China's “new idea of great power relationship”

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Xinxing daguo ganxi. If you are able to pronounce this properly, you know the keyword for future (science) diplomacy. Literally, it means “new idea of great power relationship”, a vague and general term that could lead to anything. But, being used repeatedly during the historical meeting between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping in June 2013, it has assumed a more precise, and brief, significance: information diplomacy. What is that?

The first question that comes into mind is whether this could be seen as a new synonymous with “scientific cooperation” among nations. But actually that was exactly the same question posed when the previous concept, science diplomacy, was “officially” released after a meeting between the Royal Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2010. And before, when Joseph Nye, a famous political scientist from Harvard University, defined what is “soft power” (later, smart power) in the '90s. Soft power, smart power, science diplomacy and now information diplomacy: what's wrong with calling it with the real name, namely scientific cooperation? Scientific cooperation is just a piece of what science diplomacy is, that, by its side, is just a piece of what information diplomacy is (or should be). And, finally, information diplomacy is one of the greatest tools for soft power, but just a tool. A sort of Chinese boxes.

Even said so, to be honest, is not completely clear what “information diplomacy” is by now. Studying Chinese moves in the international arena, James Wilsdon, on the Guardian, suggested that “as policymakers try to work out what a more strategic relationship with China in science and innovation would entail, we can detect a shift under way from established agendas of “science diplomacy” – which focus on promoting academic research collaborations – to the more expansive and at times treacherous terrain of "innovation diplomacy", in which collaborative opportunities and risks need to be assessed across every link in the innovation value chain.” In other words, information diplomacy seems to be the broadening of science diplomacy: by linking all the aspects of scientific knowledge – and not just research – nations can create a strong background for peaceful relations (a sort of “scientific/cultural” liberism logic).

Anyway, even if not so defined, the concept of a “new idea of great power relationship” is not new for Xi Jinping, who, by the way, is a chemical engineer. It has appeared for the first time during Xi's first visit to the US as Vice-President of the People Republic of China in 2011. During a luncheon, Xi described a new path for China toward the great power, based on the so-called knowledge economy: to reach that goal, China has to follow a new idea of relationship, especially toward the United States. This relationship passes all the way through science and its economic outputs. These are not just mere words: in his book “China goes global”, David Shambaugh describes China as an absorptive State, a Nation “increasingly adept at attracting and profiting from global knowledge and networks”. Nowadays, the best scientific research is centered in the North Atlantic area. By pushing toward its “new idea” of information diplomacy, China is trying to move the focus on the Pacific shores, due to the great opportunity given by the European economic and cultural crisis. This attempt was put in practice last October, when the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) had been the good opportunity for China to extend this new concept to “backyard” countries. What is mostly important, even Japan notice this new trend, and started its own information diplomacy toward Asia and Africa.

And what about Europe? Europe is almost out of this global trend. Being focused on the next scientific (but “domestic”) initiative, Horizon 2020, the European Union leaves the global scientific policies to single initiatives at national level. As results, the United Kingdom seems to be, by now, the only European country to be interested in the new “information diplomacy” trend, by reinforcing its scientific cooperation with Brazil and Russia. Italy, by its side, tries to do its best (keeping in mind its traditional scarcity of financial resource in this field) with a new round of scientific cooperation toward Far East Asia. Generally speaking, it seems clear that, along with huge funding to scientific research, the European Union has to develop its own “xinxing daguo ganxi”, a new idea of great power relationship, if we want to keep science in the Atlantic arena.

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