Soft Power: Taiwan’s Fundamental Instrument to Accomplish Global Recognition

Taiwan is a classic case to study the case of soft power as it has thrived on it and created a buzz worldwide because of its governance model. 

Soft power, a term coined by Joseph Nye in the 1980s, is how a state can influence others without coercion. It is also the ability to shape preferences in their favor. The three pillars of soft power are political values, culture, and foreign policy. For example, the US was able to spread its soft power through their dominance of popular media and the attractiveness of their universities which attracted international students and academic exchanges. The liberal values and economic prowess embodied by the US charmed like minded states in joining hands.  Soft power, as opposed to hard power–which is about military and economic might–in International Relations (IR) is about building persuasive networks and communications.

Having the ability to entice and attract, in behavioral contexts, other cultures, states and organizations is a powerful instrument of public diplomacy to engage with the citizens through broadcasting, cultural exports, and organizing exchanges. If a state’s values are not appealing to the people of other nations, public diplomacy is less impactful–even if the government there is receptive that advances them won’t be appealing. For example, Hu Jintao, the former Chairman of People’s Republic of China (PRC) was the first to speak publicly about China’s public diplomacy to advance soft power. China established Confucius Institutes (CI) on college campuses around the world to teach Mandarin and spread Chinese influence. However, they became controversial for advancing China’s political interests that clashed with the free speech traditions of the host nations.  As a result, it led to backlash and blacklisting of many CIs. On top of that, China’s territorial assertiveness with neighboring states and its military muscle-flexing in the Himalayas, South China Sea (SCS), and around Taiwan soured their soft power efforts.                                              

Giving leeway to civil society is a key to the flourishing of soft power; it is culture (a set of practices) that fosters the popularity of a society and gives meaning to intercultural interactions. In contemporary context, information has emerged as a new facet of power improving the mechanism of public diplomacy. Therefore, this article attempts to underscore the importance of Taiwan’s soft power, proposing an array of specific solutions.

Because of Chinese interference, Taiwan is not recognized as a sovereign state in the international community. However, Taiwan has all the soft power fundamentals of public diplomacy, foreign policy, and civil society interactions.  Economically, Taiwan has a crucial role in the worldwide supply chain. Culturally, Taiwan’s influence from bubble tea to popular culture has expanded significantly. Taiwan is a model of liberal values, good governance and kept its integrity through political suasion, and public diplomacy. It actively mediates diplomatic disputes employing moral norms and not by the patronage of military or economic sanctions. Having visa-free access to 146 states displays the success of Taiwan’s foreign policy, utilizing intellectuals and skills.  Taiwan’s political values, such as the rule of law, social rights, human rights, and advanced social legislation for the LGBT community reflects its progressiveness, making it a naturally fit partner for like-minded states. To boost its soft power, Taiwan should leverage its good governance model by not only interacting with foreign heads of state but also by targeting NGOs/organizations, as that enhances two-way communication and raises the opportunities to understand others mindsets. Public diplomacy– Track II diplomacy and digital diplomacy–are the two contemporary tools Taiwan should utilize to reach people beyond governments. Media and social media should be used effectively as a technological arm of efficacy by strategizing and converting its bases of anomalous power, which increases the chances of virtual enlargement and influence. For example, the Taipei-based Taiwan Digital Diplomacy Association (TDDA) is promoting Taiwan overseas to create awareness and increase the likelihood of Taiwan’s global engagement. More such activism and active platforms would do wonders in promoting and creating a favorable influence of Taiwan’s soft power. 

President Tsai Ing- wen shares a photo of her at the Taj Mahal (Tsai Ing-wen Twitter photo)

Taiwan needs to have a strategy that can underscore its unique model of good governance interconnected with smart governance. Its flagship New South Bound (NSB) foreign policy launched in 2016 stipulates strengthening relations with targeted Southeast and South Asian states in multiple areas of education, medical infrastructure, tourism, development assistance. This is the opportune moment for Taiwan to share its smart governance in handling the pandemic, which has become a model and won appraisal worldwide. Taiwan has shown to the world that with the fusion of three elements–technology, activism and civic participation–a constructive partnership can exist between democracy and technology. It is certainly a success story that deserves to be told. Taiwan’s promptness in implementing 124 action items and wise decisions on efficient contact tracing and quarantine enforcement by using big data facilitated rapid communications, which helped in containing the risk of infection. Taiwan’s soft power modus operandi in providing humanitarian assistance by donating facial masks and ventilators to many states under the #TaiwaCanHelp campaign displays its timely effectiveness towards the international community. Pandemic has changed the contours of the existing relationships between states, however, Taiwan’s transparent approach to health crisis management is a model that will resonate with most states, and could interest them in advancing ties in the post-pandemic era. 

Embarking upon cultural diplomacy is another alternative Taiwan should strive to thrive at. In order to be distinguished as different from China, gathering information on international opinions, international broadcasting and reading the moods of others should be the focus to increase advocacy in promoting Taiwan’s culture. A soft power public discourse on Taiwan’s identity through amiable platforms should be fostered as that would underscore the distinctiveness and help facilitate cultural transmission abroad. Taiwan’s international diplomatic space is constrained, but that should not be an obstacle to stop Taiwan from successfully utilizing its developmental experiences to promote its soft power and its model of good governance by connecting through the conventional government-to-government diplomacy and cross-cultural exchanges. 

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