WANNING SUN. Blind Spots in Australia’s Soft Power Strategies.

Sep 19, 2018

Blessed with an enviable healthy and relaxed lifestyle, beautiful landscape, and clean environment, Australia has rich soft power assets and resources. Yet, more than ever before, Australia faces unprecedented challenges in its soft power efforts. The China factor cannot be ignored, even when we are considering Australia’s soft power initiatives in places other than China. 

The biggest challenges facing Australia’s soft power efforts are (1) the rise of global political populism; (2) China’s rise as a global power; (3) and a shift in the global geopolitical order mainly as a result of China’s rise. 

China’s own soft power agenda includes a media globalization initiative aiming to contest and counteract Western dominance in many parts of the world. China has been aggressively promoting the Belt and Road initiative, which currently has won commitment from around 30 countries including some from Africa, Central Asia, and Indo-Pacific. China’s growing economic aid and investment in many African and Indo-Pacific countries may result in the re-positioning of these countries towards Australia. All these developments mean that Australia needs to rethink its soft power strategies not only vis-a-vis China but also in relation to other countries which are now forging closer economic and trade ties with China.

Challenges also come from within Australia. There is a tension between Australia’s public diplomacy agenda and Australian media’s core mission to produce news which is often at odds with, this agenda. The former Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop’s repeated remarks about Australian media undermining the government’s foreign policy agenda testify to this incompatibility.

For quite a few years, the Australian government’s official position has been to actively engage in public diplomacy via diasporic communities. However, one key resource which has not been tapped into is the Mandarin-speaking Chinese community. There are now 1.2 million people in Australia with Chinese ancestry in Australia, and Mandarin-speaking migrants from the People’s Republic of China comprise the majority of this cohort. Instead of having their contribution to Australian society and economy recognised and appreciated, currently the Chinese community has become increasingly alienated, as they feel unfairly targeted in the current Chinese influence debate. 

Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper also correctly emphasises the importance of pursuing soft power and public diplomacy via social and digital media. It has become increasingly possible that a business-operated, diasporic media-oriented model of public diplomacy may have a better chance of succeeding than that is operated by the ABC. The Chinese-language media in Australia, which so far has been mis-represented as being mostly controlled by the Chinese government, in fact present themselves potentially as most promising instruments of Australia’s soft power and public diplomacy agenda.

While the government has identified some sound strategies, there is little evidence to suggest that these strategies have been translated into concrete initiatives.  

It is widely known that the Chinese language media in Australia publish mainly favourable news about China and often engage in self-censorship. However, what is much less known is the fact that an enduring core narrative in these media is the attractiveness of Australia’s landscape, environment, lifestyle, and culture. The Mandarin-language digital/social media platforms in Australia routinely promote touristic, cultural and leisurely activities and festivals in major Australian cities where Chinese migrants reside. These contents are not only accessed by the Chinese migrants in Australia but are also reliably read and reposted by the Chinese people in China and elsewhere who have friends, family and connections with those now living in Australia. 

The significance of these media spaces in promoting Australia as an attractive place in which to study, travel, invest, and live cannot be overstated. Yet so far, this role has been largely unacknowledged. 

Soft power and public diplomacy via diaspora is not limited to the Chinese community in Australia. Next to China, Australia now has 700,000 migrants from India. And like the Chinese government, the Indian government has been consistently active in cultivating its diasporic connections to advance India’s national interests. 

It is time we started regarding diasporic language media in Australia not just as isolated pockets of ethnic language media, but rather as potentially powerful gateways for projecting Australia’s interests and values into the heartland of a number of Asia-Pacific nations.

It is also time we went beyond the traditional understanding of public diplomacy and started exploring how people-to-people diplomacy can work towards the same goal as public diplomacy via media. Apart from permanent migrants from China, India and other countries, international students from these countries are also potentially important soft power assets. For the same reason that the Colombo Plan has worked effectively to promote Australian interests, these self-funded students are potential intermediaries between Australia and their homelands. If they have fond memories of living and studying in Australia, they will most likely become self-appointed cultural ambassadors for our country. Yet, so far, the experience of the Chinese and Indian students in Australia’s higher education sector leaves much to be desired. Some Chinese students from the PRC come to this country with curiosity and enthusiasm only to be cast by some commentators in the Chinese influence debate as stooges of the Chinese Communist Party.

Another key source of people-to-people diplomacy is the scholar community. There are currently around 30 universities in China which host an Australia Studies Research Centre, with no funding input from the Australian side. Similar research centres and institutes exist in Japan, Indonesia, India and other countries, some of which jointly run with Australian partners. But so far, little thinking has gone into the question of how to engage with these scholars to promote Australia’s soft power.

It is time Australia gets serious about finding ways to tap into these assets to engage in people-to-people diplomacy, diaspora diplomacy, and digital media diplomacy.

This article is based on a recent submission to the Soft Power Review, which is currently being conducted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Wanning Sun is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Technology Sydney. She currently leads an Australian Research Council Discovery Project, ‘Chinese-Language Digital/Social Media in Australia: Rethinking Soft Power’ (2018-2020). 

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