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The Financial Express

Chinese envoy's comment: Public spat and public diplomacy


Chinese envoy's comment: Public spat and public diplomacy

The recent comment by the Chinese Ambassador Li Jiming that relations between Bangladesh and China would be 'substantially damaged' if Bangladesh joins the QUAD has stirred up a spate of reactions in Bangladesh and outside. His comment on the QUAD has been termed as a 'surprise,' 'bewilderment,' 'uncalled for,' 'speculative,' 'wolf warrior diplomacy,' 'unacceptable' and 'regrettable' by many experts and observers. Although he spoke on the occasion on far more important issues of relevance to Bangladesh, such as the procurement of vaccines, the Rohingya repatriation issue and the Teesta river management project, among others, the Quad issue caught public attention.  For a variety of reasons, QUAD has come into wide public discussion, particularly after the summit meeting among the leaders of US, Japan, Australian and India in March 2021.

Clearly, strong reactions emerged from the government, civil society and the media. Foreign Minister Dr. AK Abdul Momen said that the comment by the Chinese Ambassador was speculative and that Bangladesh would decide its foreign policy choices keeping its national interests and its stated foreign policy principles in mind. Civil society members did not find the Chinese Ambassador's comment as necessary and nor within the boundaries of diplomatic courtesies. Local and international media also carried the reactions from the former diplomats and experts. The Daily Star carried an editorial on this issue. Indian media carried the news of tough reactions from the Foreign Minister Dr. Momen and US State Department Spokesperson said that they had taken note of the remarks by the Chinese Ambassador. In the light of this strong negative backlash, the Chinese Ambassador met the Foreign Secretary Ambassador Masud Momen on May 12, 2021 and explained his position on this matter. It seems that the matter has been put to rest thereafter, as neither side wanted to carry it further.

Missing from the public discussion though was his tough comments on the delivery of Chinese vaccines to Bangladesh, where he had expressed his frustration at the delay in deciding on this issue. Likewise, he expressed his frustration on the lack of progress on trilateral consultations among Bangladesh, Myanmar and China on the repatriation of Rohingyas mainly due to non-cooperation from the Myanmar side. Clearly, this is a matter of serious concern for Bangladesh. Although Foreign Minister Dr. Momen has given some justification for the delay in the decision making process with regard to the procurement of vaccines, there is something that Bangladesh needs to look at closely in the future. Much more advance planning and proactive actions would be required in the context of the urgent need to stem the spread of corona virus under new variants and the intense competition building up for the procurement of vaccines throughout the world.  We have already been caught flat footed with the earlier decision to procure vaccines from only one source, which could not be sustained.

According to some health experts, Bangladesh has so far only vaccinated less than 5 per cent of its population with roughly ten million doses of vaccines received from India. They argue that Bangladesh would need about 250 million doses of vaccines to achieve a modicum of herd immunity. That is quite a tall order by any standard. Likewise, Chinese support is critical for the repatriation of the Rohingyas, although Chinese position itself is under serious question in Myanmar at this time.  Anyway, the reply from the Foreign Minister Dr. Momen was measured, appropriate and fitting, reflecting the longstanding principles of our foreign policy and also clearly conveying our collective sentiments.

Several explanations have been advanced to rationalise the public comments by the Chinese Ambassador. Most of the observers have explained them from the traditional format of 'club diplomacy' or in other words closed format of diplomacy, and mainly from our perspective without taking into consideration the entire range of issues affecting both China and Bangladesh. As a practitioner of diplomacy for around three decades in a fast changing world, I believe it would be extremely useful to undertake a deeper analysis to help clear the common understanding or lack of it in respect of the new format of diplomacy, which the Chinese Ambassador has so eloquently practised at the DCAB forum. Such an understanding could also help us to chart a future pathway for creatively developing, designing and delivering our diplomatic moves in an uncertain environment, which is fast engulfing the entire Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific landscape.

Over the last two decades, public diplomacy, otherwise called the megaphone diplomacy, has emerged as one of the useful tools for conducting diplomacy among nations, in addition to the traditional format of diplomacy. Practically, all nations are devoting a great deal of time and energy on this format of diplomacy to advance their national interests by drawing larger audience with a view to influencing the bilateral, regional and global policy process, as appropriate, in their favour. Several factors have facilitated this process. First, with the onset of a citizen-centric democratic process in the post-Cold War era, all governments, including even the authoritarian ones, try to win the hearts of common people, both within their own country and in another target country or countries, with a view to influencing the policy process in their favour. Obviously, public diplomacy is the preferred tool for this purpose. Second, thanks to globalisation process the engagements between States in the international arena have significantly diversified among myriad actors, resulting in the fact that the 'club diplomacy' has lost much of its traction. Public diplomacy serves better purpose to address a larger body of policy audiences, for the fact that it can create multiplier effects on the diplomatic process. Third, beyond States, a large number of non-state actors now mediate the power in the international context, even affecting the most powerful States, and their involvement in the decision making process has opened up the opportunity for practising public diplomacy. Fourth, the creation of a positive image or reputation of a country in the outside world has become an imperative, as perception can often create the reality. In at least two recent cases, the most powerful States have lost the wars as their reputation had collapsed in the eyes of wider population despite their strong connection to the incumbent  governments. Indeed, public perception has become extremely potent, more so when the virtual world has occupied a large space in the mind of global population, particularly the younger generation. Indeed, the very format of digital diplomacy is intended to make an outreach to the population over the head of any government.

Practically, governments are often helpless to regulate or influence the digital world, and they often become part of it to promote their own national objectives. Increasing use of digital diplomacy by many States testifies to this evolving trend. Clearly, these unstoppable trends have added more nuances to the art of diplomacy. For example, the comments made by the Chinese Ambassador have been roundly rebuffed, which may give us some satisfaction. But can we say the same thing with regard to the message he had tried to pass on though his public diplomacy move, or its impact on our policy making process? 

Another complexity involved in this kind of megaphone diplomacy is the fact that two processes interact with each other during such an action. From the speaker's point of view, what is being said, under what motivation, what to achieve and how an issue is framed could be the easy part while taking a position. From the audience side, it could be completely a different ball game as to how the said words and messages are received and processed. In addition to specific cultural frames, such a complex process could also involve an interplay of a set of subtle qualities, such as the effective listening skills, understanding the subtle nuances of policy and the complete assessment about the competitive factors and forces shaping a particular policy line. Curiously, none of these skills is in abundant supply in our part of the world.

That perhaps explains why it is easy to understand the visible part of any comment, and why it is much more difficult to decipher the underlying message and its motivations and compulsions.  Since scholars agree that the practice of public diplomacy is not about self, but more about understanding the perspective of others, the faculty of empathy could perhaps provide a useful key to deconstruct such a complexity.  Indeed, since diplomacy is an art in managing nuances, it is extremely important to crack this code to gain a traction with the other side and establish a trust and balance in relationship. It is more so when the relationship is asymmetrical! Interestingly, on the QUAD issue, most of the reactions have largely dealt with our positions, which is normal though, but reflecting on Chinese compulsions is equally important for making an analysis objective and diplomacy relevant and effective. 

Clearly, China is under tremendous pressure from multiple directions, and it is not unlikely that it will explore all avenues to convey its side of the story on any particular issue to both the policy circle as well as public domain to gain maximum impact, although sometimes some of the issues, which bother China now could be a hard sell. Given the limitations that we have in Bangladesh, a higher level of empathy and understanding the motivations of the other side or sides for a particular kind of action could be helpful for dealing with any partner with whom we have multidimensional and multilayered links. With a better understanding on the role of public diplomacy in the contemporary world could also help us to navigate through the maze of diplomacy with more clarity, care and confidence. 

As the geo-political situation is fast churning in this region, public diplomacy initiatives from regional and global actors could also intensify in the coming days. As the competition intensifies, all actors will definitely vie for creating a space for themselves in the domain of public perception with a view to influencing policy in their favour. Indeed, variety of initiatives by the regional actors are already underway in Bangladesh. As a recipient of such initiatives, it is extremely important that we take such overtures in light of higher professional standards with a view to protecting and promoting our core national interests against the competing pressures.

For the same reason, Bangladesh will also have to acquire skills to practise public diplomacy with all its subtleties and sophistication, often from an asymmetrical point of view, to convey its points of view to a wider audience with a view to creating, and if possible, expanding a space for getting a favourable policy attention in a highly nuanced and competitive geo-political and geo-economic realities in the Asia-Pacific region. The upcoming graduation process will definitely add another layer of complexity for our diplomacy in the coming decade. With limited resources and largely fleeting attention it is not clear though how much positive traction we have in the regional and global public mind-set, let alone influence the policy process from a competitive perspective.

Evidence however shows that for the relatively modest powers, public diplomacy works better to compensate their lack of capacity in the traditional domain of power, with which traditional diplomacy is closely associated. Therefore, nothing could be more important than to deepen and sharpen our understanding on the role of public diplomacy, alongside practising traditional diplomacy with a higher degree of professionalism and sophistication, for advancing our core national interests. The recent spat with the Chinese Ambassador could help us to open our eyes to all emerging dimensions of diplomacy, including the public diplomacy. The question is, are we ready for this undertaking and if so, to what extent?

M Humayun Kabir is a former Ambassador, and currently President, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, Dhaka. 

Views expressed are personal.

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