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When Australians Feel Unsettled: The Limits of China’s Soft Power

China scholar Feng Chongyi has returned to Australia after being held in China for questioning by Chinese authorities. News of Feng’s detention arrived as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was completing his visit to Australia. During the visit, a slew of bilateral trade agreements were finalised and deeper education links forged, with some analysts, like former Australian ambassador to Beijing Stephen FitzGerald, contrasting these along with China’s rhetoric on global free trade with US President Donald Trump’s protectionist leanings. Feng’s detention comes amid a growing debate over whether Australia should continue to align its interests and efforts with the United States – its traditional ally – or should instead seek to engage more so with China – the regional and growing power of the Asia-Pacific. China, for its part, has been trying to cultivate its image abroad as a global and responsible international power, yet actions like the high-profile and mysterious detention of an international scholar are unlikely to garner much international support or prestige, no matter how hard China tries to woo its neighbours.

Chinese state media, too, emphasised the increasing cordiality of the Sino-Australian relationship as based on free trade, cooperation, and opposition to protectionism. Here, it is telling that economics and free trade are cited as the prosperous basis of Australia-China cooperation. In the past, Chinese state media outlet Global Times has repeatedly disparaged Australia as a “paper cat” as a way to criticise Australia’s position on the South China Sea. This contrasts sharply with the more recent rhetoric describing Australia as part of the US and China’s “common circle of friends”. This divide implies that the relationship between China and Australia, at least at the moment, is more transactional in nature, and as suggested in Chinese state media, based largely on the significant amount of trade that occurs between the two (China is Australia’s largest trading partner). Thus, relations that could have ramifications beyond purely that of economic interests are less strong and more contested, and stymy any attempts to establish closer ties between the two countries (see, for example, the last minute decision to withhold ratification of an extradition treaty with China).

University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Professor Feng Chongyi (centre) at Sydney airport upon returning from China. Image credit: ABC News: Lily Mayers

It is within this context that Feng Chongyi’s unofficial detention resides. Few details have been released explaining the professor’s delayed return from China. Reuters news agency reported Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang as stating that the delay was “in order to safeguard China’s national security”. Feng, too, has declined to describe in any great detail why he was detained due to fears of the repercussions this could have on associates still in China. According to the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University (ANU), Rory Medcalf, Feng’s delayed return to China is a blunt “signal of intimidation to Chinese Australians not to criticise Communist party interference in Australian domestic affairs” – a frequent concern voiced by Professor Feng.

Disagreements such as this illustrate the limits of China’s soft power and the small likelihood that Australia is strategically realigning itself with China. Although China clearly possesses an attractive economic heft, differences in political and legal systems complicate any efforts to successfully deepen the relationship. Nick Bisley, Asia expert from Australia’ La Trobe University, describes the Sino-Australian relationship as a “high-value but not a deep relationship”. Indeed, David Shambaugh, in an article for Foreign Affairs, reports that China has pledged to invest approximately USD$1.41 trillion worldwide by 2025 (for comparison the US’s Marshall Plan would have cost USD$103 billion in today’s dollars), and is spending USD$10 billion every year to enhance its international image and soft power through investment in media, publishing, education, arts, sports, and other initiatives. For comparison, the US spent just USD$666 million on public diplomacy in fiscal year 2014. As Shambaugh pithily notes, “for all the billions of dollars China is spending on these efforts, it has yet to see any demonstrable improvement in its global image, at least as measured by public opinion surveys”. Actions such as the quasi-detention of an international scholar counteract any perceived gain that could arise from China’s substantial economic investment and global outreach. Suggestions that Australia is thus seeking closer engagement with China at the expense of its traditional US ally is misplaced, a position acknowledged and accepted within Chinese policy circles (see here for the original Chinese-language article, or here for its reference in an English-language overview).

The CCTV building in Beijing. In December 2016, CCTV relaunched its foreign language CCTV International media platforms as China Global Television Network (CGTN).

Moreover, Australia’s relationship with the US is, to use the lexicon of Nick Bisley, both high-value and deep. The US is the largest foreign investor in Australia, with AUD$860.3 billion (USD$651 billion) worth of investments in 2015. The Chinese mainland (excluding Hong Kong) ranks seventh, with AUD$74.9 billion (USD$56.58 billion). For comparison, although China is Australia’s largest trade partner with AUD$142 billion (USD$107.4 billion), the US ranks third with AUD$40.6 billion (USD$30.7 billion). Similarly, the US-Australia has been formalised in areas beyond the economic sphere, such as in the form of the security alliance established in the ANZUS Treaty, which remains in force between Australia and the US.

Although China has invested significant amounts of funding into bolstering its international reputation, its efforts to do so are hampered by key differences and disagreements between it and other states, a conundrum demonstrated by the Australian response to the unofficial detention of the international scholar Feng Chongyi. As alluded to elsewhere on this website, this does not mean that Australia is necessarily wedded to the US – there is still an ongoing debate about how Australia should position itself between the US and China. But suggestions that Australia will act purely with regard to its economic interests are overstated. China may have sizeable economic clout, but there is more to soft power than cold hard cash.



Justin Elliott is a Spring 2017 intern at The Carter Center China Program.

Feature image credit: Luo Jie via Alfred Snyder


  • The U.S.-China Perception Monitor (中美印象) is an online publication that explores perception and misperception in U.S.-China relations through insightful commentaries, interviews with experts, and profiles on key figures in the bilateral relationship.