Taiwan with a Side of New Public Diplomacy

Written by Martin Mandl.

Image Credit: Pexels

Taiwanese Bubble Tea is back on the streets of Vienna. Approximately ten years ago, the first wave of the trendy beverage swept across Europe, before concerns over the healthiness of the drink dried out the market again almost overnight. Now it is back. Trendier than ever, it attracts a crowd maybe even too young to remember Bubble Tea’s first appearance here. Selfies are taken, social media channels flooded, and long queues endured to be part of the hype.

At about the same time as Bubble Tea made its first appearance in Vienna, President Ma Ying-jeou proclaimed “taking Taiwan’s food to the world a policy priority”. What followed was an economic stimulus plan, sometimes referred to by commentators as “All in Good Taste – Savour the Flavours of Taiwan”. This title is borrowed from a three-part documentary produced by the now-dissolved Government Information Office (GIO), Taiwan’s key public diplomacy agency at the time. The plan’s actual title was “Gourmet Taiwan 台灣美食國際化行動計畫” published by the National Development Council as part of the “Ten Key Service Industry Action Plans 十大重點服務業行動計畫” of 2010.

Gourmet Taiwan

Gourmet Taiwan is often seen as the starting point of Taiwan’s gastrodiplomacy, using food as a form of new public diplomacy. But it is merely an economic stimulus plan with a mandate to create jobs and generate private investment in new restaurants and international brands. As such, we might look at it from all kinds of angles, including gastronationalism and economic policy.

However, the plan’s augural vision hint at the gastrodiplomatic potential that comes with the economic promotion of Taiwan’s food. Gourmet Taiwan thus not only attempts to inspire “world cuisine to come together in Taiwan 世界美食匯集台灣” but also promote “Taiwanese food that the world admires 讓全球讚嘆的台灣美食”.

Now, the promotion of Taiwan’s food abroad is by no means an invention of the Ma-administration. Chen Yu-jen 陳玉箴 reminds us that “Taiwanese Cuisine 臺灣料理“ was already presented as a category for a localised cuisine versus a national (= Japanese) cuisine as early as 1898. But particularly after 2000, “Taiwanese cuisine became a symbol of nationhood”. In my research, I look at how this particular symbol is used in promoting Taiwan abroad.

Serving Taiwanese Gastrodiplomacy in German-Speaking Europe

The Taipei Representative Offices (TRO) are a crucial intermediary in Taiwan’s new public diplomacy. They fall under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) authority and operate on the ground in potential target countries. Therefore, the de-facto embassies translate Taipei’s new public diplomacy message for the local public with the help of multiplier networks. That is why I started my enquiry here.

There is one TRO located in each of the three capitals in German-speaking Europe: Bern, Berlin, and Vienna. All three of these offices provided regular newsletters (“Taiwan Nachrichten”) in 2017-18, distributed electronically to recipients in local governments, the media, universities, cultural institutions, NGOs, and interested individuals as well as to other embassies, Taiwanese ex-pats, and exchange students. The newsletters contain stories translated from Taiwan’s official media outlets, like Taiwan Today or Radio Taiwan International. Additional content is produced locally. 

In these newsletters, I found that food is most commonly presented in tourism-related articles, followed by event notes and articles presenting Taiwan’s culture. This is very much in line with the theory of gastrodiplomacy, wherein food is seen as an engaging and (politically) safe topic to discuss and promote. It also reflects the first three of Leonard, Stead, and Smewing’s four levels of public diplomacy impact: familiarisation, appreciation, and engagement. Once familiarised with the delicacies of Taiwan, you might consider engaging with the country in terms of visiting.

A Reoccurring Theme of Taiwanese Authenticity

In terms of the dishes mentioned, zongzi, oyster omelette, xiaolongbao-dumplings, and minced pork rice form a reoccurring theme of Taiwanese authenticity that is also coherently used beyond the newsletters. Out of these four, the oyster omelette is directly localised in Taiwan concerning Koxinga and his 17th-century Ming-loyalists. Otherwise, there is a surprising “absence” of China and the conflictual setting prevailing in other realms.

The indigenisation and localisation of Taiwan’s food that led to the symbolisation of nationhood is also visible in the newsletters. The presentation of Taiwan’s food is constantly linked to specific localities throughout Taiwan. The image created, therefore, also overcomes the traditional economic and political dichotomy of Taipei and Kaohsiung. When China is mentioned, it is used as a past source of food items that have evolved and changed since. The used narrative of Taiwan’s food creates a modern picture of a diversified and multifaceted Taiwan that “unites diverse influences […] of mainland China” (TRO Vienna newsletter 05/2017) and Japan. 

Taiwan’s Image Abroad as a Reflection of its Domestic Processes

The political processes and potential controversies that led to the creation of this particular picture are not part of my current research. I can only assume that political processes have shaped this image before its projection abroad. Somebody must have decided somewhere and thereby prioritised certain dishes and their respective cultural ancestry over others. Where – you might ask – is, for example, the representation of Austro-Polynesian traditions in this picture?

As a researcher, I am bound by a drive for conceptual clarity, which is of particular importance in an evolving field where food studies and political science meet. We should not use our newly developed concepts too liberally as we risk explaining nothing at all by trying to explain everything at once. 

I thus leave the above question open for future research. However, the processes behind shaping this picture likely reflect the current government and its own take on Taiwanese identity as they reflect the changing positions and sentiments within Taiwan.

At this year’s European Association of Taiwan Studies Annual Conference, I was asked what I make of the proliferation of gastrodiplomacy, particularly under the Ma administration. I doubt that the gastrodiplomatic effects of the Gourmet Taiwan programme were at the top of President Ma’s considerations when he made his statement. After all, it was initiated as a part of a larger economic stimulus plan, not a public diplomacy programme. However, I think that the promotion of Taiwan’s food for economic reasons was a safe enough topic to use in the ambiguity of his time. The Tsai administration might have noticed this now and presented the food-message with a new spin towards an independent Taiwanese identity. This only underlines the versatility of the topic. It also underlines why the study of Taiwan’s food matters in international relations as well as in domestic terms.

Martin Mandl is a University Assistant (prae-doc) at the University of Vienna, where he also teaches on the political systems and international relations of East Asia. A former hospitality manager, Martin’s research interests include the culinary culture(s) of East Asia, the role of food in the building of identity, and as a means for new public diplomacy. He is a passionate cook and brews his own ales. To exchange recipes and thoughts, you can reach Martin at martin.mandl@univie.ac.at.

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