The changing nature of diplomacy in Asia

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Diplomacy in Asia

Shifts in the global economy are altering the landscape of international diplomacy in significant and interesting ways. In Asia, we are seeing the emergence of new forms of cultural diplomacy, as India, China and various mid-tier countries jostle for regional influence. The idea of reviving the Silk Roads for the 21st century through the Belt and Road Initiative, for example, means history and culture are being refashioned to build trade and diplomatic relations across the region.

With its themes of bilateral cooperation in Tibetan ‘archaeology’, Kung Fu Yoga explored new ground as a diplomatic initiative attempting to reach vast audiences in both China and India. Its lack of success in India suggests the outcomes of such diplomacy remain unpredictable. What is certain however, is that culture is now among those areas, which governments in Asia view as a resource for building state-state and people-people ties beyond their territorial borders. Modi’s Yoga and Buddhism diplomacies are other notable examples of this fast-evolving soft-power landscape in the region.

Education has emerged as another key sector in which public diplomacy plays out in diverse forms. In the case of tertiary international students moving in unprecedented numbers around the world (approximately 5 million in 2016, a rise of 67% from ten years ago) this is clearly one aspect of ‘people-to-people’ diplomacy that governments shape with policy settings but also follow and react according to experiences and outcomes beyond their control. As India provides the second largest number of international students, after China, this realm is full of possibilities, depending on the government’s appetite for incentives that bring education closer to foreign policy objectives. For example, to what extent should the East-West dimension of Belt and Road and closer co-operation among Asian countries be matched by particular new education hubs, scholarships and exchanges fostering closer connections in a new regional manner?

But it remains unclear as to what extent is the Indian diaspora, so large and established in parts of Asia, North America, Australia and the UK, are active contributors to this landscape of Indian diplomacy today.  Where Indians overseas are citizens of other countries this is of course a major factor to consider, but citizenship does not detract from the extraordinary levels of mobility – human, material capital, and ideas – flowing between countries in ways that impact on the national interests of several of them.

But as countries across Asia respond to Belt and Road with varying degrees of enthusiasm, it is apparent that the ongoing presence of the more traditional forms of hard power mean those attempting to build cross-border relations in the cultural, educational or other sectors, remain entangled in a complex landscape of regional politics.

It is also worth asking, how do these new forms of diplomacy intersect with or moderate the resurgent nationalism; a feature of many countries in Asia and the Pacific? But while populist nationalism grows, so too, does the celebration of key moments or examples of transnationalism. One much loved example in New Delhi is the architectural genius and legacies of American Joseph Allen Stein, whose extraordinary environmental-aesthetic sensibility informed buildings such as the India International Centre, the India Habitat Centre and the Australian High Commissioner’s Residence.

It is clear areas such heritage and education are powerful and growing field of diplomacy and soft-power, but ones that are susceptible to the whims of governments and shifting regional alliances and rivalries. It is a landscape that will warrant careful and critical attention over the coming years.

– Authored by Professors David Lowe and Tim Winter