Soft power is the way forward

Apr 24, 2023
Hand connecting gears into puzzle.

Having worked in all developing countries in East Asia and several in South Asia (World Bank definition), I am very conscious of the value of soft power. Australia is a very small country in all aspects except size and my experience has been that soft power is the best way of expressing our good intentions.

For example, in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, there is a very impressive cable stayed bridge, the My Thuan Bridge of which the local populace is very proud. I was also very proud to have it referred to as the Australian bridge. It was opened in 1990 long before I visited but it obviously made a lasting impression on the South Vietnamese people, a much better impression than Australia’s involvement against self-determination in the unfortunate American war. It is worth noting that the current phobia against communism is not very different to the phobia existing at the time of the Vietnam war wherein the domino theory was in fashion. A second example where Australian Aid is warmly remembered is the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong connecting Laos and Thailand. It was opened in 1994 and its cost of A$42 million is somewhat less than the current proposals of Morrison/Dutton, Albanese, Marles and Wong.

Another example of reproachment with Vietnam: I saw the same thing in the World Bank when a Vietnamese colleague had attended the NSW Institute of Technology. Although she had gone back to her home country and later joined the World Bank with the help of her English literacy, she still thought of Australia as her second country.

In China, they did not know the concept of project. A hydropower scheme was something that they threw money at until it was completed. The one thing about Chinese is that they know what they do not know and accepted World Bank financing for Ertan and Xiaolangdi where they were taught by the best international contractors. As a result, they were able to build Three Gorges without help. I did similar transfer of technology on the Tongbai Pumped Storage Project and their gratitude when I went back several years later was overwhelming. China also benefitted greatly from technical assistance provided at the central government level. Their modern economic management techniques and their current prowess with renewable energy were initially provided through technical assistance from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and IMF. The Chinese have not forgotten that.

China, itself, is providing technical assistance to developing countries all over the world to the consternation of the US. Recently, that has been labelled as Belt and Road assistance but it goes back longer than that. An important aspect of Chinese technical assistance is that there are no strings attached, which can be a feature of World Bank and Asian Development Bank assistance which some developing countries find irksome. For example, conditionality associated with assistance to the Nam Theun project in Laos completely annulled any positive effects. China approaches these countries as a fellow developing country and if you watch CGTN news you will see that leaders of the smallest developing countries afforded the same respect and recognition as the larger more influential ones. In contrast, USAID is usually to assist US contractors or in proselytising neo-liberal values, such as privatisation. I saw the results of that in Zambia where the privatised local firms were quickly swallowed up by South African firms. Another feature of Chinese assistance is their insistence that they are not in competition with others. They are glad to be development partners. In passing, I should note that their agreement with Solomon Islands is fully justified to protect the interests of Chinese businesses. During my time working in the Solomon Islands, Chinese owned establishments were burnt to the ground twice.

Although I was only briefly associated with Australian Aid projects while working in developing countries, I was very conscious of the positive effect of parallel projects being financed by Australia, particularly in the agricultural field, and the gratitude with which they were received. This was also true with projects financed by Scandinavians, whereas as noted previously, USAID was usually associated with benefit to US contractors or the proselytising of neo-liberal values. An important feature of aid is that there are really no negative features. I was associated with Australian Aid efforts in Laos and Indonesia where this was genuinely the case, whereas in Solomon Islands with RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands), personal feedback I received was that the Solomon Islanders found RAMSI’s efforts somewhat paternalistic. For instance, RAMSI’s personnel took over Treasury, and in that role insisted that Solomon Islands not take on any more loans even those with a highly soft component. In East Timor, the substantial assistance provided by Australia was almost negated by Australian officials spying on behalf of Australian oil companies.

Another example of effective use of soft power is educational exchanges. The US and to a lesser extent UK and Australia should be careful not to bite the hand that feeds it. The excellence of the top US and UK universities is reliant on the brain drain which keeps them supplied with excellent students evidenced by the authorship of papers in technical journals. In Australia, the same is true but also the financial viability of universities is at stake, in the absence of full fee-paying international students.

Tourism is another important method of exchange. I am certain that much of the current ill feeling against China is because people have never been there. I am reminded of the comment made by the ultra-conservative Newt Gingrich when he voted in favour of a motion which benefitted China. He said: “It is not until you have walked the streets and see how people live and how they dress do you realise the magnitude of the economic transformation that has occurred in China.” And that was about 25 years ago.

How can you have such ill feeling towards China in view of the contribution to Australia of the excellent Chinese immigrants, and personally I enjoy the Chinese couples getting married in Sydney near the Opera House or Lady Macquarie’s chair.

The concept of soft power is not new. When I went to university, there were several Colombo Plan students in my year. An appreciation of the value of such exchanges was the new Colombo Plan whereas Australian students would go to partner universities. Although this still exists, it appears to have withered on the vine, together with earlier attempts to encourage students to learn Asian languages because these were the languages of the future. Actually, they still are. Although China now has the largest number of English speakers in the world, people from developing countries really appreciate it when you learn their language. As a slightly drunken Fijian lady told me on one of my first assignments: “Learn the language and they will love you.”

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