Deep Dive: China's Cultural Diplomacy in a New Era of Multilateralism

Podcast mit Ximena Zapata

Der Aufstieg Chinas zu einer globalen Wirtschaftsmacht ist eines der prägendsten Ereignisse unserer Zeit. Dieser kometenhafte Aufstieg stellt die bestehende Weltordnung in Frage. Als Reaktion darauf setzt China seine Kulturdiplomatie strategisch ein, um den Einfluss des Landes weltweit zu stärken.

In dieser Folge von "Die Kulturmitter:innen - Deep Dive" sprechen wir mit Ximena Zapata, einer Expertin für die Beziehungen zwischen China und Lateinamerika und die internationale Zusammenarbeit in Lateinamerika. Sie hat gerade eine ifa-Studie über Chinas Kulturdiplomatie und sein Ziel einer einvernehmlichen Hegemonie veröffentlicht.


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Transkript der Folge

Deep Dive: China's Cultural Diplomacy in a New Era of Multilateralism. Mit Ximena Zapata.

Tobias Rohe: Hello and welcome back to "die Kulturmittler:innen Deep Dive" - Experts on international cultural relations. My name is Tobias Rohe. Good to be back with you again. In this episode, we focus on China's cultural diplomacy. The People's Republic of China's rise as a global economic power can be seen as one of the most relevant events of our time. An event that challenges the cultural hegemony in world order. And with its recent emergence, China made deliberate efforts to advance its cultural influence and bolster cultural exchanges worldwide. But how exactly is China using its cultural diplomacy to achieve its ambitious national objectives? My guest today is Ximena Zapata, a specialist on China-Latin American relations and international cooperation in Latin America. She currently is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Hamburg and the GIGA Institute in Germany, and she holds a master's degree in international relations from Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales in Ecuador. Mrs. Zapata, it's a pleasure to have you here with me.

Ximena Zapata: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Tobias Rohe: Now, you very recently published a study with the ifa research program, Culture and Foreign Policy. It's entitled China's Cultural Diplomacy in a New era of multilateralism. And it deals with the case of the China Community of Latin American and Caribbean States Forum. We will be talking about that shortly. But before we look at China's engagement in Latin America, let's take a short look at China's cultural diplomacy at the multilateral level in general. What does China focus on here, and how is China trying to achieve its goals?

Ximena Zapata: So China's cultural diplomacy of the 21st century aims towards ambitious objectives. Xi Jinping has called these objectives under the framework of major, major diplomacy. And what do we mean by it? Or how do I interpret this kind of objectives? I interpret that China is striving or is looking for work towards consensual hegemony. What do we mean by consensual hegemony? We mean putting into place a whole institutional architecture to replace the former old world order. And in this sense, in all this process that will take years.

We are in the very, very early stages of this whole process. Culture is really important. Cultural exchanges with many regions of the world, including Latin America, is important for the diffusion of values, ideas and new solutions that China has to propose now. So I see that cultural diplomacy is related to these ambitious objectives. Another important point is that China's cultural diplomacy operates at differentiated levels. At the broadest level, we have what you have mentioned now, the multilateral level. And in this sense, I see that China is applying many strategies.

For example, with institutions that belong to the liberal order. For example, the UN, the United Nations and all the agencies that belong to it, including the Unesco, for example, which has this specific task of forging cultural exchanges. So China is applying. I would just mentioned like shaping and engaging strategies now. Then we have also, at the multilateral level, new institutions that China has created, like under the initiative of China, for example, the BRICS alliance. Then we also have other type of regional forums that China has created with African countries, with Arabic countries, with Latin American countries. So and in all, in all of these levels and in these UN institutions, liberal institutions, China applies certain strategies in the regional forums. It applies also like certain strategies considering the regional specific specificities of all the regions that I have mentioned.

For example, let's take the case of the BRICS. Now, this BRICS alliance, it's a new institution that was created basically with this portion of China. We have to take into account that BRICS actually does not focus only on culture. BRICS alliance has other priorities, but China has really strengthened this cultural dimension within the BRICS. And how can we see this push? For example, China was in charge of the like organization, like of the leadership of the BRICS alliance in 2017. And we see clearly that in this year, many initiatives under the BRICS organization came into fruition. For example, we have like this BRICS alliance of national museums have this big alliance of national galleries. We have, under the leadership of China, like many events that were organized in presence and online, like to forge cultural ties within the BRICS.

Also, at the discursive level, for example, we also see that China's narratives are always present within the BRICS alliance. For example in this initiative that I mentioned before, this BRICS alliance of national museums and also galleries, China wants to tell the story of the BRICS. This tell the story is really connected to also like this part of Chinese foreign policy that says: 'Okay, let's tell the other narrative, the Chinese story.' So these same narratives are kind of like translated or adapted to the BRICS alliance.

Tobias Rohe: BRICS being the alliance between Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa. So China, you say, wants to give its interpretation of why this BRICS alliance was formed and which end?

Ximena Zapata: Yes. I mean, well, yeah, we also need to understand that the BRICS is not only about China. No, but specifically like in the cultural dimension, we see that that China has put a lot of effort to link culture towards its ambitious goals. And then we also see this link with the BRICS. And all these BRI initiatives, not the Belt and Road Initiative. Now that all these narratives of the Belt and Road Initiative are kind of taken a little bit down to the level of the BRICS. So the message here is that the BRICS is another platform, another space for China to pursue ambitious objectives and to use culture as an aim to achieve what I interpret as gaining hegemony.

Tobias Rohe: Now let's get back to your recent study. There you focus on China's cultural diplomacy in Latin America. What is the aim of your study and how did you try to achieve them?

Ximena Zapata: Yeah. So a little bit of context here. I am a researcher who initially analyzed China and Latin America's relations from a political economic perspective. And I found that there was a gap in the analysis in the literature. There was not much analysis in the realm of culture. I also was curious about how China tries to navigate from the multilateral level to the more regional level. So the aim of my study was to see China's cultural diplomacy objectives, drivers who are the actors involved? What are the initiatives in the realm of culture in the Latin American space. But not so much as the bilateral level, but at the regional level. And here we have this organization, the China-CELAC forum, which was created in 2014.

Tobias Rohe: That's the China Community of Latin American Caribbean Stage that you mentioned before.

Ximena Zapata: Yeah, exactly. So, so this institution is located at an intermediate level. So we have the multilateral, then we have the regional where the China-CELAC is and then bilateral exchanges. So I was curious on this intermediate level. So in the first part of my research, I analyzed also China's cultural diplomacy within the framework of these multilateral organizations that we have mentioned. And then I go down to this level of analysis, the regional level. And I was particularly interested in this organization because this organization involves 33 Latin American and Caribbean states. And before this organization, there was not a regional channel between China and Latin America to forge cultural exchanges.

So the aim was twofold: A systematization. Like what is going on in this in this organization. And then like, what are the drivers? What is the relation actually between what's going on in this regional organization and the multilateral sphere. Like how is China applying the same strategies that it uses or the same initiatives that it uses in the BRICS in Africa, for example. And is it just like applying in the Latin American context. So this was actually my curiosity.

Tobias Rohe: And how did you go about it?

Ximena Zapata: The results of my research are very interesting because first we have to consider that China-CELAC forum was created in 2014. Previously we have this China forum with Arab states and African states. The one with Africa was created back in 2000. BRICS was created in 2019. So this organization with Latin America, this China-CELAC forum is one of the newest organizations. The newest platforms that China has created with Latin America. So I do see that China applies like many strategies that it has used in all these other platforms. China has gained already broad experience in the realm of cultural diplomacy, and I see that in the China-CELAC forum, there are sub forums, the China and CELAC Think Tanks Forum, for example. Many initiatives like a sub forum that gathers like young people from China and Latin America. But this is not new. We have already found these initiatives in other subregional forums. So China is kind of like replicating these kind of initiatives.

Tobias Rohe: Let's get back to the topic of your study. What about China's cultural diplomacy in Latin America itself? How would you describe its development through the years up to now?

Ximena Zapata: It's a good question, because sometimes we tend to think that China's cultural diplomacy is something new. It dates back to China's very foundation in 1949. So in Latin America, we have at least three phases know regarding China's foreign policy and by extension, cultural diplomacy. So we have this phase that goes back to 1949. Until the 60s were the objectives: The image that China had about itself is completely different from what we see now. So just to compare now, in this very first phase, the key of China's foreign policy was what China calls people to people diplomacy. The target in Latin America, where groups or like revolutionary groups, left wing parties, left wing organizations with associations, and to gain what, to gain recognition from the international community, from Latin American countries. So but it was a time when China was economically weak.

If we compare right now China's status, China's cultural diplomacy in this 21st century, we see that China perceives itself at another level. It perceives itself as a great economic power, which has the ability to content a hegemony, to content traditional powers, the US mainly. So in this sense, China's cultural diplomacy since 2000 is linked to certain objectives. Project a positive image of itself of China project a positive image. Then we have another objective of creating certain narratives or telling the Chinese story or counteract narratives that come from the West. In which China is not comfortable with, of course. And then we yeah, we have other objectives. And this one is really important because China, through its cultural diplomacy, it aims to provide alternatives to developing regions like okay, Latin America, Africa.

There are problems regarding development. Problems that have not been fulfilled by the previous agreement by the US hegemony. Development is always there. It's always in the problematics, in the discourse of this developing region. So China kind of like tries to fill this void left by the the US hegemony and offer alternatives among the most important ones, the Belt and Road Initiative. And since 2021, the GDI initiative. This global development initiative which was actually presented in the realm of the UN.

Tobias Rohe: Let's come back to the aforementioned China Community of Latin American Caribbean States Forum. You already gave an insight into that and what role it plays, but could you give a more detailed insight into the role this forum plays in the broader multilateral strategy of China?

Ximena Zapata: : So the China-CELAC forum, as I said, is an important platform in the sense that it gathers 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries. It's a platform for exchanges in not only in the realm of culture, but in politics, economics, energy. And I see that the China-CELAC forum is important and it is linked to China's multilateral objectives. First of all, because it's a sister institution. It's an instrument for China. It's another platform for China to gain consensus on the solutions that I was already mentioning. Belt and Road Initiative. These promises of development, what I call them. So it's an important platform that is located at this intermediate level.

Now I will talk from the Latin American perspective, it is really difficult for Latin American countries to take a stand on China. We see like very dispersed, like bilateral relations. And in this sense like the China-CELAC forum, kind of gathers all these bilateral initiatives, the China and Latin American countries have been like proposing like throughout the years in the cultural region. So it kind of gathers all these initiatives. But at the same time, it's a very flexible forum because China doesn't force like countries to take part in the cultural initiatives. Countries just can take part on the initiatives that are convenient to them. So it's a really flexible approach that I see there.

Tobias Rohe: Mrs. Zapata, before we come to the end of this episode, could you give us a brief outlook on how China's alternative to the Western hegemony would look like?

Ximena Zapata: It's a difficult question. Yes. I see that. Okay, first, we have to understand that this process of a hegemonic transition can take years. We are at the very initial stage. China is proposing alternatives to developing countries, but also like to core countries which have not gathered enough consensus in the framework of Latin America. China is just in this stage of promoting these kind of solutions. But how do we see an alternative world order? It doesn't only depend on China. It depends on how China will forge alliances with developing countries, but also with core countries with... we don't know actually how the alliances will look like.

Will there be an alliance with the US or with the European Union? How will these core countries will reach consensus? Will there be consensus on the alternatives that China is proposing? I have more more questions than answers in this sense. We don't know actually what the formal structure will look like. We don't know like what the rules will be like. We don't know like the values that will sustain, like this whole institutional architecture that will kind of replace all these liberal, these institutions created by the UN. What will we take like from this previous old world order? And will everyone like be happy about these rules, these new values.

Tobias Rohe: Ximena Zapata. Thank you very much for these deep insights. It's been a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you.

Ximena Zapata: Thank you.

Ole Reitov: There's a combination of people who actually been in the landscape for a number of years who may have a more holistic view on what they're doing. And then you have a lot of newcomers who still have to understand what is it really this complex issue of artistic freedom. So we hope to combine the experience we've had over the past decades and through that also be able to analyze what the situation is now.

Tobias Rohe: And I certainly hope that you, our listeners, enjoyed this deep dive episode of die Kulturmittler:innen. I would be very happy if you tuned in next time when I will be talking to more experts on international cultural relations. If you enjoyed listening to this episode, don't hesitate to share it with your friends and to make sure that you don't miss out on future episodes, subscribe to die Kulturmittler:innen right away. You can do that wherever you listen to the shows of your choice, whether it's on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Deezer, or Amazon Music. And while you're there, don't forget to listen to our regular episodes of die Kulturmittler:innen. And with dozens of in-depth conversations on the topic of culture in foreign policy, that's all from my side. I say thank you for listening. My name is Tobias Rohe. See you next time.


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