What are the challenges and opportunities facing soft power in the 21st Century? How do these translate in the diverse and dynamic Indo-Pacific? Can public diplomacy be used more effectively to address harder problems across the region and contribute to regional soft power outcomes?

These questions kicked off Griffith Asia Institute’s (GAI) Roundtable on Soft Power and Public Diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific co-hosted with Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Korea Foundation (KF) in Brisbane from 18-20 May 2016.

Bringing together policy-makers, academics, artists, curators, sports administrators, social entrepreneurs and diplomats from across the region, the Roundtable was convened with two key objectives in mind. Firstly to understand the relevance of soft power in the Indo-Pacific, identifying new models that might extend the bearing of Joseph Nye’s enduring concept beyond its American context. Secondly, to examine public diplomacy practice as a lever that might contribute to these unique regional models of soft power, while sharing developments and innovations in the field.

Forty-two delegates came to Brisbane from some fifteen nations across the Indo-Pacific: Turkey, India, China, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Fiji, Taiwan, New Zealand, Mexico and the United States – to share their perspectives, expertise and friendship in what proved to be a lively and provocative dialogue.

From its early stages the dialogue revealed a clear consensus that soft power – the power that is found in ideas, values, culture, relationships and institutions – needs an overhaul if it is to add diplomatic value in the Indo-Pacific context. The region itself is striking in terms of its diversity, dynamism and interdependence. Yet, it is dominated by traditional and new geopolitical challenges and divisions: from uneasy power shifts, historic animosities and territorial disputes, to North Korean nuclear aspirations and the serious impacts of climate change.

Naturally, the escalation of these issues over recent years has heightened the region’s reliance on hard power. To be sure, hard power offers a high degree of reassurance, but it has its limits. It is costly to acquire and deploy. When it is deployed, hard power rarely delivers the desired outcome without significant offsets. The emergence of soft power offers a much-needed counter narrative within the Indo-Pacific foreign policy debate. However, it remains insufficient for the complexities of the Indo-Pacific. For as Phil Seib suggests, in this region more than anywhere else, soft power needs a hard edge.

Cue public diplomacy. Referred to most simply as diplomatic engagement with people, public diplomacy is soft power’s primary instrument. But it’s not a one-size fits all. The Roundtable grappled with the many forms and methods of public diplomacy occurring within the region. Three models – strategic, collaborative and networked – were identified. The first of these, strategic public diplomacy, is the most conventional. A state-centric, competitive model it is used most effectively by China, Korea and Japan to promote national soft power assets and attract public admiration. But this ‘charm offensive’ has limited bearing on regional soft power. In fact, can have the opposite effect, sometimes fuelling national sentiments, promoting unfriendly competition, and undermining diplomatic relations.

The second model, collaborative public diplomacy, brings states and non-state actors together as co-producers of public diplomacy reaching out to regional publics with a common message and goal. Collaborative public diplomacy draws on the convening powers of nations like Australia, Korea, and Singapore. It also fits well within the architecture and collective aspirations of regional groupings like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or the Pacific Islands, but it’s potential is yet to be fully realised.

The third model, underpinned by new hubs of economic, political and societal power, human mobility and people-to-people links and digital connectivity, is network public diplomacy. Network public diplomacy offers exciting prospects. Particularly in the Indo-Pacific, where cities are emerging as new dynamic hubs of economic, political and diplomatic power, intra-regional business and student mobility continues to grow at record levels, and social media uptake outstrips the rest of the world. Network public diplomacy is already happening in the Indo-Pacific. The challenge is tapping into it.

Increasingly public diplomacy across all three models utilizes unconventional methods and channels. For example, science, sport, culture and educational exchange can extend and amplify public outreach, and promote collaboration, including in response to hard issues. The dialogue emphasized the value of these methods not just in outreach, but also in bringing local voices to the fore of debate on matters of regional significance, from the depletion of maritime resources, to the engagement of North Korea, to countering radical extremism. Importantly, these new methods and the unconventional actors that drive them can bring a sense of authenticity and credibility to public diplomacy that governments cannot.

But public diplomacy is a tool of policy. Without policy, public diplomacy is at risk of turning to banal gimmickry and outlandish spectacle for superficial results. Effective policy provides the hard edge: and here is where the Brisbane Roundtable came full circle. Integrating public diplomacy into diplomacy’s wider agenda – perhaps the greatest measure of public diplomacy’s success – continues to challenge.

The Roundtable itself is public diplomacy in action. An example of Australia and Korea working together to exercise their convening powers, it marks the beginning of a regional conversation. The dialogue revealed a shared preference for soft power as a necessary complement, even counterpoint to hard power in a region that has much to gain from it, and far more to lose without it. Widening the conversation – to include creative, academic disrupters and social entrepreneurs alongside policy-makers and diplomats – is key.

The Roundtable on Soft Power and Public Diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific Program [PDF].

Article by Dr Caitlin Byrne, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Society and Design, Bond University.

See photos from the event: