Chatham House: Independent thinking on international affairs

The Chatham House-YouGov Survey - Commercial Diplomacy and the Emerging Economies

Commercial Diplomacy and the Emerging Economies

Facing economic austerity at home, the government has placed commercial diplomacy at the centre of its foreign policy. Driving the UK's economic growth by deepening its economic and diplomatic connections with countries whose own growth rates show the greatest promise - such as China, India, Brazil and Turkey - has been a clear priority of the government's first year in office.

  • Testing Chinese soft power
  • Following the government's lead on Africa?
  • Russia: out in the cold?

Kerry BrownTesting Chinese soft power

Dr Kerry Brown, Head, Asia Programme

The Chinese government has invested billions in its soft-power message since the mid-2000s. Over $40 billion was spent on the 2008 Olympics. The 2010 Shanghai Expo followed the same path - displaying China's softer side, showcasing its cultural attributes, promoting the message that whatever its political differences with the West, it was a benign, modernizing and positive influence on the world. In the last five years, Chinese government money has gone into creating dozens of Confucius Institutes throughout Europe, many of them in the UK, teaching Chinese language and promoting Chinese culture. According to these survey results, however, the Chinese government has so far got a poor return on its investment. Irrespective of gender or political leaning, only 4% of general public respondents have a favourable image of the country, while 15% regard it unfavourably.

The poor survey results therefore show a clear failure of the campaigns so far mounted by the Chinese government. The message here for China is that it simply does not yet understand how soft power works. British people tend to like Chinese food, and growing numbers are visiting China as tourists. There is increasing interest in studying the language in schools. Perhaps it should not just cease these official campaigns but also allow non-state actors on both sides to do more of this work.

The much more positive showing on whether the UK should try to strengthen its diplomatic links with China will be of some encouragement. But for those engaged with China in the UK, it is time to realize that the government of one of the world's major powers, and a force that will increasingly influence our future, is simply not able to get across a more nuanced, complex image of its country and people. UK-based experts and commentators on China based in the UK are going to have their work cut out as they attempt to explain why China is simply not as bad as this survey suggests.

Tom CargillFollowing the government's lead on Africa

Thomas Cargill, Assistant Head, Africa Programme

The UK prime ministerial tour of several African countries, coinciding with the launch of this survey, jars with the minimal interest afforded to Africa as a foreign policy issue among either the UK public or opinionformers. South Africa is mentioned but provokes no strong feelings. The rest is passed over in silence. Does this mean the prime minister and the government are wrong to be going to Africa at all?

Quite the reverse. Africa has been changing dramatically over the past 10 years, with stability and economic governance improving. In addition, Africa's 25% share of UN votes is being wooed by ever more suitors, particularly when it comes to decisions on trade and sanctions. In both these areas the usual BRIC country suspects (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are increasingly active, but so are others, including Germany, Iran and South Korea. The UK government, to its credit, appears to have worked this out quickly, although it is hamstrung by the decline in diplomatic assets at home and abroad.

This survey indicates elsewhere that both the public and opinion-formers underestimate the value of diplomats. In fact, the results on the ground on Africa show that the government's strong messaging on the importance of its aid and financial commitments - a key factor in enabling African states to become productive trading partners of the UK - appears to be having a positive impact, albeit marginally. Overall, the survey suggests that in thinking about Africa, the British government is ahead of its public. It will be interesting to see if the prime minister's tour will make others, including in business, think again about Africa's relevance to UK interests.

James NixeyRussia: out in the cold?

James Nixey, Programme Manager and Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Russia's poor showing in this survey - it generally comes lowest every time it is explicitly mentioned - is unsurprising (Greece actually performs worse in one area but that is an anomaly due to recent events). Russia is the furthest away, most 'alien', and essentially the least 'European' country in the broadly defined Europe section - very much the outsider in every sense. So even in an ideal world, in which Russia was a more amenable partner than it currently is, it would still feature low on the list. Geographic distance and an uncomfortable history seem to count for a lot too, as Russia's near neighbours, Turkey and Poland, also rank at the lower end. An additional factor may also be that the countries at the bottom of the Europe section have the poorest levels of spoken English; communicating with them is quite literally more difficult. Beyond Europe, however, Russia at least fares considerably better than most of the old 'Axis of Evil' states (and Pakistan), suggesting that its unfavourable status is only of secondary order.

One possible (if small) bright spot, for Russia, is that the 18-25-year-olds surveyed - those unencumbered with first-hand memories of the Soviet era, the 'wild' 1990s and, in some cases, the last up-and-down decade - do appear to look on Russia slightly more favourably than their elders. Perhaps generational change in the UK will lead to more favourable dispositions towards Russia as the attitudes of the Cold War generation continue to fade.

Finally, with regard to the question on the strength of the UK's diplomatic ties with Russia, it is slightly depressing to note that the UK has fairly poor relations with Russia, but that most of those surveyed do not know or do not care. The relationship has seen some improvement in the past year. But this could be easily broken, as it is based largley on the correspondingly fragile US-Russia 'reset'.

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Moore Wilson Digital Agency London