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Discourse Power as a Means to ‘Struggle for Position’: a Critical Case Study of the Belt and Road Narrative’s Effects on Foreign Policy Formulation in the Netherlands

Abstract

This article investigates China’s use of strategic narratives to facilitate its geopolitical return, through a critical case study of the Belt and Road narrative’s effects on foreign policy formulation in the Netherlands. Departing from postmodern critiques of the traditional Western approach to soft power and Chinese elites’ conceptualization of the Belt and Road as a means to contest the West’s discursive hegemony, it initially proposes a theoretical framework meant to identify co-optive processes resulting from the narrative’s reception. It subsequently tests this framework, which combines the strategic narrative strand of constructivist soft power theory with Gallarotti’s concept of ‘bargaining spaces’ to structure the analysis, on the the Netherlands’ in the context of its recent revision of its China policy. By connecting elements of the narrative with co-optive processes found to occur within three subnational cohorts (business, media ecology, and foreign policy establishment), it highlights that Western countries may be more susceptible to non-coercive Chinese influence than is conventionally thought. In terms of a theoretical contribution, the article demonstrates that a decentred and outcome-oriented approach to narratives like the Belt and Road may enhance understanding of the mechanisms underlying China’s ability to use rhetorical strategy to tilt political battlefields to its favor.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    According to the socialization-paradigm, economic engagement and the growth of the middle class and civil society would naturally result in socio-political reforms [8, 68].

  2. 2.

    The new strategy was requested in May of 2018 as a replacement for the 2013 China-note “Investing in Values and Business”.

  3. 3.

    Also supported by author interviews with a senior policy officer at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign affairs, phone interview, April 2018; a scholar involved in policy consultation, The Hague, August, 2018; and member of the Parliamentary Commission of Foreign Affairs, The Hague, April 2019.

  4. 4.

    ‘Nyesian’ is used here to denote analyses based on Nye’s soft power framework, and includes instances wherein scholars have modified the framework within the boundaries of the assumptions on which it is based.

  5. 5.

    Examples of this ability are Greece’s role in preventing a critical EU statement on the South China Sea Arbitration in 2016, and Italy’s signing of a Belt and Road Memorandum of Understanding in March of 2019 [71].

  6. 6.

    The emergence of the ‘sharp power’ concept serves as a reminder of the political value attached to the soft power concept by neoliberal policy-elites [62].

  7. 7.

    Nye explicitly lists cosmopolitanism, democracy and peace as universally attractive values ([42]: 11).

  8. 8.

    The exploratory analysis consisted of desk-based investigation into the role of various stakeholders in previous policy processes, such as the formulation of the 2013 China-note.

  9. 9.

    This is motivated by the need to eliminate alternative (non-discursive) explanations for behavioural change.

  10. 10.

    The author had no professional or personal relationships with any of the respondents prior to this research.

  11. 11.

    The discourse power concept carries a connotation of discursive emancipation in Chinese, as is alternatively translated as ‘the right to speak’.

  12. 12.

    While policymaking in the Netherlands characteristically involves issue-specific consultation and the formulation of multi-stakeholder pacts and strategies for dealing with (foreign) policy issues, the formulation of the China-strategy as the sole country-specific foreign policy document reflects this insecurity.

  13. 13.

    Framing techniques conformed to those identified by Lams in the framing of China in Dutch-language news, and include: us-them dichotomies; stereotyping; generalization; lexical cohesion; and rhetorical devices [25].

  14. 14.

    A distinction is made here between dominant, which refers to the relative majority share of a truth-claim in a given situation, and hegemonic, which denotes a situation where meaningful alternative claims are (almost entirely) excluded.

  15. 15.

    Participant observation at a a conference on the China-note in The Hague, June of 2019.

  16. 16.

    Author’s semi-structured interviews with a senior representative of the Port of Rotterdam, phone interview, April 2018; general manager of a Dutch China-based consultancy, phone interview, March 2018; general manager of a transport company active on the trans-Eurasian railroads, phone interview, April, 2018; and informal ad hoc interviews conducted during participant observation.

  17. 17.

    Examples of this range from functional internalization by a company managing rail freight, to comprehensive internalization and even active proselytization in the case of a China-based consultancy.

  18. 18.

    Author’s interviews with a scholar involved in policy consultation, The Hague, August, 2018; a senior representative of the Port of Rotterdam, phone interview, April 2018.

  19. 19.

    Ibid.

  20. 20.

    Author’s interview with a China-expert active in policy-circles, phone interview, April 2018.

  21. 21.

    Ibid.

  22. 22.

    Author’s interview with a member of the Parliamentary Commission of Foreign Affairs, The Hague, April 2019.

  23. 23.

    The adoption of a parliamentary motion requiring the MFA to rewrite the ‘values’ chapter of the strategy in September of 2019 illustrated that the polarization of bargaining positions did not dissipate after the strategy’s publication, but rather intensified.

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Langendonk, S. Discourse Power as a Means to ‘Struggle for Position’: a Critical Case Study of the Belt and Road Narrative’s Effects on Foreign Policy Formulation in the Netherlands. J OF CHIN POLIT SCI 25, 241–260 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11366-019-09649-4

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Keywords

  • Belt and road initiative
  • Sino-Dutch relations
  • Soft power
  • Strategic narratives
  • Chinese official discourse