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Competing for soft power in Asia

South Korea’s Preisdent Park Geun-hye (right) receives official Chinese letters from Liu Yandong, an official of the Communist Party of China.
13 March 2013
South Korea’s Preisdent Park Geun-hye (right) receives official Chinese letters from Liu Yandong, an official of the Communist Party of China.

Public diplomacy rarely boosts the ‘soft power’ of Asian states, write IAN HALL and FRANK SMITH.

There are two arms races in Asia today: one for military capabilities and another for the weapons of what Joseph S Nye famously termed ‘soft power’ – the power to attract rather than the power to coerce.

Today, Asian states are increasingly investing in public diplomacy, aiming to shape foreign public opinion in ways that make it easier for them to attain their overseas objectives. A variety of instruments – ranging from traditional cultural and academic exchanges to innovative applications of social media – are now being used by states in order to make themselves appear more attractive to overseas publics and thereby increase their ability to influence international relations in their region.

China has led the way, beginning in the late 1990s, and now stands as the region’s largest investor in various supposed instruments of soft power. In the space of about15 years, it has created new foreign language TV stations, revamped its management of the foreign media, surged its student exchange programs, founded some 320 Confucius Institutes at overseas universities (with plans for another 1,000), and played host to a series of major events, including the Olympic Games.

Other Asian states have responded in kind. Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore and South Korea have all started spending significant sums on various aspects of public diplomacy. Even Myanmar has set up an English language TV stations and acquired a social media presence. South Korea is expanding the number of King Sejong Institutes, tasked with promoting Korean language and culture, from about 35 to 150 by 2015. Other states are developing sophisticated online initiatives, utilising not just traditional websites, but also instruments like Facebook and Twitter.

Why are Asian states doing this? What motives are at work? What is the current state of play? Does public diplomacy really build soft power?

We find that Asian states are investing in soft power for several different reasons. Some government officials seem to believe that public diplomacy works the way theorists suggest, generating soft power for states.

Others seem to believe that public diplomacy is just the right thing to do in a world where the barriers between people seem to be breaking down, creating a need for supposedly more democratic forms of diplomatic engagement.

And then, there are those that are sceptical of the claims made by enthusiasts for public diplomacy, but who are investing in it anyway, just in case a regional competitor does the same and happens to gain a soft power advantage.

These motives are driving Asian investments in public diplomacy.

The problem is that there is little evidence to suggest that these investments  actually increase soft power.

This is particularly true for China. The evidence shows that, despite all of its expenditure on public diplomacy, China has not improved its standing in foreign public opinion inside Asia. Indeed, most poll data suggests that China’s reputation in the region has worsened rather than improved. Furthermore, when we look to other states in the region, we see no favourable or obvious relationship between spending on public diplomacy and soft power status.

We conclude that public diplomacy lacks obvious benefits to states. We suggest instead that foreign public opinion in Asia, as elsewhere, is influenced more by what states do than by what they might say about themselves. In short, good or bad behaviour seems to matter far more in the region’s struggle for soft power than good or bad ‘spin’.

‘The Struggle for Soft Power in Asia: Public Diplomacy and Regional Competition’ is published in the latest issue of Asian Security.

Dr Ian Hall is a Senior Fellow in International Relations in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at the ANU College of Asia and the PacificDr Frank Smith is a Lecturer in the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney.



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