Gastrodiplomacy in Contemporary International Relations of Asia and Its Relationship to Everyday Nationalism: A Reflection on the Gastronomic Campaigns of Taiwan, Thailand, and South Korea

Written by Fatimaah J Menefee.

Image credit: Taiwan by Jasmin Örtel/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Culinary diplomacy, food diplomacy, gastronationalism, and gastrodiplomacy are applied liberally to describe food and diplomacy in contemporary international relations. Culinary Arts as a medium in diplomacy dates to the genesis of humankind. Consider Peaches of Immortality, protected by the Queen Mother in Ancient China, that served as a reward to all faithful mortals and immortals. Insidiously, through the diplomacy of force, colonial powers created edible colonies to fulfil economic and food security concerns. At the same time, another phenomenon occurred, food morphed into an edible oppressive tool of reforming colonies to mirror the former empire.


It sits between everyday life’s political and daily practices through a globalisation impact that pushes the state’s image outside. Thus, the national branding and labelling of food are found everywhere, conveying a particular image of the nation, constructing and reproducing it in our everyday lives. Edible gestures by state and non-state actors create gastronomic spheres that attract and preserve national identity. Everyday nationalism allows for an understanding and cohesiveness of food culture that incorporates the material and non-material. However, states cannot successfully move their food into a national brand without a variety of non-state actors, including the necessary approval of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). The stamp of approval means a states’ edibles are protected and recognised as an intangible cultural heritage asset.


This paper focuses on Taiwan, Thailand, and South Korea, three edible colonies that provided economic and health security for Japan.

The three different strategies in campaign efforts by Taiwan, Thailand, and South Korea rely on the range of diversity inclusion of non-state actors working cohesively with the state. Non-state actors can penetrate multiple networks of engagement that might not always be accessible to the state. The influence of China in the United Nations blocks the Taiwanese ability to engage with food in a manner that has worked for South Korea. Taiwan relies only on ministries and the business community internally to project edible nationalism. Thailand is not vulnerable to the power of China at UNESCO. However, there have yet to agree on a designated cuisine or culinary practice. Thailand, like Taiwan, receives support from ministries and the business community. In this example, South Korea is the only state to work actively with ministries, non-state actors, and the business community to engage and execute edible campaign efforts successfully. The rewards of working on a unified plan have positively impacted South Korea with the UNESCO stamp of approval.

Taiwan

A non-traditional state that resides in a complicated neighbourhood surrounded by states that exercise a diplomatic force that is metaphorically labelled as a dark, hard, soft, smart, and sticky power. A former edible colony of the Americans, Dutch, and Japan. The dark power presence of China requires alternative engagements through complex networks. In 2010, the Ministry of Economic Affairs under the Ma Ying-Jeou administration invested $34.2 million to promote Taiwanese dim sum gastrodiplomacy worldwide.

Food was pushed outside as a form of everyday nationalism with help from internal non-state actors such as restaurant chains, culinary food tanks, international gourmet festivals, and food franchises. Unfortunately, despite herculean efforts, the lack of Taiwanese recognition within the United Nations provides a critical gap. Still, the non-state actor Michelin Guide has contributed to the international recognition of Taiwanese cuisine.

Thailand

Prime Minister Pibulsongkram’s twelve cultural mandates (Rattha Niyom) are meant to unify the Thai population and civilise the population to protect food identity. Under Minister Thaksin Shinawatra administration, the Global Thai program was launched to increase Thai restaurants globally. Bank and government agencies were part of these efforts to push food as a form of everyday nationalism. As of writing, the Thai Select campaign produced 15,000 restaurants globally, a projection of 41.4 million tourists that contributed 2.21 trillion baht, an increase of 38.27 million tourists 2018. Currently, Thai food is not recognised by UNESCO. Campaign efforts have started with Culture Minister Itthiphol Kunplome to push for the recognition of Tom Yam Kung.

South Korea

Another edible colony of Japan, South Korea, invested over $110 million to push their cuisine globally with state intervention in 2010. It happened while the presidential council of nation branding crafted strategies on pushing the nation brand globally. Internally, non-state actors such as Kimchi Institutes, Museums, and Universities branded kimchi as a functional probiotic food. Efforts were rewarded with Kimchi recognition from UNESCO as belonging to both Koreas. Bibimbap Backpackers program received financial support from one of the largest chaebols CJ to serve bibimbap in 40 countries, Ivy League universities in the United States, United Kingdom, Silicon Valley with the slogan, “Eat Bibimbap once a week and take care of your health.” The campaign also included participants from regional governments, non-state actors, and the United Nations.

Most kimchi consumed in Korea is made in China. In late 2020, the war for kimchi heated up with China granted certification from the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO) to legally protect the Sichuan fermented cabbage dish, pao cai. State media reported this as “an international standard for the kimchi industry led by China.” However, the Korean Ministry of Agriculture defended their edible asset by referring to the UN agreement of kimchi authenticity as Korean in 2001.


In This Century of Diplomacy, How Edible Is Your Nation Brand?

For the aforementioned states, food morphed into an edible tool of force for the aim of colonial security. As a result of this trauma, the present is a turning point in their efforts towards “diplomacy of influence” vs “diplomacy of force.” The processes behind edible gestures from former edible colonies, including non-state actors, have created gastronomic spheres that preserve and rejuvenate national identity, “the act of eating the “people’s food” to create a sense of identity with the population speaks to the symbolic power of food…” Gaps in the usefulness of Taiwan’s efforts to be an edible national brand result from China’s dark and smart power. Despite this gap, through the non-state actor Michelin, 28 Taiwan restaurants have received a Michelin star rating. Consequently, “International visitors have voted the culinary scene in Taiwan the No. 1 reason the nation is worth visiting, Minister of Transportation and Communications Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) …The publication of the new guide, featuring restaurants in Taichung, “shows that Taiwan has other attractive and multicultural cities, aside from the capital.” The challenge for Thailand is pushing past the stage of getting numerous restaurants into international recognition.

Additionally, the image of Thailand with ongoing issues of military and human rights concerns is a dent to any edible nation brand efforts. South Korea has also experienced challenges with the Kimchi wars. However, the rewards of serving Hansik and Hallyu strategically with assistance from celebrities and K-pop star brought $3.6billion to the economy.

Fatimaah J Menefee is a PhD student at the University of Central Lancashire. She serves as a consultant with ESE & SEGYE, a consulting firm that works with the branding of African countries in East Asia.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s