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Building Effective Australian Soft Diplomacy In the Asia Pacific Through Education, Language, Arts & Culture – stocktaking our current soft diplomacy resources

Michael Fay, Director & Head of Education & Training Services, AFG Venture Group

Soft power is a term coined in the mid 1980’s that owes much of its popularity to the writings of Professor Joseph Nye, the former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. It defines a country’s ability to get what it wants internationally by attracting rather than coercing people. It suggests that a country can better achieve international support by having attractive cultural traits and values that others find appealing. Nye suggests that rather than using sticks or carrots it is better to attract or co-opt people so that those you seek to influence understand your language, culture and values and want what you want.

European nations including Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy have all developed significant and well-funded soft power mechanisms for making their culture values and policies better known internationally. Across Asia these are manifested by the operations of the British Council, Alliance Francaise, the Goethe Institute, the Cervantes Centre and Italian Cultural Centres.

Soft Power and the USA

While there is a certain distrust of American values in many parts of the world,the USA has successfully built its soft power by making its values and democratic political system one that has universal appeal. Increasingly the USA under the Obama Presidency is targeting international students as a key part of its soft diplomacy agenda. US Universities and colleges are refocusing their strategies on attracting international students to study in the USA rather than in UK, Canada Australia and New Zealand or the emerging regional education hubs in Singapore, Malaysia and China.

Students educated in US universities and colleges are now being used as part of the country’s soft diplomacy resources. They will play a key role for the USA in interacting with the 70 million people who are expected to visit the USA Pavilion at Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo. 160 Mandarin speaking US College students are working as Pavilion Ambassadors to greet the visitors.

China itself has embraced the soft diplomacy mantra over the last decade as its sets out on a global strategy to spread its own language, culture and values internationally. At the pointy end of the strategy sit the Confucius Institutes rolled out over the last decade to introduce Chinese language and culture to the world. They have targeted partnerships with universities and colleges in many European, Asia Pacific, Latin-American and African countries.

Soft Power is however generated only in part by what the government does. There are also a host of non- government and individual actors engaged in the process across the education, language, arts and cultural sectors. I include sport in the cultural sector and perhaps sport gives us the most outstanding example of harnessing soft power to achieve a national objective.

Soft Power and Sport

In 1995 the then newly elected South African Prime Minister Nelson Mandela used Rugby to reach into the very heart and soul of the Afrikaners ethnic and linguistic community and successfully co-opted them in the difficult task of nation building in South Africa. After the ravages of the apartheid era and the deep divisions that it left with the new nation, Mandela used rugby to build bridges between divided ethnic communities. This was achieved despite rugby having been historically associated almost exclusively with the Afrikaners and with the brutalities of apartheid. He harnessed the power of sport to build unity and shared culture, values and policies. Mandela’s targeting of the 1995 Rugby World Cup as a nation building tool provides a striking illustration of Joseph Nye’s theory. This achievement has been given a Hollywood profile in the 2009 movie “Invictus” directed by Robert Redford starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as the Springboks captain Francois Pineaar. The 2010 Football World Cup in South Africa provides us with a current update on the use of sport for effective soft diplomacy

Australia and Soft Power

Australia does not have any British Council equivalent but rather a confusing array of uncoordinated national councils and institutes that represent Australia internationally and a further complication of having state bodies and offices that represent our education, arts, language and culture. Despite a lack of vision, coordination and strategic thinking we have somehow blundered through it with Australia generally being perceived as a friendly, tolerant and welcoming destination. Its aboriginal art is universally admired; its artist’s actors and filmmakers are increasingly popular and its education is the nation’s third largest income earner after coal and iron ore.

In 2006 the Country Brands index, which measures a nation’s international images, ranked Australia as the most marketable nation, projecting a largely positive image around the world. Up till recently Australia was considered the 5th most welcoming country for Indians. Since mid 2009 and increasingly in the first half of 2010 Australia’s image in India in particular has taken a battering in the wake of the 2008 Cronulla Riots and more recent attacks on Indian students in suburban Melbourne and other Australian cities. Australia has now dropped to 40th in the most welcoming country measurement for Indians. Indian student numbers for study at Universities, TAFES, Private colleges and English colleges have crashed 30% in some cases in the first quarter of 2010 and tourist visitors from India have cancelled in alarming numbers in the same period.. Tourism Australia is concerned that this is happening at a time it is launching its new strategy to present a new Brand Australia to the world. Our soft power response to the Indian situation has not been coherent, sophisticated or integrated. It illustrates very powerfully how important soft diplomacy can be, particularly if we don’t get it right.

Australian Soft Power in Indonesia

Australia’s soft power response through disaster relief and humanitarian aid to the crisis that emerged after the 2004/2005 Indonesian tsunami and earthquakes in Aceh and North Sumatra provides us with a positive story. It was rapid, focused, significant and hugely popular in both Australia and Indonesia. Australia’s later response to the 2007 and 2009 landslides and earthquakes in Padang and surrounding regions of West Sumatra was equally effective at a government and people to people level.

What is less known is that many of the people to people relationships and networks have been established on the back of Australia’s education and tourism investment in Indonesia particularly in the provinces of North and West Sumatra. These investments have contributed greatly to Australia’s image and to our effective soft diplomacy disaster response in both provinces. West Sumatra has been a popular surfing destination for well heeled Australian, American, European and Japanese surfers for twenty years. Much of the pioneering management of surf and dive tourism has come from Australian small and medium enterprises (SME’s). The local knowledge and local networks of the marine, surf tourism and education sectors has been crucial in helping target and coordinate the delivery of aid projects in a region of Indonesia which is not a focus for Australian government strategic engagement.

Surfaid as the name suggests targets the surfing sector. It started as a small New Zealand community NGO in Padang West Sumatra in 2002 targeting the health issue impacting on poor island communities located around surfing destinations in the impoverished Mentawai Islands of West Sumatra and the island of Nias in North Sumatra. Surfaid has grown to become a major delivery partner for the Australian government’s aid agency AusAID. It has also built strong support networks with schools across Australia

Also in Indonesia, the Australia Centre Medan was established in 1994 as a privately funded language education and cultural centre through an investment by Insearch Ltd, the commercial arm of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). Ten years later it was able to provide vital logistics for the early Australian defence force role in post 2004 tsunami reconstruction and later NGO responses to thetsunami and earthquakes in North and West Sumatra. Today, the Australia Centre partners with the Government of Aceh in the English language pre departure programs for scholarship holders preparing to study overseas. A significant number are attending Australian universities in Adelaide and Melbourne

The Australian Government Soft Diplomacy Resources:

The Australian Governments coordinating organisation for its international soft power initiatives is the Australian International Cultural Council (AICC). Its objective is to promote Australia overseas through Arts and Culture reinforcing our standing as a nation which is stable, sophisticated and creative . It aims to show the world that Australia is a country with a rich and diverse culture and one that promotes a positive image of our indigenous culture. It has 4 goals:

Firstly, to project a positive and contemporary image of Australia through the arts and culture;

Secondly, to strengthen our long term cultural relationships with our key regional partners;

Thirdly, to improve market access for our cultural exports (film, music, visual arts, literature); and

Fourthly, to promote Australian Tourism and Education.

Asia is the top priority region but the AICC has a global agenda. Its members are drawn from organisations representing the arts and cultural sectors but not from International Education despite this being Australia’s third largest export earning sector.

The University Soft Diplomacy response

Asialink and its associate, the Asia Education Foundation, are based at the University of Melbourne. They have been at the forefront of Australia’s education, soft diplomacy and arts and cultural engagement with Asia for 15 years. While Asialink is structurally independent of government, its core program funding partners include the Australian Council for the Arts and the Commonwealth Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Additional funding partners are drawn from the corporate sector and various bilateral councils, including Australia-China, Australia-India, Australia-Indonesia, Australia-Japan, Australia-Thailand and Australia-Korea.

Asialink also delivers high-level forums, international collaborations including with schools and universities and exchange programs in education and with the arts and cultural sector. These collaborations enhance Australia’s relevance and influence within its immediate region. Together with the Australia Council for the Arts, it plays a key role in public diplomacy, actively working in partnership to promote cultural understanding, people-to-people links, information exchange and arts residencies between Australia and Asia. Alison Carroll, Director of the Arts program at Asialink has observed:

”Cultural exchange between Australia and Asia offers new models for creative ideas and interpretation of the world. It is our treasure chest of artistic opportunity. For the community more broadly it offers both personally enriching rewards plus understanding of cultural difference crucial for our successful engagement in this region.”

The Asialink essays December 2009 number 10

A Queensland State Government response; The Asia Pacific Arts Triennial

The Queensland Art Gallery hosts the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, which is the only major series of exhibitions in the world to focus exclusively on the contemporary art of Asia, the Pacific and Australia. It is held at the Gallery of Modern Art and Queensland Art Gallery, which was opened in 2006 at Southbank on the Brisbane River next to both Griffith University and Southbank Institute of Technology and across the river from Queensland University of Technology (QUT). The Gallery has a world-renowned collection of Asia Pacific Art that is both unique and of international significance ( The 6th Triennial held between December 2009 and April 2010 attracted close to 400,000 visitors.

Media Soft DiplomacyCommunicating about Australia in the Asia Pacific region via satellite television and digital technology

Communications within the Asia Pacific region have been greatly improved by the uptake of internet usage over the last decade and of social media tools in the last two years. Now students are able to use the internet and mobile technology to find out about study in Australia, and to pass back information to their families and friends in their home countries. The internet and digital media platforms including mobile phones are becoming the primary source of initial information about study options in Australia and on what is happening in Australia. Digital media is the way that international students communicate with those back home and it was the way information about attacks on Indian students was communicated among Indian students in Australia. It was always going to be difficult for Australian authorities to get their message across in the face of this social networking revolution that they cannot control.

Australia Network Television and Radio Australia

Australia’s government supported media platform in the Asia Pacific region comprises Australia Network Television, Radio Australia and the companion websites. ( Together, they provide a unique window on Australia for parents, students and Australian education providers. The broadcast television footprint covers 44 countries, from Japan in the north to Indonesia and New Guinea in the south, Fiji in the east and the Indian subcontinent and the Gulf States in the west.

In key target countries such as Indonesia, the most popular programs have subtitles in the local language, Bahasa Indonesia. English language learning programs are an important part of the program offering and are an increasingly popular part of the Australia Network Website. In 2010 vod cast downloads from Australia network currently provide 5 of the top 10 downloads of all ABC programs with Study English an Australia network /UTS Insearch co production predicated to attract close to 2 million downloads (

Mark Scott, Managing Director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which manages and operates both Australia Network Television and Radio Australia, has called for the expansion of the Corporation’s “soft diplomacy” campaign, not just in the Asia Pacific region, but in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

“We have an important role to play and we have to use all the tools at our disposal to continue to do so.” Mr Scott said. “One of these tools is soft diplomacy – using the media to put our nation’s culture, values and policies on show.”

In the face of the better funded and more strategic competitors in soft diplomacy what actions can be taken to more effectively link our international education sector to our soft diplomacy agenda? The following at least provides the beginning of a long overdue discussion between those interested in effectively harnessing our soft diplomacy resources.

· Lobby to ensure that there is a seat at the table for an international education sector and an Asialink voice on the AICC and other soft diplomacy government and non government organisations;

· Lobby for a stronger international education voice and role in Brand Australia and Tourism Australia bodies;

· Partner with Australia Network Television in program sponsorship, advertising and co-production;

· Encourage opportunities for Australian transnational education providers to become  associates of Asialink in regional arts and cultural promotion and exchange across Asia;

· Re-establish the Writers in Asia Partnership program with funding from the Australia Council for the Arts as a non-government partnership between Australian writers and suitable Australian transnational education operations. Australian universities now have regional campuses in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam;

· Increasingly brand Australian international education providers through sponsorship of State and Regional Arts Festivals and provide community engagement opportunities for international students;

· Undertake Asia Pacific regional English language teacher training workshops and forums in partnership with Australian Transnational Education providers;

· Partner with International Youth Leadership programs such as the International Award for Young People (IAYP) in linking Australian and Asia Pacific regional schools, universities and colleges;

· Strengthen Australian Studies programs in a partnership between Asialink, Trans National Education providers, Asia Pacific Universities and Colleges and Australian Education International (AEI);

· Partner with English Teaching, Health and Community Development organisations and Volunteer NGO’s to provide field placements for students undertaking regional field studies and volunteer programs.

Without an overarching organisation such as the British Council, Australia could benefit from a cooperative model of public private partnership that brings together the key players in International Education, Language, Arts and Culture. Without this our soft diplomacy, which has great individual strengths, will continue to lack direction and be less effective.

About the Author

Michael Fay is an international education specialist who has lived and worked between Asia and Australia for over 25 years. He continues to be a leading member of Australia’s international education and training sector and was the co-founder and Managing Director of Insearch Language Centre at the University of Technology Sydney from 1987-1999. Insearch has been one of the major success stories of Australia’s international education sector and was the first public private partnership in international education in Australia..It had a strong arts sponsorship program in Australia, Indonesia and Thailand. In 2000 Michael was made a Fellow of UTS for his contribution to the profile and reputation of the university. He advises a varied group of public and private sector educational and media organisations as well as government departments and peak industry bodies. His focus areas are on strategic marketing strategies, establishing and managing offshore education sector investments and building cross sector networks and linkages. He is also active in M and A work in the education services sector.

Copyright 2010, Michael Fay, AFG Venture Group. All rights reserved. All material in this article is the Intellectual Property of Michael Fay, AFG Venture Group and cannot be reproduced, copied, published, quoted or disseminated without the prior permission of Michael Fay, AFG Venture Group.