Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s recent documentary about trade in shark fins focused on Costa Rica and Taiwan. While filming he was reportedly threatened at gunpoint and doused in fuel by those who took exception to his presence. While this undoubtedly made for marvelous viewing on the UK’s Channel 4 TV station on Sunday (and soon to be aired in the US), for analysts of public diplomacy and soft power, the incident demonstrates a number of underlying truths.
The negative fall-out from accosting and threatening a worldwide celebrity, in the current climate of celebrity obsession, might attract the attention of an audience which until now would have known little about either country other than Taiwan equals electronics and a dispute with China and Costa Rica equals environmental consciousness and no army. To that list can now be added havens for the controversial trade in shark fins.
Indeed, both countries have worked hard over the past few years to promote their national “brand.” Costa Rica has led the charge on tropical environmental diplomacy with its attempts to become the world’s first carbon-neutral country and it remains a popular destination for the environmentally conscious to assist with eco-initiatives and learn conservation techniques to be implemented in their own country. Coincidently, Costa Rican Foreign Minister Rene Castro spoke to an audience at the London School of Economics on Monday regarding environmental diplomacy and failed to address the harm that the shark-fin trade is doing to the ecosystems of the oceans near Costa Rican shores.
This report by Ramsay will only serve to harm the image of Costa Rica as an eco-paradise.
In contrast, the issue for Taiwan is to convince an increasingly skeptical Central American public that their region should remain diplomatically engaged with Taipei instead of the increasingly powerful People’s Republic of China. Taiwan is only recognized diplomatically by 23 countries worldwide, with the majority of these in Central America and the Caribbean.
Furthermore, Taiwan will be compared to China whether it likes it or not. Indeed, Taiwan’s soft power since the mid-1990s has largely come from adhering to internationally agreed norms of behavior — open and largely incorrupt democracy, unrestricted media and respect for human rights. Basically, doing the opposite of China.
However, since Ramsay’s investigation Taiwan has carried out its first state executions in many years and been embroiled in bribery scandals involving state funds and the former presidents of Guatemala and Costa Rica. These incidents are bound to leave many Central Americans finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between Taiwan and China.
Colin Alexander is a doctoral candidate at the University of Leeds’ Institute of Communications Studies, focusing on Chinese and Taiwanese public diplomacy in Central America.
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