The power struggle in Asia is often depicted as an arms race where fighter jets, missiles and naval destroyers matter most. But the rivalry between China, Japan and South Korea is now as much about the softer side: winning hearts and minds around the world. Each country has taken a different approach to building a brand from its own values, culture and products -- and each offers a case study in the power plays and pitfalls that the rest of Asia could learn from.
China is the region's big spender, putting billions of dollars toward image-building programs. Beijing might win some over with its investments in Mandarin-language schools, cultural centers promoting Chinese New Year and hefty aid programs to build roads and stadiums in slower-developing countries. But it's hard to soften the image of a rising military power that disregards international borders, tramples human rights and prizes economic over environmental concerns. Until China does more to prove its honesty and integrity, there are limits to what it can achievewith its propaganda.
Japan has been a soft-power laggard but is finally starting to figure out how to promote itself. With its efficiently run cities, excellent cuisine and well-designed products, Japan should never have had a problem appealing to an overseas audience. Yet the government's record has been spotty and the country did have a big handicap: a brutal wartime past. Being law-abiding and a major contributor to the U.N. for decades has helped, but Tokyo too often lacked strong, decisive leadership or a world view for others to rally behind. As the 2020 Olympics draw closer, that is now changing. A big boom in tourism shows that overseas visitors are getting the message.
South Korea has also enjoyed some solid gains. The country's big bet on cultural exports -- so-called hallyu, or the Korean Wave of K-pop and TV dramas -- over the past two decades has yielded surprising results, winning fans from Burma to Brazil and spilling over to create demand for Korean cosmetics and food. A recent PricewaterhouseCooper report ranked South Korea seventh globally in terms of cultural exports, an impressive showing for the world's 12th-largest economy.
South Korea's Council on Nation Branding has to find a way to ensure that a broader swath of the country's businesses benefit. The government also should be looking to sell others on its economic model by tying foreign aid to saemaul undong (new town movement), a homegrown philosophy of self-reliance that South Koreans credit for their own transformation from aid-dependent backwater to modern, high-tech powerhouse.
It's all about the soft sell -- and Japan is finally getting it right
As the 2020 Olympics approach, Japan is doing the things that seemed so obvious to outsiders. It's finally taking stock of its culinary and cultural prowess to sell the country and is rolling out a network of houses overseas as part of its Japan House project. Foreign aid spending has also shown a bump in the past year, even if Japan continues to reject more than 99% of refugee applications.
Meanwhile its bounding bullet-fast experience of infrastructure-building is becoming a soft-power sell in itself. From India to Indonesia, Japan is helping to get people moving -- and that's as much of a boon as finely cut sashimi.
MAKE SOME NOISE:Japan has finally started to blow its own trumpet
Self-promotion doesn't seem to come naturally to modest Japan. While TV ads spoke of "Incredible India" and "Malaysia, Truly Asia," Japan stood on the sidelines, a huge hit with everyone who actually made the trip but a mystery to those who didn't. How times have changed. Japan is expected to hit the 29 million visitor mark in 2017; in 2013 there were just 10 million visitors per year.
Japan Inc. has also woken up to the reality of a shrinking domestic market and is looking for ways to sell its products. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are a motivating factor. It is no exaggeration to say that the 1964 version shaped modern Japan. Wrecked by war, 1964 was Japan's coming-out moment. The 2020 Olympics won't have the same impact on today's Japan, but it has prompted the country to muse on its international appeal.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government is pushing for more of a presence: The Foreign Ministry is funding Japan House -- three cultural outposts in Sao Paulo, London and Los Angeles -- under the direction of Muji advisory board member Kenya Hara. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has the Cool Japan Fund, a public-private initiative whose projects include a plan to showcase Japanese food and drink in venues around Europe. The government is also promoting Japan's Unesco-recognised washoku cuisine; it has relaxed visa rules for foreign chefs working or studying in Japan and devised a certification system targeting the 89,000 restaurants around the world where Japanese food is served.
After years of neglecting its soft-power potential, Japan is now racing to make up for lost time. A team of experts is even being dispatched by the Land Ministry to revive 40 (of the 500) Japanese gardens around the world that need love and attention.
Making overtures to the Middle East and beyond has been a shrewd move.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has overseen the opening of new outposts in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific. Despite a troubled record on refugees, Australia has just won its bid for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Cate Blanchett is straight-talking on U.S. President Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, and Qantas is flying high. On the softer side, we've seen the march of the flat white as well as smashed avocado on toast. It's an Australian staple, from Bali beach cafes to Cupertino coffee houses, and speaks of a national character hedged on healthy living.
Better safe than sorry say those looking for a safe harbor in these troubled times
The hot purchase among Silicon Valley and super-rich survivalists this year was a New Zealand passport. If some world-destroying apocalypse does occur, the thinking goes, New Zealand is the safest place to be. Startling as that may be, it underlines the fact that New Zealand is seen as a remarkably safe, open and well-run society insulated from many of the travails faced in 2017. Well, not entirely insulated: Anti-immigration populism reared its head in the recent election. Meanwhile Jane Campion's "Top of the Lake" is a new breed of Kiwi noir -- and, mercifully, it doesn't feature any hobbits.
A new president reveals the South's softer side
Ousting a notoriously corrupt president has served South Korea's image well. Since taking over in May, new President Moon Jae-in has remained unshakable through a caustic six months: While the world panicked about nuclear threats from Pyongyang and America heaped flame on fiery rhetoric, Moon stayed refreshingly calm and measured amid reports of locals partying that bit harder in Seoul. It still falls short on its diplomatic spending, while exploding Samsung phones have tarnished its high-tech sheen. Hosting the Winter Olympics in 2018, so close to its fractious border, should show a softer side to the South.
Is China's openness a soft-power red herring?
China builds on panda diplomacy by lending artifacts overseas, while President Xi Jinping even took to styling himself as the leader of free trade and openness at Davos this year. But, despite its best efforts to soften its image, China is still China -- soft power too often looks like hard power wrapped in cotton wool. Nevertheless, all across the country there are new contemporary art museums being erected and there's a boom in tourism. But its most famous artist, Ai Wei Wei, is essentially persona non grata. China's revival of Silk Road trade routes faces a potential backlash in the region over state-funded infrastructure investment.
In business, it's still seen as a safe pair of hands
On top of its educational prowess and ease of doing business, the country's airtight security is also a plus. But one with caveats: uncontested elections and a press that still isn't free make for a mood that leaks into an otherwise promising local art scene that could become a regional hub. Internationally it is seen as an ultra-safe transit lounge to the Asia-Pacific, and the new terminal at Changi Airport ups the ante. Singapore should take on more foreign infrastructural projects. Every part it plays in the rise of its fast-growing neighbors will count.
Unrest at home but it is winning friends abroard
India launched a satellite weighing as much as 200 elephants in June, and in doing so joined a select club of space heavyweights. It underlined the country's technological prowess. Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to win points overseas and push "yoga diplomacy" as a soft-power export. Yet issues at home -- sexual violence, mob justice and Hindu ultranationalism -- get worse. Democracy in India is bloated, yet its essential liberties do give it some edge over China. New Delhi also needs to learn a valuable lesson that its outreach too often looks like an extension of trade ambitions.
Thailand has little trouble attracting all types of visitors to the country, from flip-flopped travelers to foreign buyers on the hunt for Bangkok apartments. However the nation's footprint beyond its borders in business, culture and politics is small relative to, say, a soft powerhouse like the U.K., which has a similar-size population and its own long-reigning monarch.
Color may be back in vogue in Bangkok after a year of mourning for the late King Bhumibol, but it will be years before his son can build up the same level of international esteem and connections as his father. In the meantime, others need to pick up the slack.
Thailand should start by exporting more of what it does best: hospitality. The Dusit Thani hotel brand was founded in 1948, but it has no hotels in Europe and only one on the U.S. mainland. Granted, cash-rich Thai businesses in other industries are buying up foreign assets -- from Dean & DeLuca to Red Lobster. Yet you'd never know that it was Thai buyers working behind the scenes. There are plenty of creative businesses sitting at home that could use a lift overseas, starting with its world-class furniture industry. A similar story is true for culture: Thailand has the talent, from artists to architects, but they just need to get out more.
Thailand is slated to return to democratic elections in November 2018. The hope is that this will turn the page on what has been a torrid few years in Thai politics.
For centuries Thailand has been confident of its subregional preeminence. But with the rise of Vietnam, boosted by a bigger population, faster economic growth and longer coastline, Bangkok may soon have reason to frown. That would be no laughing matter: The world in 2018 could really use a helping of fun-loving Thai-ness.
--This report draws on Monocle's global soft power survey, published this month. To find out more about the magazine and to subscribe, visit http://monocle.com.