As a researcher, I often sigh over Taiwan’s current diplomatic predicament. In particular, it looks as if President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration may not know where the nation’s diplomatic strengths lie or how to put them to good use.
During the 2008 presidential election campaign, Ma pledged that if he were elected, cultural concerns would guide his policies.
He emphasized that Taiwan’s key strength is its cultural heritage, and that as a small country, it can only compete with large countries and push for sustainable development by making use of its cultural heritage.
In 2011, in response to the rapidly growing number of China’s Confucius Institutes (孔子學院), Taiwan established Taiwan Academies (台灣書院) in the three largest cities in the US as a step toward its goal of “cultural diplomacy.”
However, just like China’s Confucius Institutes, Taiwan Academies are haunted by politics. Therefore, the establishment of the academies overseas has not been as smooth as expected. Especially in certain countries with close relations with China, the academies are often named Chinese-language schools, instead of Taiwan Academies.
If the government really wanted to push ahead with its cultural diplomacy, it could use Taiwan’s rich experience and strength in Chinese-language education to establish Taiwan Education Centers (台灣教育中心) focusing on Chinese-language training and use that as a means to achieve the goals of the Taiwan academies.
However, the Ministry of Education clearly lacks the determination to push for such a policy, and it even seems to want to reject Ma’s ambitions.
As a result, the ministry has closed or reduced the size of Taiwan Education Centers in several Asian countries, including Vietnam, South Korea and Thailand, claiming that the schools’ performance was poor. The move has caused a lot of international criticism that Taiwan is breaking its promises.
Ironically, the ministry has actually increased the number of Taiwan Education Centers that do not teach Chinese language in Japan and the US.
Former minister of education Wu Ching-ji (吳清基) once promised to establish five Taiwan Education Centers in India, but the ministry broke that promise and reduced the number of centers to two, using administrative means to amend the related regulations and blaming insufficient resources.
Even worse, a key education official bluntly said that the global advancement of Chinese-language education is not the ministry’s responsibility.
The fact is that the ministry’s policy thinking does not include an overall strategy for cultural diplomacy, and it is trying to shirk its responsibilities.
Such shortsighted bureaucratic attitudes are killing the possibility for Taiwan to give full play to its influence through cultural diplomacy that would be able to help expand the nation’s international space.
If the situation remains unchanged, Ma will not be able to achieve his goal of letting cultural concerns guide policy. Such half-baked cultural diplomacy would only serve to increase Taiwan’s problems.
Chang Chi-shin is a post-doctoral research fellow in the Institute of Law for Science and Technology at National Tsing Hua University.
Translated by Eddy Chang