A Taiwanese Soft Power?

Written by Nissim Otmazgin.

Image Credit: 自由廣場牌樓 by 政煌 郭/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It has been more than three decades since Harvard University Professor Joseph Nye coined the rhetorically invigorating term “soft power.” Fuelled by a wide range of academic and popular writing, this term—which was initially used to describe America’s ability to utilise its culture in international conduct—quickly left academics hands and has been swiftly incorporated into policy discourse in many parts of the world, 

For a rising power like China, and for countries wanting to increase international involvement like Japan and South Korea, soft power and image management has been viewed as an effective way to advance foreign policy goals, help win friends and allies, create understanding toward countries’ international position and advance their agenda.

 It is, therefore, no surprise that in Northeast Asia, the soft power argument has found a receptive audience. An audience comprised of journalists, academics, media personnel, politicians, and reform-minded bureaucrats eager to utilise this new and unexpected resource of power to initiate internal change and promote diplomacy in the world. 

However, what about Taiwan? Now that Taiwan has largely shed its Cold War KMT image and has gone through a democratisation process, it can project itself as a peaceful, prosperous, and above all, democratic country that might be a good ally for pro-democracy forces across the region? Given its regional setting in Northeast Asia, how does Taiwan tap into surrounding soft power competition and promote an international agenda? 

I spent the summer of 2017 in Taipei interviewing state officials who were involved in promoting Taiwan’s cultural diplomacy. I asked them questions about public diplomacy and soft power. I also asked them about Taiwanese culture and art and what the state should do to better its position abroad? In these interviews, two central soft power resources were repeatedly mentioned: democracy and culture

Taiwanese democracy, as these interviews defined them, includes a set of values such as the rule of law, human rights, social rights and the restraint of state power. According to the deputy minister for foreign affairs, “Taiwan as a model for the Chinese-speaking world in terms of social values: democracy, human rights, the rule of law, advanced social legislation like for the gay and lesbian rights… the first place in Asia where Journalists without borders set their office was Taiwan”. Other officials also voiced similar views. The head of the international relations committee at the DPP thinks that “Taiwan’s civil society should be celebrated and exposed as a basis for collaboration with other democratic countries using local governments as main actors”. According to another official, “Taiwan’s soft power should tell success stories: promote Taiwan as a vibrant democracy and a major technological innovative place” In this context, contemporary Taiwanese democracy was described as a product of its celebrated multiculturalism and bubbling civic energies rather than based solely on democratic legislation, institutions, or history.

The second major component viewed as an essential resource for soft power is culture. Hence, while there is general about the meaning of democratic values concerning soft power, things become more complicated on culture. There seems to be disagreement on what precisely Taiwanese culture is and thus what should be displayed. On the one hand, several interviewees argued that Chinese culture should be the core of Taiwanese cultural manifestation. In contrast, others state that Chinese culture is only one component that creates Taiwanese culture. According to the Chair of the National Culture and Art Foundation, “we cannot step in one place and just hold onto Chinese culture; we must develop Taiwanese culture as well” 

The different opinions about Taiwanese culture concern nuance and the politically contentious topic about Taiwan’s relations with Mainland China. Moreover, from the outset, it relates to whether Taiwan is a multicultural society. 

Specifically, this division generally runs along party lines – KMT supporters vs DPP supporters. Former President Ma Ying-jeou (KMT) argued that Taiwanese culture is “Chinese culture with Taiwanese characteristics” For President Ma, Chinese culture is obviously the foundation of Taiwanese culture. Similarly, the former national policy adviser under the KMT regime argued that “we cannot ignore we are part of the Confucius civilisation. Therefore, when Chinese come to Taiwan, they feel at home”In this sense, they both see Taiwan’s role as “preserving traditional Chinese culture” and promoting it abroad in such ways as dispatching calligraphy and other traditional art forms. 

The DPP-affiliated officials viewed Taiwanese culture differently. According to the former Minister for Culture and a member of the DPP, Chinese culture only provides “the nutrition for Taiwanese culture, together with local, indigenous, Japanese and even Dutch and Spanish components, as well as American contemporary influence”. He thus viewed Taiwanese culture as a mixture of cultures that needs to be reshaped and refined, but a culture that by no means is dominated by Chinese culture. In a similar vein, according to the Chair of the National Culture and Arts Foundation, the biggest challenge for the Foundation is to develop and present original Taiwanese culture with distinguished characteristics: 

“of course, we have links to the mainland but Chinese culture is only one component of our culture, certainly not all…we also have our own indigenous culture as well as Dutch and Japanese heritage and heavy American influences… Recently we also absorb influences from Southeast Asia…in this sense we are a multicultural society (多文化會) with a special island composure.”

Interestingly, in these interviews, not enough attention was given to media industries role in attaining soft power and how they apply to Taiwanese contemporary culture and lifestyle. As we know, from Japan and Korea, the most vital marriage is between soft power and pop culture. This provides these countries with vast soft-power resources and the ability to present to global audiences, especially young people. When asked about the reluctance of incorporating pop culture into Taiwan’s soft power strategy, one official commented that there is a decline in the film industry, and less than 20 movies are produced every year. However, it seems that the answer is even more straightforward than that. It concerns a lack of interest or knowledge of policymakers in displaying contemporary and not traditional cultures abroad. 

In summary, soft power is a tool to convey a state’s core values and ideology and to serve as its front window abroad. For Taiwan, developing a proactive soft power policy can help it gain international legitimacy amid continuous pressure from Beijing by emphasising its economic and democratic achievements as well as its culture. However, Taiwan faces several institutional constraints and an overall lack of interest in promoting a proactive soft power policy. Taiwan seems to be in a transition period between old thinking about diplomacy and culture and new attempts to utilise its soft power resources in the service of bettering its international relations.  

One critical point remains regarding the issue of culture, and more specifically, which Taiwanese culture to display? The disagreement about what Taiwanese culture is and if Taiwan is home to a multicultural society means that Taiwan’s soft power strategy lacks one of its central components – culture. Everyone agrees that culture is essential for Taiwan’s foreign diplomacy, but what is Taiwanese culture and how to display it remains vague.

Nissim Otmazgin Head of the Institute for Asian and African Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Regionalizing Culture: the Political Economy of Japanese Popular Culture in Asia (University of Hawaii Press, 2013) and The Anime Boom in the US: Lessons for Global Creative Industries (with Michal Daliot-Bul, Harvard University East Asia Press, 2017). He can be reached at nissim.otmazgin@mail.huji.ac.il

This article was published as part of EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan special issue. All articles in the special issue can be found here.

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