Promoting Neighborhood Public Diplomacy: Problems and Solutions | 作者: Yao Yao | 时间: 2015-03-10 | 责编: Li Minjie
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Yao Yao



   China’s surrounding areas are at the forefront of its overall diplomatic layout. In October 2013, the Central Committee of the Communist Party held a special meeting to determine the strategic goals and basic principles of its neighborhood diplomacy. At the meeting, Party General Secretary Xi Jinping highlighted the new tasks and requirements of “neighborhood public diplomacy” – that is, to focus on strengthening publicity, public diplomacy, civil diplomacy and people-to-people exchanges aimed at China’s neighboring countries, and to consolidate and expand the social and pubic opinion foundations for the long-term development of China’s relations with its neighbors. [1]

Neighborhood public diplomacy is of extreme strategic impor-tance: it originates from neighboring countries, is aimed at public opinion and is a matter of long-term interest. The following paper will unpack the concepts and tasks of neighborhood diplomacy, sum up the problems and challenges in practice and propose ways to promote the next phase of related work.


Concepts and Tasks


Since the 18th Party Congress of the CPC, the central government has actively planned and managed overall diplomacy, further high-lighting the strategic position of China’s surrounding areas in the overall situation of its diplomacy, in terms of geographical position, natural environment, cultural origins and other aspects. Bearing in mind the weight of important concepts and tasks, public diplomacy targeting the surrounding areas will be very promising in the future.


Implementing the “New Security Concept”

In May 2014, at the fourth CICA summit in Shanghai, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a keynote speech entitled “New Asian Security Concept for New Progress in Security Cooperation.” In his speech, President Xi proposed actively promoting a comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable Asian Security Concept, creating new security ideas, building new architectures for regional security and cooperation, and striving for Asian security developed by all and shared by all, achieving a win-win situation.[2]  Pursuing equality, justice and fairness, the New Asian Security Concept is free of hegemony, power politics and the threat of force and other elements. Instead, it proposes common security as its prerequisite, comprehensive security as its direction, cooperative security as its means, and sustainable security as the key.[3]  The new security concept interpreted by President Xi has laid important theoretical and practical foundations for China’s neighborhood public diplomacy.

China has territorial or maritime disputes with some of its neighboring countries. While resolutely safeguarding its nation-al sovereignty, it is important for China to ensure that the public in neighboring countries understand China’s concepts and sincerity of being committed to peaceful development and jointly safeguard-ing regional security. Given the New Asian Security Concept of “common, comprehensive, coope-rative and sustainable” nature, China should work hard on its public diplomacy to gain support for the new security concept, so that the general public in neighboring countries no longer believes in the so-called “China threat theory.”


Adhesive to promote regional economic integration

Developing relations with neighboring countries and building regional economic integration both necessitate deep participation and joint efforts by the public and Chinese and foreign enterprises. In the future, China will develop a closer economic and trade network to enhance the level of integration with neighboring countries in terms of interests. In the process, public diplomacy will have a bright future.

The fact that China and its neighbors are geographically linked by the same mountains and rivers determines the frequent and complex nature of the economic and trade cooperation in the region. Because of their geographic proximity to one another, there are various forms of historical grievances or contradictory interests between China and some of its neighboring countries. In this context, if the people in China’s border area can live in harmony with their neighbors, economic and trade cooperation between the two sides will have a more solid social foundation. In the border areas, Chinese vines often “cross the border” into neighboring countries, while hens from neighboring countries “cross the border” to lay eggs in China. If the public can uphold a friendly attitude and maintain order and good conditions, then there will be a good example for good-neighborly friendship and public diplomacy. [4]

For this reason, when China is developing economic and trade relations with its neighboring countries, it must not only seize the advantage of geographical proximity, but also prevent conflicts originating from geographical proximity, promoting equality and mutual benefit to guide the people’s daily contacts. In this regard, public diplomacy can play an important role in guiding public opinion.


Spreading “awareness of a community of destiny”

Xi Jinping suggested in the Conference on the Diplomatic Work toward Neighboring Countries that “the key to a close relationship is the people,” and “we should properly introduce our domestic and diplomatic guidelines and policies to the outside world, tell Chinese stories well, spread Chinese voices well, connect the Chinese dream and the desires of people in neighboring countries to live better lives and the prospect of the regional development, and let awareness of the community of destiny take root in neighboring countries.”[5]  Having maintained long histories with China, neighboring countries deserve to be the primary targets of China’s “community of destiny.” In addition, overseas Chinese constitute a significant proportion of the population in some neighboring countries, making relations with these countries even more special. In the future, public diplomacy should help interpret the historical connotations of relations between China and its neighboring countries and enhance the good opinions of the public in those countries toward China.


Problems and Bottlenecks


China’s ties with its neighboring countries are increasingly close, but contradictions are also increasingly complex. In the face of public opinion in China’s neighboring countries, the problems facing public diplomacy are particularly grim.


Lack of overall geopolitical planning

Among China’s neighboring countries, there are global or regional powers like Russia, Japan and India. Although the United States has the Pacific Ocean separating it from China, it is still a very special “neighbor,” having a number of military bases around China. These powers all have huge influences on China’s peripheral geopolitical environment. Given the current situation in China’s neighborhood, some great powers’ manipulation of, and influence on, international public opinion is still behind on some hotspot and disputed issues. It is worth noting that an overall public diplomacy strategy has yet to be formed that targets the surrounding areas, and particularly the United States, Russia and other major powers are yet to be fully factored in.

If China does not properly factor in the impact of major powers on the public opinion of its neighboring countries, China’s public diplomacy can neither prevent related powers from fanning the flames of discontent and profiting at China’s expense, nor take proper approaches to resolve misunderstandings or hostility. Former United States National Security Advisor Brzezinski asserted that China has formulated a “grand peripheral strategy” with a mix of geopolitics and economic interests, and China intends to “once again become the greatest power in the world, even replacing the US,” and “undermine the United States’ position in the East.” [6] The United States is not the only country to misjudge China’s neighborhood strategy – Russia also has similar concerns. Although Russia is China’s most important partner on comprehensive strategic cooperation, some unexpected problems will gradually appear if Russia’s strategic interests and public concerns are neglected. For example, after China proposed building a “Silk Road Economic Zone,” some media outlets and public opinion leaders in Russia openly expressed discontent, explicitly asking China to clarify the details of the proposal. These examples indicate that if public diplomacy targeting neighboring countries just “considers the neighborhood as it stands,” it is bound to cause negative chain reactions.


Lack of comprehensive understanding of public opinion in neighboring countries

Compared with most neighboring countries, China is large in terms of both population and area. At the same time, with China’s significant growth of economic strength, there is a sense that China is shaping its surrounding areas one-dimensionally, particularly in public diplomacy, in which civil society broadly participates. This mentality has led to a violent public opinion reaction in some neighboring countries. Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew complained: “When we did something China does not like, they would say you have made 1.3 billion people unhappy.” Many medium-sized and small countries in Asia are full of doubts about a strong China, worrying that China might want to restore its imperial status, and they might once again become subsidiaries having to pay tribute to China. [7]

At present, when we explain China’s policies to neighboring countries, some explanations are likely to cause public suspicions and need to be reflected upon. Some of them apparently did not take into account China’s willingness to accept and comfort neighboring countries. Former deputy Minister of Commerce Wei Jianguo suggested that if the “Silk Road Economic Zone” is described to the outside world as a “westward strategy,” or “bridgehead,” “vanguard” or other words are employed which are commonly used domestically, this will cause “misunderstanding and panic in neighboring coun-tries,” going against the original intentions of public diplomacy.[8]  In addition, as one of the subjects of public diplomacy, Chinese firms have also caused negative reactions in some neighboring countries in recent years due to their overseas investment. In essence, some firms place too much value on profits and ignore the needs of the people of neighboring countries, failing to promote the long-term prosperity and sustainable development of host country economies.


Lack of effective integration of the domestic public

Whether we are analyzing China’s actual situation or universal experiences in foreign countries, public diplomacy should always serve overall diplomacy. Government agencies should dominate public diplomacy, but the public is no doubt the subject through which one implements public diplomacy. At present, however, that is one of the shortcomings of related practices. For example, Tibet-related issues are closely linked to neighborhood diplomacy, but China has very little say in international media. On March 17, 2009, when a delegation organized for the first time by the People’s Congress of the Tibetan Autonomous Region visited the United States, some United States Representatives said that while the Dalai Lama’s representatives come to the United States Congress to make speeches almost weekly, occupying the American public discourse and public opinion, representatives of the Tibetan people came to the United States only for the first time in decades. [9]

Failure to make effective use of the public and the media has become one of the bottlenecks of neighborhood public diplomacy. Just as former Director of the State Council Information Office Zhao Qizheng said, the biggest difference between public diplomacy and government diplomacy is that “the public cannot speak on behalf of the State, let alone foreign affairs,” and therefore public diplomacy “can make it more relaxed, more vivid and more flexible to speak out in a variety of forms on many occasions… and make it easy to earn trust as well.” [10]

Promoting neighborhood diplomacy cannot solely rely on diplo-mats. If countries do not pay attention to diplomatic competency and the participation of representatives, members of social groups and news media practitioners, neighborhood diplomacy will be difficult. Currently, the failure to fully mobilize the public is related to our failure to perform “domestic public diplomacy” in the first place – that is, to clarify misunderstandings and unify public understanding in domestic public opinion.[11]  Without mental unity and operational mobilization of the domestic public, it will undoubtedly be hard for China’s neighborhood diplomacy to form an effective force, and there will be concerns of mental confusion. For instance, in recent years some domestic media outlets have sought to attract attention in international news coverage and interpret related policies in their own way, causing negative external reactions.


Lack of systematic construction of Chinese discourse

In the established international and regional structure, public diplomacy bears the responsibility of explaining China’s strategy to the outside world. Just as former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown observed, China’s current strategy is “to see international cooperation work, and [they] would rather reform the current international system than overthrow it.”[12]  Promoting “reform” while “participating,” China is bound to fall into a dilemma when it deals with foreign affairs. China must not only propose the “China plan,” but also avoid incurring the public suspicions of Western countries and becoming trapped in a Western discursive order while promoting international cooperation.

Influenced by traditional Chinese culture and the diplomatic traditions of the New China, China has different diplomatic ethics from the West. Struggling to precisely express its ethics in its own words has been the most fundamental challenge facing China in neighborhood diplomacy. Since the founding of New China, the older generations of leaders have attached great importance to demonstrating China’s great power demeanor in their diplomatic words and deeds. China’s diplomatic parlance and declarations rarely focus on China’s own interests. Even statements related to diplomatic struggles contain references to safeguarding the overall interests of Asian, African and Latin American countries and the people of the world.[13]  After the 1980s, the above situation changed. In response, the former Director of CIPG Duan Liancheng pointed out, “Because we have to learn various advantages of the West, which is necessary, there were some cases in which people excessively identify with the West ideologically.”[14]  Since the Cold War, national interest has gradually become a common phrase in China’s diplomatic parlance, influenced by Western theories of international relations. Just as Professor Shi Zhiyu of Taiwan University said, China translated and explained its own important positions according to the “power-oriented” logic of discourse from the United States, whereby the outside world asserted that “China is bound to rise according to its own interests, and it is not surprising that China establishes its sphere of influence, expulses the United States and occupies the South China Sea exclusively”. [15]

If we adopt “power defining interests” from the Western discourse as the standard, neighboring countries will be caught in a cognitive myth and think that they cannot coexist with China peacefully, both in terms of national interest, mutual understanding, harmony and coexistence. Other concepts that Chinese culture advocates will surely lose their international credit, and the unique charm of Chinese culture and diplomatic traditions will also fade.


Suggestions to Promote Neighboring Public Diplomacy


Public diplomacy is a new idea and diplomatic method suited for a new China. To carry out neighborhood public diplomacy, China must anticipate and foresee general trends, bear in mind strategy, value planning and management and seek practical results from new three-dimensional and diversified perspectives. Problem-solving must always be the basic orientation and objective.


Drawing a large map: China’s neighborhood in the macroscopic vision

To effectively conduct neighborhood public diplomacy, we must strengthen grand, top-level designs by first of all drawing a large and rich map of the surrounding areas. We must grasp the geopolitical situations of the neighborhood as a whole and study interconnected public opinion trends in neighboring countries, related powers and China.

First, we must clarify different characteristics of neighboring countries and public diplomacy tactics, and how these differ between countries, contexts and regions.

Second, we must take into account the concerns of related powers, incorporating neighborhood issues into the general framework of the international order. Wang Yiwei summed up the so-called “three Stranges” in East Asia: the United States, which is not an East Asian country but regards itself as one; Japan, which is an East Asian country but does not perceive itself as an Asian country; both sides of the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula, which are East Asian countries but are not yet unified.[16]  These “three Stranges” are the legacy of the Yalta System and abnormal phenomena. If we do not highlight these abnormal phenomena in international public opinion, some absurd arguments will become popularized, bound to become obstacles of public diplomacy in the future.

Last, we must think globally and link China’s neighborhood with broader areas and weave them into a dead-zone free map of geopolitics and international public opinion. China’s surrounding areas are not limited to the neighboring countries. Australia and New Zealand are an extension of China’s Southeast Asian neighbors, and West Asia and North Africa are extensions of China’s Central Asian neighbors. These regions are actually closely related to China’s neighborhood strategy, and are inevitably areas where neighborhood public diplomacy can play a significant role. [17]

To summarize, we must maintain a large map of China’s nei-ghboring areas in mind and analyze specific circumstances to differentiate and interconnect factors, while improving organization and coordination on internal mechanisms and channeling business links to make foreign actors and domestic actors work together, the central government and local governments work together, and the government and the public work together. Only by doing this can neighborhood public diplomacy actually make a significant leap.


A two-way road: promoting mutual help with neighboring countries

Public diplomacy is a process of two-way interactive communi-cation. The “community of destiny” including China and neighboring areas is unlikely to be dominated and shaped solely by China. Regardless of the gaps between China and its neighboring countries in terms of population, area or economic volume, China should pay more attention to their views, especially to the views of the local public. On the one hand, China must meet neighboring countries halfway, building a two-way street of communication through which they can respect each other. On the other hand, China must abandon the wrong idea that it is “unilaterally shaping the neighborhood,” talking less and listening more in exchanges with the neighboring countries.

Faced with some discordant voices in China’s surrounding areas, we must rationally face the inherent suspicions and wariness of small and medium-sized countries located beside great powers, and carry out patient and careful persuasion through public diplomacy. On the one hand, we must highlight traditional Chinese principles of “valuing manners,” “despising interests” and “giving the valuable and taking the cheap.” We must demonstrate the historical fact that ancient China did not attempt to invade other countries even with its superior power. On the other hand, we must correct the unequal relations between China and neighboring countries in the “tributary system,” and have the courage to engage in self-criticism and the ability to advertise the historical fact that ancient China spiritually looked down upon the “barbarians from all directions.” For example, when jointly promoting the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road with neighboring countries, China must first of all highlight the fact that the historical Silk Road was not built solely by China, but rather developed by numerous countries jointly. Today, we must more widely listen to and sum up different views of neighboring countries and make the “Belt and Road” a plan that we can all learn and benefit from. [18]

On the other hand, Chinese enterprises, as one of the important subjects of public diplomacy, must follow the concept of mutual benefit and success by helping others to succeed when it makes investments, avoiding selfish and short-sighted approaches. While achieving their own development, these enterprises should promote the development of neighboring countries, providing more public goods in regional economic cooperation, bearing more international responsibilities in the region, and demonstrating the new diplomatic concept that China has promised – diverging from the road along which Western powers rose.

To summarize, in public diplomacy targeting neighboring countries, China must stick to a correct concept of morality and benefits, listening more, valuing friendship and adhering to moral principles, keeping others in mind to win sincere support of the local people. Just as Xi Jinping said in a speech at the Moscow Institute of International Relations in March 2013, “Every country should actively promote common development of other countries in the pursuit of its own development […] The beggar-thy-neighbor practice of shifting crisis and harming others to benefit himself is neither moral nor sustainable.” [19]


Building a broad platform: amassing public resources and consensus

To conduct neighborhood public diplomacy effectively, China must highlight the dominant position of the public and create a broad platform that is capable of mobilizing the domestic and foreign publics. Neighborhood public diplomacy has a large number of subjects and objects, and it cannot be managed by any single government agency. The Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress proposed deepening reform, streamlining bureaucracy and delegating power, and China should follow and implement these principles. The government can design strategies for guidance from the macro-level, but it is more providing a service than engaging in direct management. Otherwise, it cannot manage things well.[20]  In the future, China should better mobilize the domestic public to participate in neighborhood public diplomacy.

First, news media is the most direct outlet that can influence the public opinion of neighboring countries. In practice, foreign affairs agencies and publicity agencies should work closely together, breaking down barriers between inward publicity and outward publicity and firmly controlling the direction of public opinion. The Information Department of the Foreign Ministry should regularly brief mainstream media outlets to make them better understand China’s foreign policy and strategies.

Second, enterprises and workers are increasingly becoming the frontier subjects of public diplomacy in neighboring countries. China should seize the strategic opportunity presented by infrastructure development in some neighboring countries and encourage Chinese firms to invest in these countries. These enterprises and workers should become the spokespeople for the Chinese image by doing more philanthropic deeds in local communities, bearing social responsibility, observing laws and getting along well with local people.

Last, think tanks, religious groups and NGOs, among others, are emerging subjects of China’s public diplomacy in neighboring countries. For example, in the Philippines, China should recognize its characteristic “deep dual influence from the Catholic Church and long-time colonization by the West, a relatively well-developed civil society and a large number of overseas Chinese,” including churches, think tanks, civil society organizations and overseas Chinese groups as the objects of its public diplomacy. [21]


Establishing an overall strategy: summarizing and spreading Chinese discourse

To conduct effective neighborhood public diplomacy, China must be fundamentally aware that its diplomatic philosophy is entirely different from those of Western powers, and China must be good at clearly expressing its philosophy in international settings. In the future, China must pay special attention to rid itself of the discursive framework of hegemonic narrative, and demonstrate a unique, distinctive image of China to neighboring countries.

From Brazil to Turkey to China, the share of emerging economies in today’s global income and production is increasingly growing, which will naturally push these countries to “regain their own cultural basis and keep what is valuable and abandon what is worthless according to their own interests.”[22]  With the international order undergoing profound changes, China must use public diplomacy to construct an international power discourse with characteristics of China’s civilization and gain popular support quietly by means of persistent cultural exchanges. In the future, China must strive to shape a sense of modern civilization mixed with historical traditions in China and neighboring countries, laying a more solid historical basis for the practice of public diplomacy guided by the principles of “affinity, sincerity, benefaction and leniency.”

In the final analysis, one of the goals of public diplomacy is to construct a communicable discourse system with neighboring countries and seek a new perspective of international relations that transcends traditional hegemonic approaches. Today, the rhetorical attack by some neighboring countries is in fact mainly based on a discourse familiar to Western civilization, including “comparison of threat and security, of dictatorship and democracy, of nationalism and liberalism, and of international rules and national interest, and all [of these] lack soft power in discourse.”[23]  For this reason, to distinguish China’s thinking from the Western worldview. Chinese leaders have taken a long-term view and gradually advocated such important concepts as a “harmonious world” and “community of human destiny,” presenting a new type of group-oriented worldview that Western countries are unfamiliar with, but that developing countries are yearning for.

China and most of its neighboring countries share thousands of years of history, and there is hidden background of traditional cultures that modern Western powers are unable to appreciate. In the future, when formulating strategies for neighborhood public diplomacy, it is imperative that China abandon Western discourse and follow the principle of “making others succeed to succeed oneself” together with its neighboring countries.



[1]Yao Yao is Associate Professor at China Foreign Affairs University and Director of Research Department of China Public Diplomacy Association. This paper is the phased outcome of the project sponsored by Beijing Municipal Fund of Philosophy and Social Sciences titled “Diplomatic Soft Power: Theory and Practice of China’s Peaceful Development”.


  “Xi Jinping: Let Consciousness of Community of Destiny Take Roots in Neighboring Countries,” Xinhuanet, October 25, 2013,

[2]  China for the First Time Hosts CICA Summit, Promotes New Asian Security Concept,” Xinhuanet, May 21, 2014, 


[3]  Lei Xiying, “New Asian Security Concept: China Style Destroying the Old and Establishing the New,” Oriental Morning Post, May 23, 2014,


[4]  Li Zhaoxing, “Promoting Neighborhood Public Diplomacy for New Achievement,” seminar of China Public Diplomacy Association, April 1, 2014.


[5]  “Xi Jinping: Let Consciousness of Community of Destiny Take Roots in Neighboring Countries,” Xinhuanet, October 25, 2013,


[6]  Zbignew Brzezinski, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, translated by Hong Man et al, Xinhua Press, 2012, p.180.


[7] Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Kuan Yew on China and the World, translated by Jiang Zongqiang, CITIC Press, 2013, p.6.


[8] “Wei Jianguo: Border Trade Alone Cannot Drive Economy of South Xinjiang,” Global Times, July 29, 2014,


[9] “Tibetan Delegates Make Moves to Get US Officials Done,” International Herald Tribune, March 23, 2009,


[10] Zhao Qizheng, Public Diplomacy and Cross-Cultural Communication, China Renmin University Press, 2011, p.4.


[11] Zhou Xiaopei, “Specific Suggestions on Carrying Out Neighborhood Public Diplomacy,” seminar of China Public Diplomacy Association, April 1, 2014.


[12] Zheng Bijian et al, The World Hotly Debating on China: Seeking the Path of Common Prosperity, CITIC Press, 2013, p.92.


[13] Shi Zhiyu, “Neighboring Countries: The Real Challenge to Current Public Diplomacy of China,” Public Diplomacy Quarterly, Winter 2010, pp. 58-65.


[14] Duan Liancheng, Initial Exploration of Foreign Communication (updated edition), China Intercontinental Press, 2004, p.69.


[15] Shi Zhiyu, “Neighboring Countries: The Real Challenge to Current Public Diplomacy of China,” Public Diplomacy Quarterly, Winter 2010, pp. 58-65.


[16] Wang Yiwei, “The Civilization Responsibility of China’s Neighborhood Public Diplomacy,” Public Diplomacy Quarterly, Spring 2014, pp.15-20.


[17] Ruan Zongze, “The Necessity and Urgency of Strengthening Neighborhood Public Diplomacy,” seminar of China Public Diplomacy Association, April 1, 2014.


[18] Zhai Kun, “New Security Concept Version 3.0 and Neighborhood Public Diplomacy,” Public Diplomacy Quarterly, Spring 2014, pp.21-27.


[19] “Speech by Xi Jinping in Moscow Institute of International Relations(full text),” Xinhuanet, March 24, 2013,


[20] Sun Yuxi, “How to Conduct Neighborhood Public Diplomacy under the Current Circumstances,” seminar of China Public Diplomacy Association, April 1, 2014.


[21] Zhao Shiren, “Preventive Public Diplomacy: Starting From the Neighborhood,” Study Times, Feburary 24, 2014,


[22] Zheng Bijian et al, The World Hotly Debating on China: Seeking the Path of Common Prosperity, CITIC Press, 2013, p.219.


[23] Shi Zhiyu, “Neighboring Countries: The Real Challenge to Current Public Diplomacy of China,” Public Diplomacy Quarterly, Winter 2010, pp. 58-65.