To What Extent does the National Identity Matter to Public Diplomacy Strategy?

In East Asia – Comparing China and Taiwan.


The international community shares an intention for maintaining peace. Cooperation and setting up institutions have become increasingly important because non-traditional diplomatic strategies have been beneficial in many countries to help work together without raging war. This is particularly apparent in East Asia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the power vacuum left behind raised concerns about who would fill it in. New conflicts were feared in the regions as a consequence of this. However, the strong growth of the economies in the region led to an endeavour in public diplomacy rather than in raging war. China emerged as a regional power and has been eager to build its image as a responsible and peaceful power to its neighbours. In 2003 Hu, Jing-Tao asserted that China’s rising is a peaceful development and he shaped China’s image in domestic and foreign media. However, China’s public diplomacy did not achieve to erase the doubts in its neighbours over its systemic rivalries. In what way has China failed in public diplomacy to brand its image? In my opinion, it is the development of nationalism that has continued to pose a threat to foreign states. This leads to the question of whether the establishment of a national identity is a hindrance to a strategy of public diplomacy. On the contrary, in Taiwan, the generational change of national identity seems to be important to its public diplomacy strategy. It is the development of a national identity that is the key to the success of public diplomacy in East Asia. To put this in perspective I will review the historical literature of East Asia's identities to this region's security to verify China's motivations in investing in a public diplomatic policy, which I will then compare to Taiwan's case of developing a strategy of public diplomacy.

by Yung Lin


East Asia’s perception of security

In international relations, it is security that determines every state’s action and interaction. To a realist, the structure of security is constructed by every state's defence budget, military practices, and the advancement of weapon technology. To a liberalist, security can be managed by setting up an institution. However, in East Asia, neither of them explains this region's security background. The reason for this is that this region has developed the perception of common security in a distinguished way.


Is East Asia prone to wars?

After the fall of the Soviet Union, there had been a discussion on whether East Asia was ripe for rivalries due to the change of power distribution. In Bercovitch’s Unraveling Internal Conflicts in East Asia and the Pacific, he provided vivid figures showing the patterns of conflicts. In figure 1, he reveals that even though the number of conflicts in East Asia increased in the 90s, many of these ended soon after 2000. Moreover, in figure 2, he points out that these conflicts are mostly internal rather than international. The prediction that East Asia would be the next conflict hotspot failed to explain the security dynamics; however, these two figures show that East Asian states may still struggle in protecting their sovereignty, and stabilizing their society. Tevini stated that East Asian states were in the process of building their nation. Although realists fail on this point, liberalists have a different view and think that East Asia is in the 19th Century of Europe and will eventually be set on a path like the EU.



Figure 1 & 2 sources: Bercovitch, J., & DeRouen, Jr., Karl. (2011). Unravelling internal conflicts in East Asia and the Pacific. The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.


The sovereignty issue is not only the difference between ASEAN and the EU but also the fact that identity is the key to this region's security structure.

Will East Asia set up an institution like the EU?

An institution like the European Union is considered to be a success in managing a region's international relations and setting up a dialogue mechanism for member states to talk rather than fight. However, the figures again show that in the same period, there were more intrastate conflicts in Europe than in East Asia. The Yugoslavian countries were also in the process of building their nation but why did the conflicts go beyond borders? It is therefore not a strong argument for East Asia to develop a trajectory like an EU model, as the European model is simply not universal and has been overstated for this homogeneity. One may argue that the creation of ASEAN is a way to follow up, but its lack of security discourse does not justify its function. It is again leading to the fact that these states’ shared sense of the region's security is different from the EU. The sovereignty issue is not only the difference between ASEAN and the EU but also the fact that identity is the key to this region's security structure.


East Asia's definition of security is social and economic dimensions.

The Asia economic miracles have convinced East Asian states to focus on the region's reciprocity. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia doubled their economic growth compared to other states in the region in 1965 – 1990. Japan started the goose flying model but failed due to historical hostility and distrust. Despite Japan's security alliance with the US, it still holds on to a reserved attitude towards its military policy. Herein, it shows that Japan's identities to this region's security are not restricted to military power but more on the social and economic dimension. China's rise is perhaps taken as a replacement to Japan's role in East Asia. However, China emphasized many times that its rise is peaceful for the region's permanent stability. Neither Japan nor China was willing to take on the leadership role because of historical complexities. This again reveals that East Asia’s security is more on the social and economic dimensions and hence maintaining stability and peace becomes important. China has focused on soft power and public diplomacy strategy.


China's motivations in conducting public diplomatic policy

Why does China take on soft power?

The Chinese discourse of soft power derives from the US after the cold war. China considers the US soft power to be an effective policy. However, it has interpreted and implemented soft power by its historical culture and spirits, which is constituted more than Nye’s definition of soft power.


First, soft power in terms of behaviour, China involves its traditional morals. For example, ‘不戰而屈人之兵’ is a concept advocated by an ancient Chinese military strategist, 孫子, Sun Zi. It means to defeat the enemy without waging a war. An ancient Chinese philosopher, Mencius, 孟子, upholds a governing tactic ‘王道’ meaning the kingly way as well as governing by morals instead of forces. In this sense, this definition of Chinese soft power encompassing ancient Chinese philosophy is wider than Nye’s definition of soft power. Second, soft power in terms of resources, China has integrated different components of culture, political values and foreign policy. In culture, China stresses upon traditional culture while Nye focuses more on the contemporary culture of the US soft power. China fills its cultural traditions, language, literature, philosophy, medicine, cuisine, and art into soft power resources, which then has been promoted through the Confucius Institute to the world. In political values, the US spreads liberal democracy but China produces an economic development model. Although China claims that many developing countries welcome the idea of a development model, it remains contested for its political strategy in the world of liberal-democratic world. In foreign policy, China considers its peaceful rising power to be attractive though raising doubts for its ignoring international law and order.


China’s public diplomacy has changed to even more nationalist in the last decade.

To sum up, China boasts about its various components of the Chinese identity for its soft power interpretation featuring its definition with ancient morals and traditional culture, an economic development model as well as the contested diplomatic style. In doing so it is not imitating the US way of implementing soft power but building its national identity. This can also be seen in China’s public diplomacy strategy.


Unwrapping China’s public diplomacy

China’s public diplomacy has changed to even more nationalist in the last decade. Since President Xi JinPing took the office, China’s public diplomacy strategy focuses more on spreading out its political values. China’s public diplomacy strategy has since then become harder because it has been more controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, which can be seen from the more political content of the public diplomacy strategy.


From 2008 Olympic game to 2020 COVID19 outbreak

When it was China’s turn to host the Olympic game in 2008, it was an opportunity for China to broadcast its image to the world. In a banner stated “擁有百年機遇, 實現百年夢想” literally translates to “having the opportunity in a hundred year, realizing this dream for a hundred year”. China took this opportunity to start its national establishment of the citizenry particularly in four aspects: supporting the nation, hygienic behaviour, good manners, and speaking English. This enormous civilization movement not only reinforces Chinese nationalistic development but also projects an image of China to a foreign audience.


The world pays attention to China not solely on the cultural perspective (language, literature, cuisine...etc.) but also on human rights, regional relationships, and rule of law; hence, a more nationalist public diplomacy strategy does not help in building a friendly image.

At the beginning of 2020, just at the start of the Chinese New Year, the lockdown of Wuhan shocked not only China but also the world. Moreover, within 3 months, it struck the world and caused health and economic damage. Various accidents or attacks on Asian-looking people in the US, UK and Europe have again questioned the effectiveness of China’s image building. Why has China’s effort and investment in nation-building not advanced its friendly image?


Despite incorporating Chinese history and culture in public diplomacy, China has not exerted this soft power in a friendly cultural way. It focused so much on itself and was still in the process of developing its image to its citizens. It is trying to propose its way to structure the international relations system but to the outer world, it is forming more conflicts.


Challenges for China’s public diplomacy strategy

First, foreign audiences are complex focus groups. Sending out the message should contain multiplex dimensions. The world pays attention to China not solely on the cultural perspective (language, literature, cuisine...etc.) but also on human rights, regional relationships, and rule of law; hence, a more nationalist public diplomacy strategy does not help in building a friendly image.


Second, sending out Chinese language teachers and policies to foreign countries has not been working as a cultural interaction but more likely as a conflict formation. Take the Confucius Institute for example. It is established simply because the name, Confucius, is worldwide notable but it is criticized for not teaching the real spirit of Confucianism but only the language. More importantly, it is contested for being a political mission rather than a culture-promoting agency. Many Confucius institutes in Europe have been closed down for the propaganda of disputed political values. China shapes culture to be an instrument promoting the Chinese Communist Party. Again, it reveals that China’s public diplomacy has gone more political.


In this sense, China’s approach to public diplomacy goes against peacebuilding with the world.

Third, it is inevitable to see that China’s authoritarian political system is highly relevant to its foreign policy, which is a hindrance to its peaceful rising image. The more nationalist approach is detrimental to a state’s public diplomacy because it makes the state less willing to learn about developing relations with foreign countries. In this sense, China’s approach to public diplomacy goes against peacebuilding with the world.


To sum up, in China, conducting a more nationalist public diplomacy will influence the effectiveness of public diplomacy strategy. However, in East Asia, there is another case, Taiwan, in need of a solid national identity to implement public diplomacy.


Taiwan’s case of developing public diplomacy strategies

Taiwan doesn’t have the advantage of the world’s attention like China but does need more visibility in the international community; thus, promoting public diplomacy is crucial. However, boasting of various soft power resources does not give Taiwan its expected result because it is thwarted a lot by the government’s efforts.


Unwrapping Taiwan’s public diplomacy strategy

Taiwan has enviable resources stemming from its culture and recent history waiting to be mobilized. First, Taiwan has already a good image in some countries such as the US. The US acknowledges Taiwan’s participation in the international community and maintains unofficial diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Plus, the advocacy of Taiwan’s NGOs engaging in diplomacy plays an indispensable role; for example, Formosan Association for Public Affairs, which has gradually developed to become a communication platform for Taiwan and the US.


Second, Taiwan has a precious political resource, democracy, which is the key element to building up a friendly image to the world. The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy engages in the international agenda on subjects such as human rights, security, economy and development with other countries. Third, Taiwan has a vast amount of economic resources. Sending agricultural practitioners overseas is a vivid example. However, the challenge of Taiwan’s public diplomacy is that it has not seen its expected effectiveness yet.


In a nutshell, Taiwan has advanced resources in public diplomacy but has fallen short of the approach to project an image of Taiwan’s identity.

The problems of Taiwanese public diplomacy thwart its international status. It should enhance the visibility of these high-quality resources. First, although it has a good image in the US, statistics show that only 29% of Americans know that Taiwan is a democratic state. Second, democracy is a selling point, but Taiwan should broaden the dimensions of democracy. It is not only about the political system but also about democratic values of LGBT rights, aboriginal survival, immigration and grassroots participation, which can respond to the world’s discourse on human rights. Lastly, Taiwan’s government has not institutionalized public diplomacy as a valuable foreign policy. In a nutshell, Taiwan has advanced resources in public diplomacy but has fallen short of the approach to project an image of Taiwan’s identity.


Why is a national identity important to Taiwan?

In Taiwan, the national identity has been shaped while exerting public diplomacy, particularly during the 2014 Sunflower Movement. Many Taiwanese students protested against signing the economic trade agreement with China. Even one year after, there was still news pointing out Taiwan’s national identity issue. For example, the BBC news report, “Will the Sunflower Movement Change Taiwan?” released on the 9th of April, 2015, stated that Taiwan’s identity issue was a key in this movement and raised the question of whether it has changed Taiwan’s national identity, which shows at least a success of increasing the visibility of the identity issue to a foreign audience. In this news report, it is evident that the image of Taiwan is established to be the wish of Taiwanese to be Taiwanese.


Besides coverage by international media, Taiwan’s effort of projecting its image and information to a foreign audience can be seen on the internet. For example, New Bloom argues that Taiwan’s local problems should be approached from an international context. Taiwan has been through domestic issues from elections to LGBTQ, which should connect Taiwan’s discourse to the world’s conversation. In the end, it is always about delivering Taiwan’s identity to the international community.


The Chinese communist party emphasizes the importance of nationalism, which pictured itself as a victim and a developing nation.

The development of national identity is the key to the success of public diplomacy in East Asia

Conducting public diplomacy has been a trend in East Asia since the end of the cold war. In the process of conducting public diplomacy, how much should a nation hold on to its identity to facilitate the conversation and cooperation with other nations? If we hold on so much to our identity, can we still maintain peace with others? In China’s case, nationalism has deterred its peaceful image to the world. The Chinese communist party emphasizes the importance of nationalism, which pictured itself as a victim and a developing nation. Meanwhile, China as a great world power for its market potential inevitably forces the change of the status quo. The means of public diplomacy did not reach the end of a peaceful rise in power. However, national identity can be necessary in other cases in East Asia. To Taiwan, the development of national identity is needed for delivering a clear image to the international community. Therefore, the national identity has a deciding factor in the success of public diplomacy strategy.



Yung Lin is a PhD Candidate at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs, Leiden University. Her research project aims to evaluate to what extent public diplomacy in East Asia becomes a conflict resolution in the last two decades. Yung Lin has been researching the dynamics of soft power and public diplomacy in East Asia since obtaining her Master's in International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London. Her master dissertation “How have Taiwan’s Social Movements in the Past Ten Years Impacted on its Public Diplomacy?” argues that Taiwan has plenty of soft power resources but was not well-strategized, which was published on The News Lens International. After finishing her master’s degree, she worked in London for investment firms and risk analysis consultancies covering the Asia market.





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