In the aftermath of Panama’s announcement to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan and establish official relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen—seemingly undeterred—reportedly said: “Using its excellent soft power, Taiwan can develop substantial and solid relations with all countries of the world, allowing them to experience the value of exchanges with Taiwan.” To be sure, Taipei’s international space continues to be challenged by Beijing’s unrelenting efforts to squeeze Taiwan out of the global stage. Consequently, soft power may be an important tool for Taiwan’s unique diplomatic situation.
Whether or not Taiwan is fully utilizing its soft power resources—including the promotion of its democracy—to effectively counter challenges to its international space warrants closer inspection. Soft power is defined as “the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion” through culture, domestic values, and foreign policy. In contrast with a country’s military and economic might, soft power is able to strengthen a nation’s international standing through the promotion of its values to foreign publics. Given China’s military and economic influence in the region and the world, tapping into soft power resources to enhance Taiwan’s image is of the utmost importance. Moreover, governments alone are no longer the sole implementers of public diplomacy. Indeed, “cultural industries, religious and humanitarian organizations, nongovernmental organizations, student groups, and civil society activities” can also promote Taiwan’s image abroad.
Taiwan, however, faces both external and internal challenges: most notably the China factor and Taiwan’s debate over the country’s national identity. After Taiwan’s loss of membership in the United Nations in 1971 and US de-recognition in 1979, soft power and public diplomacy became critical in maintaining partnerships with other countries, given its precarious international standing. Under Chiang Kai-shek’s rule, Taiwan’s most important soft power asset was his wife, Soong Mei-ling (宋美齡), who was ultimately able to gain US support through her grace and charm with the American people.
Under the leadership of his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, Taiwan’s political elites launched top-down political liberalization as a nascent soft power strategy to appeal to and secure the support of liked-minded countries. Lee Teng-hui’s presidency pursued a Taiwanization campaign with the wide support from the Taiwanese people. Lee’s public speech at his alma mater, Cornell University, focused heavily on Taiwan’s democracy. Chen Shui-bian emphasized Taiwan’s democratic successes in his foreign policy strategy, which included the establishment of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.
With China’s rise and retaliation against these public diplomacy efforts, Ma Ying-jeou instead highlighted Taiwan as the best preserver of Chinese culture—more specifically, of traditional Chinese characters—and created 12 Taiwan Academies in Asia, Europe, and North America through the newly established Ministry of Culture. Yet, in terms of sheer size and volume, Taiwan’s cultural organizations cannot compete with those of the PRC, which includes China’s campaign to establish a vast network of 513 Confucius Institutes around the world that also promote Chinese language and culture. By showcasing Taiwan’s unique convergence of aboriginal, Western, Chinese, Japanese, and now Southeast Asian influences, Taiwan’s public diplomacy may be able to garner more support by showcasing its diversity.
Voted into office based on the platform of preserving the status quo and reinvigorating Taiwan’s economy after the 2014 Sunflower Movement, President Tsai’s cross-Strait policy has been relatively moderate in comparison to his predecessors. During her inauguration address, Tsai referred to the so-called “1992 Consensus” as a historical meeting in 1992 between both sides of the Taiwan Strait, which demonstrated her goodwill towards China despite the pro-independence platform of the Democratic Progressive Party. Through this middle-ground approach, she became the head of the General Association of Chinese Culture (中華文化總會) and spearheaded the New Southbound Policy—which focuses on people-to-people exchanges with 18 nations in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Australasia—thus demonstrating Tsai’s emphasis on the importance of cultural exchanges around the world, including those with China.
In a recent interview with Taiwan’s Deputy Minister of Culture, Dr. Pierre Tzu-pao Yang (楊子葆), he noted that Taiwan is moving away from the term ‘soft power’ and instead focusing on cultural exchanges and interactions because of the realities governing Taiwan’s place in the US-China context. In contrast to Chen’s approach of emphasizing an independent, separate Taiwanese identity and Ma’s reliance on Chinese culture and heritage, Tsai’s strategy appears to be an inclusive approach that integrates indigenous ethnic groups, Hakka, and Southeast Asian cultures to highlight Taiwan’s increasingly diverse society. This can be seen in Washington, DC where Taiwan’s embassy recently featured a movie that depicted the lives of three children from a remote aboriginal tribe at the Washington, DC International Film Festival, and contemporary artwork by central Taiwanese artist, Hung Yi, at CityCenter DC to share the island’s stories. This suggests a balanced, realistic approach for Tsai’s public diplomacy, given environmental constraints.
The PRC views Taiwan’s democracy as an existential threat in part because its acceptance of shared values creates more opportunities for Taipei to partner with the United States, Japan, and other like-minded democracies. In essence, public diplomacy with Taiwanese characteristics is an extension of Taiwan’s domestic politics, its relationship with China, and the larger US-Taiwan-China relationship. The internal and external environments that influence Taiwan’s approach to public diplomacy and Tsai Ing-wen’s outreach to the world have been moderate, generating a moderate approach that utilizes diversity to build ties around the world by celebrating Taiwan’s different cultural, ethnic, and minority groups.
Main point: Given Taiwan’s political, cultural, and strategic constraints, Tsai’s public diplomacy has been a moderate approach, compared to Chen Shui-bian’s more deliberate push of promoting Taiwan’s democracy and Ma Ying-jeou’s promotion of traditional Chinese culture. Tsai’s focus on exchanges and branding Taiwan’s diverse culture is her well-balanced contribution.