capital and investment—particularly in infrastructure, where China has a good deal of recent domestic experience.
But not all Latin Americans view the relationship with China positively. Manufacturers across the region view Chinese companies as unfair competitors, and they see many informal barriers to entry into the Chinese market. China’s demand has largely been for commodities, which has mainly benefited South American agricultural and mining interests and reinforced economic sectors. These are specifically the sectors that many Latin American countries have relied too heavily on in the past and whose weight retards the further development of their economies.
Chinese investments in mining and agriculture have led to ugly disputes with some of the region’s labor unions, environmentalists, and indigenous rights activists. And China’s policy of trading and investing without attaching conditions has benefited some of Latin America’s most populist regimes—in Argentina, Ecuador, and Venezuela—which enables their leaders to pursue public policies detrimental to macroeconomic stability, democracy, and human rights.
So while public perceptions of China in Latin America tend to be positive, there are still a number of barriers to increasing China’s soft power.
Recently, China has become an active investor in Europe, with $18 billion invested in 2014, up from $10 billion the previous year. All European countries seem of interest to China—including particularly the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and France—in areas as diverse as energy, real estate, automobiles, food, retail, insurance, and airport infrastructure.
Paradoxically, two of the top European recipients of Chinese investment—Germany and Italy—also have the worst perceptions of China: according to the 2014 Pew survey, only 28 percent of Germans hold a positive opinion of China, and among Italians the figure is only 26 percent. On one hand, European leaders want Chinese investment; on the other, many of the Europeans Pew interviewed do not seem to perceive China as a reliable partner.
In France, a similar paradox exists: according to a 2012 survey, French people recognize China’s status as an important power but have doubts about the Chinese system and companies, which they don’t know well. The French reported having no positive emotions towards China as a country, though they have a positive opinion of Chinese people (hard working, disciplined, friendly). They also don’t know many Chinese brands.
These negative perceptions seem hard to correct. The main factor for the distrust is perhaps the lack of information—or perhaps lack of positive information. European media do not convey positive news about China as a country. China’s soft power has not been very successful in Europe, and investment remains relatively limited (3 percent of total foreign direct investment in Europe are Chinese)—but it is the latter rather than the former which can help improve the country’s image. For this, China needs to commit to long-term investment, as well as create jobs and employment opportunities; in other words, do exactly what it expects from foreign investors on his own territory. So forget about soft power, let’s focus on economic power.
This article was co-written with Amadou Sy, Harold Trinkunas, and Philippe Le Corre, and originally appeared in Brookings’ Order from Chaos, May 27, 2015.