Environmental Diplomacy as a Soft Power Instrument: China and the Belt and Road Initiative

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Investigators: dr Agnieszka Nitza-Makowska (PI), dr Kerry Longhurst, mgr Katarzyna Skiert-Andrzejuk.

Project duration: June 2021 – May 2024.

The project “Environmental Diplomacy as a Soft Power Instrument: China and the Belt and Road Initiative” is concerned with the notion of ‘soft power’, which is a concept in the field of International Relations.

One of the novelties of this research is that we will examine China. This is significant because one of the traditional assumptions behind soft power is that it is the preserve of liberal democratic states and not the business of autocratic regimes. Nonetheless, IR scholars and practitioners have interpreted rises in Chinese soft power, and the government in Beijing itself continues to proclaim its desire to develop and implement its own soft power instruments across the world. Our project seizes upon this fascinating issue and sees an opportunity to discover new findings to bolster soft power research by looking at China.

Soft power can come in many forms. Our project chooses to look at the theme of the environment and, more specifically, China’s use of ‘environmental diplomacy’ towards other countries. In a fairly short time, China went from resistance to becoming an agenda-setter in global climate change policies and an apparent beacon of carbon emission reductions. At the same time, China is rolling out its massive Belt Road Initiative (BRI), which will extend China’s reach via large scale infrastructure projects.

Our project will explore how far the notion of China as soft power is valid by looking at the practice of its environmental diplomacy. We hypothesise that although there is a ‘green’ element in the BRI as China has declared the objective of promoting environmentally sound investments (e.g. renewable energy plants), in reality, this ‘green’ agenda is being only patchily applied. What is more, ample evidence suggests that green standards are undercut in favour of economic costs.

To meet this hypothesis, we look at five countries that are parts of China’s BRI. We see Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Azerbaijan as ‘receiving states’ of China’s foreign environmental policies. Our five country case studies will allow us to assess how far China’s newfound green agenda-setter label is relevant to implementation on the ground.

The project is financed by the National Science Centre within the SONATA Programme.



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