Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Preaching to the converted, or a small step in the right direction?

The following report was published in the Taipei Times on 12 July: '"Study camp" introduces nation to allied countries' (

Twenty-eight representatives from Taiwan's diplomatic allies in the Pacific - Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu (what do you mean you have never heard of them?) - are visiting the island as part of its 'cultural diplomacy' strategy. The visitors will attend seminars on a range of subjects including relations with China, the economy and, most importantly, democracy. Among the particpants are politicians, the media and representatives from  business.

It would be easy to be both cynical and sceptical about the Study Camp programme which started in 2010: the Taipei Times is stretching the definition of Cultural Diplomacy; and isn't this preaching to the converted? Surely Taiwan does not need to convince its allies that Taiwan is a vibrant, democratic society? Shouldn't more effort be devoted to such activities in those countries which do not recognise the international status of Taiwan?

However, every journey begins with one step, and this is a small step in the right direction. First, it is extremely important that Taiwan maintain the few diplomatic allies it has left (and not through the old methods of cheque-book diplomacy that occurred in Central America and which my PhD student, Colin Alexander, writes about). The cup is either half empty or half full: Taiwan has only 23 formal allies? Or Taiwan has 23 formal allies, despite decades of pressure from the PRC to switch allegiance. As students of Taiwan we too often focus on the former, more depressing picture, and lose sight of the more positive perspective. After all, the symbolic significance of losing even the smallest ally would be devastating for Taiwan; when you have only 23 formal diplomatic allies, one is a lot to lose (and there is the possibility of a domino effect to factor in to this scenario).

Second, the Study Camp is targeting the right demographics -  the movers and shakers who may also be opinion leaders. Public diplomacy often works best through local authoritative figures, and provided the politicians and media are trusted in these societies (and I am ashamed to say I know little about the political situation in Tuvalu or Nauru) then they are in a strong position to mediate information and opinion on behalf of Taiwan.

Third, these opinion leaders are visiting Taiwan to expand their knowledge of that society; this is not remote work being undertaken in their home countries, but is rather an attempt to showcase Taiwan first hand. There is no substitute for such endeavours. If you want people to know Taiwan and to love Taiwan, they must be given the opportunity to see, touch, smell and taste Taiwan ('Taiwan will touch your heart,' said the old logo - which is far better than the current pedestrian and meaningless 'Taiwan, the heart of Asia').

Finally, learning about democracy is on the agenda. The report does not say anything about how this is communicated to the vistors (further research by yours truly is required), but at least the diplomats are paying attention to its value as a strategic narrative. All in all, a small step in the right direction.            

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