Comparing the Soft Power and Public Diplomacy of China and Taiwan
Gary D. Rawnsley
University of Leeds, UK
Prepared for the annual conference of the International Studies Association
Montreal March 2011
‘There’s something to be said about being small’
(Advertisement for tourism in Taiwan, The Economist, 12-18 June 2010)
The Republic of Taiwan (hereafter Taiwan) has diplomatic relations with just 23 minor powers, and has 92 representative offices in the capitals and major cities of 57 other countries. Taiwan does not maintain formal diplomatic relations with any major powers and is excluded from representation in the United Nations. Although Taiwan has, since 1987, experienced one of the smoothest, peaceful and most successful transitions to democracy in Asia, it remains ostracised by the international community which refuses to recognise its legitimacy.
This paper is a preliminary discussion of ideas generated in preparing a major research project which compares and explains the soft power and public diplomacy strategies of Taiwan and China. The research will attempt to triangulate the approaches developed in international relations, diplomacy studies and international communications to examine and understand how states without diplomatic recognition design and use communications strategies to compensate. Specifically, the project uses Taiwan as the principal case-study of a democratic minor power that soft power theory asserts should be able to communicate effectively with foreign publics, but in reality is meeting little success in doing so because it operates ‘within a distinctive kind of environment’ (Lukes, 2005: 485).
Taiwan is locked within a particular set of political environments that include: relations with Beijing (which maintains that Taiwan is a province of China and has successfully ostracised Taiwan in the international arena) and the US; the absence of formal diplomatic relations with major powers; a contested national identity (which makes the Taiwan ‘brand’ difficult to identify and sell); and democratic electoral competition (which means that in Taiwan, foreign and China policy must be made within the context of public opinion and the awareness of the potential consequences for electoral support). I suggest that the specific context in which Taiwan must survive renders obsolete any attempt to categorise it as a particular-sized power; it is Taiwan’s international position and its relationship (or absence of) with other powers that defines its status.
All governments are confronted with the challenges imposed by their own particular political environments; and these environments have convinced governments that they have to design soft power strategies to survive and prosper. In effect, soft power is considered – erroneously – as a substitute for hard power, and there is a prevailing confidence in the ability of soft power to raise a nation’s profile, prestige and influence.
The question then becomes: Can governments be the architects of their own soft power? Can soft power be strategised? If we acknowledge that soft power is about the attraction of core values, it follows that it is a natural by-product of cultural and political appeal. It is an attraction based on the ideals and principals a government or country values and upholds. The attraction derives from the appeal of the perceived consistency between the message and the how the government behaves. In this scenario, any attempt to strategise and create doctrines for soft power misses the basic point, that it is an ‘intangible attraction’ and therefore beyond the policy-making capacity of cabinets and kings.
The challenge in the next stage is to translate the intangible attributes of soft power into tangible outcomes: how does soft power connect with national foreign policy objectives? How does it contribute to their realisation, and how does a government know when its soft power is working? As Nye (2008: x) has noted: ‘Whether the possession of power resources actually produces favourable outcomes depends on the context and skill of the agent in converting the resources into behavioural outcomes.’ This is where strategic communications, including public diplomacy, begins to assert their presence, for unless there is a visible and recognisable product, it is difficult if not impossible to decide whether or not the resources devoted to communications have been worth the effort. Hence the deed often becomes the most significant and potentially most influential message in public diplomacy (‘actions speak louder than words’):
It is sometimes possible for a country to do very well by being good. To support ‘good works’, to perform ‘good’ deeds, to use ‘good’ words, and to project ‘good’ images can pay off in terms of international prestige, and in even more practical expressions others’ appreciation (Henrikson, 2005: 1).
The principal challenge is that governments and other actors within nation-states may be able to control the design, the message and the transmission of public diplomacy, but they can exercise no comparable control over reception. Hence the design and dissemination are only part of the story. As Mattern (2005) has noted, ‘Attraction is a rather subjective experience, which raises the question of what makes something or someone alluring to some and not to others.’ This is because the message is open to interpretation, but also because audiences may be subject to other internal and external influences – what in communications we call cognitive dissonance – that can affect reception.
All agents involved in international communications must confront this problem, but Taiwan and China must encounter these challenges within specific political frameworks. To understand this, I turn to Nancy Snow’s (2009: 4) list of features that give a country soft power advantage, namely:
- When culture and ideas match prevailing global norms
- When a nation has greater access to multiple communication channels that can influence how issues are framed in global news, and
- When a country’s credibility is enhanced by domestic and international behaviour.
This list sets out very clearly the paradox at the heart of this research, for according to these criteria the People’s Republic of China (PRC) should not be as successful as Taiwan in soft power and public diplomacy terms.
It is possible to argue that the PRC is at a ‘decisive disadvantage’ in all three areas: Beijing has difficulty persuading the liberal-democratic world that China’s agenda is compatible, if not consistent, with the perceived norms and values of democracies; China is only just developing the capacity to frame stories in the global news media, but this remains limited (more information does not necessarily mean better communication, and it is difficult to appreciate how Xinhua’s new global television service will accelerate China’s public diplomacy; the same number of people who don’t watch CCTV International will not watch Xinhua); and China’s domestic and international behaviour has not inspired confidence, though we do have to recognise very clear improvements in Chinese foreign policy and its interaction with international regimes. However, it only takes one episode to undo all this good work which undermines almost in an instant any credibility and soft power capital that the PRC has accumulated in other areas.
In contrast, Taiwan has emerged from forty years of one-party authoritarian rule and is now a strong, maturing liberal democracy which experienced one of the smoothest, most peaceful regime changes in Asia. The people of Taiwan conduct regular free and fair elections, and they have delivered two transfers of political power (thus satisfying Samuel Huntington’s ‘two turnover test’). Moreover, former President Chen Shui-bian was investigated, arrested and jailed on charges of corruption, sending a very clear signal that in modern Taiwan, no-one is above the law. Not only is Taiwan’s domestic and international behaviour a match for the PRC, but by being a democracy its culture and ideas match prevailing norms in at least a large part of the world. It is not surprising that successive regimes have recognised the soft power capital in being a democracy: President Chen and his Vice-President, Lu Hsiu-lien, emphasised Taiwan’s democratic credentials as a major source of the regime’s soft power; and President Ma Yin-jeou has likewise acknowledged the potential power of personifying democratic ideals and values. Meanwhile, Taiwan has long been recognised as a leading economic power – part of the Taiwan ‘brand’ – long before China began its own comprehensive process of economic reform. Yet neither Taiwan’s international strength nor its image positively reflects its credentials. As Gerald Chan (1997: 37) has noted, Taiwan is ‘financially rich, but diplomatically poor.’ Józef Batora (2006: 55) has argued that, ‘for small and medium –sized states, public diplomacy represents an opportunity to gain influence and shape the international agenda in ways that go beyond their limited hard power resources.’
Taiwan has certainly engineered many improvements in its global outreach strategies since I published my first book on the subject in 1999. For example, successive governments in Taipei have moved discourses beyond the Cold War frameworks that defined Taiwan as ‘Free China’ until the end of the 1990s. Ma Ying-jeou’s administration, elected in 2008, has demonstrated a more nuanced understanding of how soft power and public diplomacy work and how they can connect to the reality of Taiwan’s international situation by not framing issues solely within the context of cross-Strait relations.
Ma has labelled his approach ‘flexible diplomacy’ (during the remaining years of the Lee Teng-hui administration that ended in 2000, we were used to hearing about ‘pragmatic diplomacy’), as outlined in a Presidential statement in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2008. Ma said that the ‘most important asset’ of Taiwan’s foreign policy ‘is our democracy, our way of life, our willingness to maintain cross-strait stability, and our determination to fulfil our obligations to the international community …’ He advised that Taiwan should no longer compete directly and obsessively with the PRC, but should instead strive to create a win-win relationship with Beijing. In dealing with those governments that do not recognise Taiwan, Ma said ‘we must jettison our past image of a troublemaker, refurbish our international credibility, and re-establish mutual trust with those countries.’
I present three hypotheses that are driving this research project. As yet, these are untested and I am not in a position to confirm or deny their validity. I present them here as a précis of my current interests and to solicit feedback.
- International recognition is a precondition for successful public diplomacy and soft power; it is an ‘appropriate resource’ (Lukes, 2005: 479) which can help a state meet its foreign policy objectives.
- Hard power, international recognition and therefore legitimacy trump the soft power capital of democratic values.
- Soft power is therefore only meaningful as a practical arrangement of statesmanship for governments who possess power in other areas.
So, using Taiwan as a case-study the primary objective of this research is to understand and explain how the absence of international diplomatic recognition affects the soft power and public diplomacy of “illegitimate” powers. This then requires a detailed comparison of the communications strategies designed and executed by the PRC and Taiwan to understand why, within the greater political and strategic frameworks in which they operate, one is more successful at national and international projection than the other. The research represents an attempt to unravel the paradox of democratic Taiwan’s limited success in soft power terms and the (neo-)authoritarian PRC’s apparent success.
By success I am referring to the acquisition of international attention. Because we are dealing with intangibles, it is very difficult to correlate changes in attitudes or behaviour with soft power. When we look more closely at China’s soft power and public diplomacy, we must question whether the PRC can move beyond attention-seeking and realise tangible foreign policy goals.
In the US after 911 it was common to hear Americans, including President George W. Bush, ask: ‘Why do they hate us?’ In public diplomacy terms, this immediately begs a second question in response: ‘Why don’t you ask them?’
The Chinese often ask a similar question, especially of the western media: Why do they criticise us so much? Zhao Qizheng, Director of the Foreign Affairs Committee and former director of the State Council Information Office, has often talked about the need for China to develop a soft power strategy in response to the alleged demonization by the western media and the constant chatter in some quarters about the so-called China threat. ‘This situation,’ said Zhao, ‘requires China to pro-actively establish a public diplomacy policy to improve the international image of China.’ While the idea of demonization is extremely problematic – in accepting the existence of a political conspiracy among the western media one is conveniently ignoring the differences in professional news values between Chinese and non-Chinese media and audiences – this statement is intriguing because it reveals high-level acknowledgement of the need for public diplomacy and a motive for doing so, however specious and reactive that motive may be.
The problem with most public diplomacy is that it is built from the top-down: ‘We speak, you listen.’ Few public diplomacy strategies, including the UK government’s National Security Strategy (2008) include listening as a key activity in their outreach. In the age of participatory and unmediated methods of communication – twitter, blogs, social networking sites, citizen journalism – there is no excuse for assuming that governments should speak and publics should listen. Publics want to talk too – to each other and to governments. This is valuable for public diplomacy because audiences tend to trust each other more than governments (the ‘last three feet’ in propaganda and public diplomacy – ie. personal interaction – are the most important), and because it provides for those responsible for public diplomacy a level of intelligence about public opinion their predecessors (trained perhaps in the era of the Cold War ‘hypodermic needle model’ or ‘magic bullet theory’ of communications) could not imagine: what does the world really think of you, the policies you are following and the image you are presenting? Listening to audiences also helps to tailor the message and its method of delivery according to specific social and cultural constraints.
However, first it is important to get the image right. If the question is ‘Why do they hate us?’ perhaps another satisfactory response might be: ‘Do they really know us?’ which is immediately followed by another crucial question: ‘Do we know ourselves?’ Public diplomacy must begin by understanding who ‘we’ are before we attempt to understand the audience with whom we wish to communicate.
We cannot deny that the Chinese think they know who they are: the PRC has a strong self-identity (even though it is often contradictory, hence William Callahan’s description of China as the Pessoptimist Nation (2009)); and this identity is increasingly based on power and self-confidence – the idea of Zhongguo and (inter)national recovery, rapid and widespread economic development, and increasingly (and perhaps disturbingly) a form of radical nationalism. While China’s enthusiastic embrace of soft power and public diplomacy is welcome as an alternative to the dependence on hard power, does China listen enough to a wide range of actors and institutions to understand why the international community is sometimes so critical of its actions and behaviour?
Nye has used the term ‘meta-soft power’ to describe ‘the state’s willingness to criticise itself. For Nye, such capacity for introspection fundamentally enhances a nation’s attractiveness, legitimacy and reliability’ (Watanabe & McConnell, 2008: xiii; see also Watanabe, 2006). Again, this is a useful criterion to measure China’s success (or lack of it) for the leadership in Beijing has not readily demonstrated any capacity for national self-criticism.
For Taiwan, deciding who ‘we’ are is difficult, and the design of successful public diplomacy strategies is understandably constrained by reluctance at all levels of the government to confront this issue. The particular political and strategic environments that I outlined earlier and within which Taiwan must work limit discussion about identity. How can Taiwan project an image of Taiwan until Taiwan knows what Taiwan is? Until this can be resolved internally it is difficult to conceive how Taiwan’s public diplomacy and soft power can progress.
The definition of soft power is contested; unless we try to de-westernise the concepts of soft power and public diplomacy, we are mired in an essentially American approach that fails to acknowledge very clear cultural differences in their understanding and application. Hence, this project requires a more nuanced analysis of soft power ‘with Chinese characteristics,’ and one might add with ‘Taiwanese characteristics.’ Although soft power works alongside hard power, it is possible to argue that a country’s location within the international system and its possession of hard power resources are still more significant than its soft power capacity. In the case-studies that inform this research project, we see how diplomatic recognition infers legitimacy and authority, and therefore provides the conditions for a more convincing source of soft power.
How should Taiwan capitalise on its two primary soft power resources, namely: (i) that it is a democracy; and (ii) it is not the PRC? One of the essential conditions is a recognition that Taiwan needs to be more pro-active in first understanding its soft power advantages, and in developing a strategy of public diplomacy that will capitalise on its advantages. One of the most disturbing observations I have made in thirteen years of researching Taiwan’s international communications is the passivity of diplomats, especially among those charged with the responsibility for selling Taiwan to the international community. In representative offices around the world there is almost a collective shrug of the shoulders: What can we do? No-one knows us, no-one cares, why should we bother? They are largely correct; few people either know or care. This means Taiwan needs to concentrate on the few who do care and do know – the last three feet – as they are possibly the opinion formers in their own country.
Moreover, Taiwan needs to decide on the Taiwan brand and ensure there is a consistent message that is centrally co-ordinated and is part of a comprehensive diplomatic strategy that is integrated with Taiwan’s foreign policy architecture. This is why it is a serious mistake to disband the Government Information Office and locate its functions within an expanded Ministry of Culture. We have seen all too clearly the effects of Washington’s decision to tear down the USIA and locate public diplomacy within the State Department. As we know, diplomacy, public diplomacy and soft power must be integrated, but they are not synonyms.
China’s challenges are different: it is not yet clear if China has the capacity to convert its public diplomacy and resources and effort into achievable foreign policy aspirations. China bestows upon its distinct approach to public diplomacy an extraordinary amount of hard and soft power – in selling Chinese language and culture; in humanitarian assistance; and in persuading its neighbours of China’s commitment to a stable, peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific.
China’s economic and commercial power is undeniable; and it makes China an attractive destination for global investment and entrepreneurship. However, convincing the liberal-democratic international community to look beyond trade and economics and to accept China as a credible diplomatic and strategic power is a considerable challenge for China’s public diplomacy. Cultural and economic diplomacy neither easily nor necessarily translate into foreign policy success.
The principal problems for public diplomacy are the contradictions in Chinese foreign policy. On the one hand, China yearns to be part of an independent world and to spread the benefits of political, economic and cultural engagement with China. On the other hand, Chinese political discourse is often characterised by a fierce nationalist rhetoric that is reinforced by the Communist Party’s determination to maintain authoritarian rule. Together with China’s apparently unconditional friendship with regimes considered a threat to international stability, and the use of military threat against Taiwan and Tibet, this undermines the idea that Chinese soft power is all about selling national and cultural values. Hence Taiwan – the first Chinese democracy – should be able to challenge China – an authoritarian political system – in dimensions of soft power. Why it is unable to do so is the question at the core of this research project.
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 The research will be conducted in summer 2011 during a visit to Taiwan, funded by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Fellowship Programme. During my visit I will be hosted by the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University, Taipei.
 As the Indian author and politician, Dr Sashi Tharoor, has claimed, hard power is exercised; soft power is evoked. Symposium on Indian Soft Power, organised by the India Media Centre, University of Westminster, 18 February 2011.
 ‘With its high growth rate, sectoral transformation and rise to the top echelon of global trading entities beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, Taiwan emerged as a paragon of successful development and an exemplar of the East Asian model of rapid industrialization’ (deLisle, 2010: 20).