China overtook the United States in global leadership approval, U.S. public opinion polls conductor Gallup said in its latest report. While China earned a median approval rating of 34 percent, the highest score since 2009, the United States’ standing is at 31 percent, the lowest for the past three administrations. What’s behind China’s rising approval rating? How to interpret Sino-U.S. competition in soft power?

Here we took opinion of two experts on these matters; Professor Shen Dingli & Deputy Director Ni Feng.

Professor Shen Dingli, International Relations at Fudan University 

 Professor Dingli.
Photo: Professor Shen Dingli at Fudan University.

International mechanism-building and public goods supply are two determining factors of global leadership, and China, in recent years, has put tremendous efforts in these fields and is playing a much more pragmatic role than the United States. This explains why China edged ahead of the world’s largest economy in the Gallup report.

While the United States, under Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine, is withdrawing from a slew of international pacts and organisations, China is shouldering its due responsibilities in international mechanism-building as a significant power.

In sharp contrast to Trump’s exit from the Paris Agreement on climate change and his advocacy for the coal industry, China is making steadfast commitments to carbon emission reduction. After years of two-digit growth, China is shifting its focus from quantity to quality, investing heavily in ecological protection. This is in the long-term interest of not only China but also the rest of the world.

Regarding public goods supply, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is exporting its experience in infrastructure development to countries along the BRI route. China’s competitiveness in 5G technology is also where the United States is lagging behind.

Since the outbreak of the Sino-U.S. trade conflict, Washington has been lobbying its allies to ban Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, but it, ironically, cannot provide an alternative to Huawei’s technology.

Few countries are willing to heed Washington’s call to turn down Beijing at their own financial and developmental expenses.

It’s worth noting that although China has overtaken the United States in this year’s Gallup report, it still faces a number of challenges in its development. Washington’s plummeting figure, closely connected to Trump’s political performances, may also bounce back under the new administration, if any, after the 2020 election.

Instead of being complacent about the figure, China should participate more in international mechanism-building and try harder to dispel Western suspicions by providing the world with more mutually beneficial public goods.

Deputy Director Ni Feng of Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Ni Feng, at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Photo: Ni Feng, Deputy Director General of the Institute of American Studies (IAS) at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

China’s leadership image was steadily improving in recent years, which, according to Gallup, could have implications for soft power. Economic growth and diplomatic achievements are major reasons for China’s 34 percent figure.

For decades, China has been one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Despite reducing the economic growth target to 6-6.5 percent in 2019, China will still be the top contributor to global GDP growth, Bloomberg reported.

Economic rise lays the groundwork for international influence. Since China has been locked in a trade conflict with the United States, a number of reputable financial organisations have released reports warning its impacts on the world economy. This is strong evidence for China’s growing influence on the global arena.

China’s “major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” is another contributor to its rising soft power. Under the guidance of the “thought on the diplomacy of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era,” China is playing a leading role in maintaining multilateral mechanisms and has proposed a series of multi-win proposals, including the Belt and Road Initiative. The international community is gradually recognising China’s efforts.

The United States, on the contrary, is seeing declining soft power since the Iraq war and the financial crisis. Donald Trump’s governance has accelerated such a slide. The president’s “America First” doctrine is pursuing America’s interests at the cost of other countries’ benefits. This is suicidal to its soft power and, therefore, its plummeting global leadership approval is within expectation.

China’s rising soft power is an encouraging outcome from decades of efforts. To further enhance its soft power and improve its leadership image, China should put more efforts in stimulating its economic growth and maintaining multilateral mechanisms. After all, global integration, rather than protectionism, is the dominant theme of the 21st century.