Wed, Sep 14, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan Academies a poor strategy

By Gary Rawnsley

As a close observer of Taiwan’s public diplomacy for almost 20 years, I recognize the government’s intentions in this area and respect them. Taiwan is in a very difficult international situation and must struggle to be heard by a world that on the whole chooses to avoid listening to it.

In such an environment, public diplomacy must remain an instrument of Taiwan’s foreign policy. In the absence of hard power — diplomatic recognition, international legitimacy and membership in leading international organizations — and with a contested sovereignty that involves a bigger and more powerful neighbor, Taiwan will only survive and prosper by devoting more attention and resources to the study and application of soft power.

However, my research has revealed a fundamental flaw in Taiwan’s current strategy, and this is the over-dependence on culture (ie, traditional Chinese culture) as the dominant theme in international communications and engagement.

The government has proposed establishing Taiwan Academies to help project this culture, teach traditional Chinese characters and history, and hence generate interest in the country. This, however, is a false logic.

The Taiwan Academies will not add any value or benefit to current endeavors and will certainly not alleviate the many serious problems facing Taiwan in the international arena.

The first reason is the academies demonstrate how Taiwan is trying to run before it can walk. Despite all the excellent work of the Government Information Office (which needs reorganizing, not abolishing), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Council of Cultural Affairs and the Tourism Bureau, few people across the world either know or care about Taiwan. Many would have great difficulty locating Taiwan on a map.

Why does the government think that the Taiwan Academies will make any difference? If no one knows where Taiwan is, why would they seek out and engage with the academies? Before Taiwan begins to think about creating anything resembling the academies, it is essential to first make sure the world is aware of Taiwan and starts to know its story.

The second reason the academies are a bad idea is the most important: They will be in direct competition with the Confucius Institutes of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The government and the civil service may assure me that this is not the case, and I concede that it is not Taiwan’s intention to engage in such competition. However, in the realm of public diplomacy, sometimes the intention is less significant than the message, and it is certainly less important than the perception of actions among global audiences.

For the international community the Taiwan Academies will be a direct competitor with the Confucius Institutes, and whatever the government says to the contrary will not make the slightest difference. This perception will make competition the story, and Taiwan’s good intentions will be ignored. Once again, Taiwan will be seen as lacking innovation and will be accused of simply riding the coattails of the PRC. (For example, why did the Taipei International Floral Expo use almost exactly the same five mascots as the 2008 Beijing Olympics? Did no one spot the similarity and consider how this would project a negative image of Taiwan?)

The academies are a symptom of a larger and more serious problem in Taiwan’s public diplomacy that has revealed itself during my research this year. Taiwan is telling the wrong story to the world. By emphasizing culture as the priority in the public diplomacy strategy — Taiwan as the preserver of traditional Chinese culture — it is missing the opportunity to define itself and tell a more exciting and relevant story that would generate international interest.

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