Taiwan’s Public Diplomacy at a Time of Institutional Change

Following a long period of tension in cross-Taiwan Strait relations, an impression has developed that Taiwan and mainland China are moving closer together.  President Ma Ying-jeou declared in 2008, early in his first term, that Taiwan would undertake a “diplomatic truce,” under the policy of “flexible diplomacy,” with mainland China. At the dawn of such a mutually accommodated cross-strait relationship, public diplomacy, which is either “government-to-people” or “people-to-people with government support” in nature, appears to be an increasingly important foreign policy tool for Taiwan.

Public diplomacy can be implemented as a cluster of measures that are more productive than the confrontational steps such as “checkbook diplomacy,” in which Taipei and Beijing competed for formal diplomatic partners. In the new atmosphere, rather than spending financial resources and political capital wooing foreign governments with development deals, through successful public diplomacy Taipei can increase the understanding of Taiwan among the general publics of a larger range of countries and thereby generate a significant amount of goodwill.

For instance, Taiwan can highlight its preservation of genuine Chinese culture and its achievements in national development, and can add to a variety of exchanges between Taiwan’s and the other countries’ civil societies. This will not only save resources, but will also avoid the creation and escalation of new diplomatic conflicts that destabilize the region or even the world.

Public diplomacy should also include a feasible effort to educate and train Taiwan’s diplomats to be better listeners and storytellers, in order to connect with foreign people and advocate the interests of Taiwan in an appropriate way.

The goal of public diplomacy, which is based mostly on soft power, is to present an accurate picture of where Taiwan is and where it’s going. This is a difficult challenge for any country, but it is made even more difficult for Taiwan, particularly in the short run, because of the ongoing changes in the structure of Taiwan’s central government and the institutions responsible for Taiwan’s external image.

Integration of Agencies

The merger of two major implementers of Taiwan’s public diplomacy―the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) and the Government Information Office (GIO)―on May 20, 2012, the beginning of President Ma Ying-jeou’s second term, denotes a dramatic change in Taiwan’s diplomacy. Specifically, GIO will dissolve on that day, but its international information and communication programs will continue to function and will be moved to MoFA in September 2012. MoFA will create two units, a Department of International Communication and a Coordination Council for Public Diplomacy, to meet the demands of a well-planned public diplomacy agenda. The former will be a formal unit of MoFA like the other traditional geography-based departments, while the latter is seen as a formal unit by MoFA, but as a task force by the Directorate-General of Personnel Administration of the Executive Yuan. These units will be headed by directors–general. Institutionally and traditionally, a vice or deputy minister of foreign affairs will supervise these units. It is very likely that the Department of International Communication will be run by former GIO officials, and the Coordination Council for Public Diplomacy by officials of MoFA’s Department of Information and Cultural Affairs, which will also be dissolved in May or September.

The merger is part of President Ma’s continuing strategy to reform the executive branch of the central government, which was seriously discussed not long after he took office in 2008. Not only did President Ma discuss and propose changes, he has also sought to implement them. The law defining the structure of the executive branch, the Executive Yuan (EY), had not been amended since 1949, when the Republic of China government withdrew to Taiwan. To enhance administrative efficiency, to streamline this huge and out-of-date government machine, to cope with the challenges of globalization, to strengthen Taiwan’s international competitiveness, and to foster more interaction between government and civil society, the Ma administration gained overwhelming support from the Legislative Yuan and passed several new laws for this giant and complicated project that should have been carried out long time ago.

After May 20, there will be only 14 ministries, 8 councils, and 7 other agencies at the same level under the EY, in comparison with a total of 37 before the modification. For a variety of reasons, GIO was not transformed into an independent agency in charge of international information and communication. As a consequence, GIO has to be formally dissolved with its international information and communication–related tasks folding into MoFA.

Emerging Problems

This change has perhaps reminded some people of the case of the integration of the United States Information Agency (USIA) into the U.S. Department of State (DOS) in 1999, based on the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998, as well as the Omnibus Consolidated and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act of 1999. USIA was commonly seen as the key agency in charge of U.S. public diplomacy. After 1999, USIA’s missions merged largely with the DOS’s Bureau of International Information Programs and Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, both supervised by Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Supporters of this merger maintained that it would create a higher degree of policy integration in the realm of public diplomacy. Opponents argued that the morale of USIA officials was low mainly because they were ignored after the end of the Cold War and because USIA’s tasks were not taken seriously by DOS which viewed the conducts of foreign policy programs in a different way. In other words, the problem was not the structure, but the distribution of resources and authority.

It is thus reasonable to expect that the consolidation of major public diplomacy organizations in Taiwan will create problems similar to those experienced in the United States, or in any restructuring of a bureaucracy. It would be surprising if such a major change did not face evident difficulties along the way.

First, there is the bureaucratic challenge of melding two agencies that have common but differentiated core tasks. GIO has pursued international information and communication programs overseas, while MoFA’s core tasks – different aspects of conventional diplomacy with foreign partners – vary. After the merger, officials tasked with pursuing these various objectives may be under more pressure to identify one goal and speak with one voice, if there is no effective mechanism of task integration and strategic planning and coordination. (GIO officials in charge of domestic affairs will be sent to the Executive Yuan or the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.)

Second, continuous leadership changes for GIO since the second term of former President Lee Teng-hui – the agency has seen sixteen leaders in seventeen years – have disrupted its consistency, diminished its influence, and to a certain extent weakened its capacity to act in the international arena. This puts GIO officials, and their priorities and programs, at a potential disadvantage as they are folded into MoFA. Former GIO officials could face an uphill battle if they want to maintain their “repertoires” and resources or sometimes even dictate final outcomes like before.

All public diplomacy programs, whether they have in the past been run by GIO or MoFA, will be under the supervision of one of the three deputy and vice ministers of foreign affairs who may or may not be familiar with the essence and practice of public diplomacy. Without the “key person” – the head of GIO who has been at the minister level – who speaks for the planning and execution of a public diplomacy program preferred by GIO officials, it is uncertain whether officials with GIO’s perspective and expertise will be able to remain influential. Whether MoFA’s nascent Department of International Communication, which will include former GIO officials and which will be responsible for international information and communication programs, is able to carry out its tasks without too much bureaucratic interference from above is very crucial for Taiwan’s public diplomacy.

Third, there is the very human challenge of trying to integrate two bureaucracies with different working cultures. Despite the fact that GIO’s international information and communication staff and MoFA staff are both dealing mostly with foreigners, their work cultures can be very different―which is a reflection of their different missions and objectives. It is generally believed that, in comparison with MoFA, GIO is less concerned about formality, makes decisions less hierarchically, and encourages greater creativity at work. It is thus understandable that the morale and drive of GIO officials that could be impacted need to be taken care of during the transition. A soft landing for GIO’s international information and communication programs will help foster a positive environment for the continued integration of the two agencies’ public diplomacy programs.

Last, but not least, the knowledge and awareness of public diplomacy are not yet sufficient to develop and carry out a more modern and integrated public diplomacy program for Taiwan. By training, Most GIO  and MoFA officials are not properly equipped with the necessary knowledge and techniques of public diplomacy that are closely associated with public relations, such as branding/marketing, cross-cultural communication, and social media. This is simply because the government has not made available intense and systematic professional training for the cultivation of “new public diplomats.”

Public diplomacy has five basic methods, i.e., listening, advocacy, exchange programs, cultural diplomacy, and international broadcasting. In practice, GIO pays a great deal of attention to international broadcasting and advocacy through physical or electronic magazines/newsletters and some social media. Its international exchange programs have been limited largely to foreign journalists and policy experts or professors. MoFA focuses more on exchange diplomacy and advocacy through an array of official and non-official channels. Credit for cultural diplomacy has been claimed by both GIO and MoFA, but in fact there is still a long way to go, with properly designed cultural diplomacy programs that are not simply one-off activities. Listening appears to be the public diplomacy method rarely undertaken by either GIO or MoFA. Taiwan’s public diplomacy programs will remain significantly hindered by these problems even though the merger puts most of GIO’s public diplomacy-related missions, people, and resources under the leadership of MoFA.

The Importance of Coordinated Public Diplomacy

Public diplomacy is especially important for Taiwan, as it is restrained from conducting normal diplomatic relations with most foreign governments. Effective public diplomacy will help Taiwan open up more valuable opportunities that both facilitate and diversify the “flexible diplomacy” embraced by the Ma administration. With better integrated public diplomacy programs Taiwan will be able to carry out nation branding that makes sure the targeted foreign audience can understand and accept Taiwan more. Accordingly, creating a proper institutional framework aimed at the afore-mentioned objectives is very urgent and important.

It seems that the top leadership in Taiwan has understood clearly that public diplomacy is important but has not sensed the consequences of potential problems, either existing or emerging, once GIO’s international programs begin to merge with MoFA. MoFA will have to collaborate with the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission, the Ministry of Education, the new Ministry of Cultural Affairs, and other to launch appropriate public diplomacy programs worldwide. Reconfiguring and reengineering its public diplomacy programs will become one of the urgent tasks for MoFA in the near future. Otherwise, the integration of GIO’s international information and communication programs into MoFA would not be a helpful way to improve Taiwan’s public diplomacy.