Learning Soft Power: Chinese and Japanese Aid Projects in Mongolia

Project: Research

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This proposed project will draw the first comprehensive comparison of the foreign aid policies adopted by China and Japan regarding Mongolia over the past three decades. Such a comparison is justified by China’s apparent strategy to follow Japan in recalibrating its international development cooperation to focus more on foreign aid than on policy lending. China no longer pushes development-related commercial loans, which were a key financing method for many big-ticket Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure projects. As China drastically reduced the extent of its policy lending, it also launched a new initiative to implement more overseas community-based and capacity-building technical cooperation projects (TCPs) and involve more non-governmental organisations in such overseas projects. Through these projects, China is actively wielding soft power to address the widespread anti- Chinese sentiment evidenced by numerous public protests and cancellations of BRI projects overseas. Astonishingly, China does not only empower its opponents but also follows Japan’s decentralisation approach to do that. It is thus important to study systemically whether and how China, as a non-democratic regime, has learned from Japan how to win the hearts and minds of the public through TCPs. This question is based in the larger context of the longstanding developmental question regarding whether and how public resistance and reception in aid-receiving countries shape state-led international development cooperation.As China has adopted a “softer” way to complement its “hard” infrastructure projects, soft power theory provides a logical point of entry to unpack research on China’s revamp of its foreign aid policy into the three aspects of policy imperative, policy impact and policy implementation. A mixed-methods approach comprising process tracing, a national survey administered in Mongolia and four comparative case studies will be used to test the hypotheses of a Japan-influenced policy imperative of wielding state charm, a policy impact of improved public acceptance and policy implementation through a sub-national evolvement of charm offensive mechanism.Mongolia has been chosen as the site for the proposed study for three reasons. First, the history and geopolitics of Mongolia have generated different stereotypes of China and Japan within the country. While Japan has recast its national image as a positive and trustful partner, the sceptical views towards China have been escalated. As such, researching China’s revamped aid policy in Mongolia is justified by the crucial case logic of “Sinatra inference”— if China can make it there, she can make it anywhere. Second, Mongolia was the first destination country targeted by China’s ‘Go Out’ policy launched in 1999, and Japan’s development projects in Mongolia also started in the late 1990s when Mongolia abandoned the socialist system. The diverse and parallel engagements of China and Japan in Mongolia provide significant policy variations that are useful for comparison. Third, the PI’s recently completed research on a signature Japan-supported, community-based foreign aid project in Mongolia has equipped her with preliminary knowledge and an extensive network of contacts to facilitate the successful implementation of the project.Leveraging an interdisciplinary team with regional reach, this proposed study will make a substantial contribution to the literature on soft power theory and provide information on a set of desirable state-level and sub-national developmental strategies. The results, drawn from the experiences of democratic and non-democratic regimes, will inform policymakers on creating desirable international development policies to sustain foreign aid by understanding and matching their own countries’ aspirations with recipient countries’ developmental needs and public desires. The results will also enlighten sub-national actors on how to engage with these state-led efforts.


Project number9043448
Grant typeGRF
StatusNot started
Effective start/end date1/01/23 → …