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Developing a positive public relations image for China beyond its borders - and problems thereof

Sharing the East China Sea, almost in a world of their own, are three fractious nations, China, South Korea and Japan. China is now the world's second largest economy while Japan comes in third and South Korea ranks as one of the greatest economic miracles of the last 50 years.

The three have much in common for good and ill. It is said, with considerable evidence, that they share great hatred towards each other, a hatred for deeds done more than 70 years ago to and for people who have been long dead for the most part.

According to a 2014 BBC World Service poll, three per cent of Japanese people view China's influence positively, with 73 per cent expressing a negative view, ranking as the most negative perceptions of China in the world, while five per cent of Chinese view Japanese positively with 90 per cent being starkly. These most negative perceptions of Japan in the world today.

A 2014 survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre showed 85 per cent of Japanese were concerned that territorial disputes between China and neighbouring countries could lead to a military conflict. This is quite apart China's standing military threat to the defacto independence of Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Despite such conflicts, China and Japan have been improving their relations, with both sides remarking that they will be focusing on developing healthy ties, signalling towards a "new start".

Both countries have started to cooperate in numerous areas, including boosting global trade and Asia's economic activities, working hand-in-hand on the Belt and Road initiative, setting up maritime and air contact systems for better communications. In 2018, the two countries pledged to further deepen ties and shares a common ground on the trade war, with Japanese leader Shinzo Abe saying that "Japan-China relations have been moving in the direction of great improvement".

Japanese-Korean relations are more difficult with Japan imposing restrictions on exports to South Korea of key materials used in tech manufacturing, a move that increases tensions.

At issue are South Korean court rulings that have given individual Korean citizens to the right to sue Japanese companies for compensation over their use of forced labor during World War II.

As far as Japan is concerned, all issues related to wartime conduct were settled in 1965 when the two countries signed agreements establishing diplomatic and economic relations that included reparations for Japanese actions during the war.

But nation-to-nation settlements did not cover the private claims of individuals who had suffered at the hands of Japanese occupation forces. And South Korean courts have sided with such claims, while Japanese authorities stand fast, sayiing reparations were negotiated and Koean claims were made and paid for.

China and the United States are South Korea two largest trading partners, and South Korea exports account for more than 50 per cent of its total GDP. Nevertheless, there are mixed perspectives on what South Korea stands to gain or lose from the trade war.

Today, the biggest concern for South Korea is being dragged into the trade war. South Korea has an export-oriented economy that is sensitive to external demand shocks.

Koreans fear American trade barriers and tariffs against Chinese imports are likely to be enforced on Korean imports given the similarity of their products, such as steel and electronic goods.

In addition, US President Donald Trump views South Korean and Chinese imports as primary targets for antidumping duties because he believes both governments boost exports by manipulating currency values.

What's more, South Korea export-led growth is likely to be hampered if the US-China trade war were to escalate into a global trade war.

If, for instance. the US, China, and Europe were to implement tariffs against each other in the near future, the global trade volume is expected to decrease six per cent.

If that happened, South Korea would lose US$3.67 billion as a result, an amount equal to 6.4 per cent of its total exports in 2017. Likewise, the US-China trade war will likely disturb the South Korean economy, especially if it were to escalate to a global trade war.

Yet there are a few opportunities for South Korea to benefit from the US-China Trade war. One of these advantages is the fact that South Korea has signed Free Trade Agreements with both China and the United States.

This can serve as an economic opportunity for South Korea: South Korea can act as an intermediary between US and China, allowing them to trade in a way that circumvents the tariffs.

For example, Chinese raw materials or unfinished products can be transferred to South Korea where those products can be fully manufactured, which would change the origin of products to South Korea and therefore comply with the import agreements.

Another option is for South Korea to move into the reer?Chinese markets that President Xi promised in 2017. President Xi new economic policy appears to promise an open-door policy toward foreign investments, capitalisation, and market entry.

Given that other countries such as the United States postponed the negotiation of the Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) with China as of early 2018, South Korea has an opportunity to be one of the first to invest in the newly opened Chinese market.

Of course, that is a big "if". Unless China has palpable success with in a truly global charm offensive it is not likely to win the vast international goodwill it enjoyed under previous Chinese administrations.

The previous administrations were guided by the spirit of Deng Xiaoping and his opening up to the world of free markets, and not to the regeneration and reinvigoration of Mao's puritanical Marxism and detailed control with a truly Orwellian "social credit" system of population control. Top this off with the abolition of presidential term limits, paving the way to a life-presidency, and one has created a regime of Chinese governance with Himalayan public relations problem with the rest of the world.

It will be a world in which there were be increasing talk of rearming Japan, and Korea will likely cleave ever closer to the United States and the pluralist democratic institutions. It is hard to see an easy way of reversing engines on this process.



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While China can easily control opinion within its borders, it cannot do the same beyond them. What do you think of the prospects of China developing a positive public image in the international community?

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Intra Asia Trade Specialists

Nippon Express (HK) Co., Ltd.
Visible & Strategic Logistics