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US-China Soft Power Competition and the Role of Europe in the Indo-Pacific
01 Nov 2022

Against the backdrop of continuing Sino-US tensions, Associate Professor Alfred Gerstl and Dr Richard Q. Turcsanyi, both from Palacky University Olomouc, Czech Republic, delivered a seminar on “US-China Soft Power Competition and the Role of Europe in the Indo-Pacific” at RSIS on 1 November 2022.

Both presenters touched on the results of a worldwide public opinion survey from “Sinophone Borderlands – Interaction at the Edges”, a project funded by the European Regional Development Fund and run by Palacky University Olomouc in collaboration with the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS). The survey had been conducted across 15 Indo-Pacific countries between April and September 2022.

The survey showed that most people entertained mixed feelings towards China while cheering the United States and the European Union (EU) for their role in maintaining a peaceful and growth-oriented world order. Findings also showed that China’s Belt and Road Initiative had been deeply affected by Beijing’s dilatory behaviour over the management of territorial and maritime disputes with her neighbours.

Dr Turcsanyi observed that public opinion from countries closer to the West in development and ideology tended to espouse negative views of China. This meant that ideological and economic predisposition mattered. Overall, the United States and the EU both enjoyed a relatively good image among the majority of respondents, with most preferring alignment with the West over China.

Nonetheless, the Sinophone Borderlands survey revealed a surprising silver lining for Chinese policymakers. Substantial majorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Kazakhstan, as well as in Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, entertained positive impressions of China. This could well be a sign that the years of “charm diplomacy” sustained under President Xi Jinping and his predecessors have made inroads in improving infrastructure and material conditions in these countries.

Assoc Prof Gerstl noted the constructive role the EU can play in Asia. This was because the EU had built up a considerable reputation as a soft normative power. The EU stood out from the United States and China as a non-military power that could offer Asia economic and technological partnerships, while advocating the importance of democracy and self-determination. The EU was also trying to avoid — at least for now — appearing overtly anti-China.

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