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Food Diplomacy Can Strengthen Ties In the Asia-Pacific

22 Jun 2022
By Martin Kwan
Cultural Stalls at Asian Harvest Festival
Close-up of date delicacies at the Asian Harvest Festival organized by the Asian Ambassadors' Wives Association Geneva (AAWAG) and hosted at WIPO Headquarters in Geneva on June 2, 2022.
Source: World Intellectual Property Organization / Flikr

Food diplomacy is an under-utilised tool for the development of strong relations and cultural understanding between states. In light of the present challenges to multilateralism within the AsiaPacific, food diplomacy deserves more attention from governments.

Food diplomacy is an expansive term used in many contexts. For instance, gastro diplomacy  denotes the serving of feast to political guests, such as former US President Nixon’s visit to China (“chopsticks diplomacy“). But food diplomacy can also refer to the international promotion of cuisines, like the “Indonesia: Spice up the World” program and “burger diplomacy” from the West. However, this article will largely focus on the international food trade. This style of food diplomacy can provide assistance to other states during is a supply crisis in a way comparable to vaccine diplomacy. But it is not limited to addressing shortages, and governments can utilise good food at any time to promote cultural understanding.

Food Diplomacy and Benefits to the Asia-Pacific

Food diplomacy has many benefits. First, food represents the exporting country in many ways, including the culture, attitude of the people, and prosperity of the land and economy. Moreover, compared to traditional diplomacy which is done between officials, it reaches the broader public and can directly influence their perception of a nation.

It is also an affordable means of international promotion. This is especially true when compared to other methods of diplomacy, such as the provision of foreign aid. Although some countries in the region, such as Japan, are capable of providing a large amount of foreign aid in order to establish closer ties with others, this expensive route is not viable for many states.

Furthermore, by promoting the food and culture of the nation at the same time, food diplomacy can increase trade between states. By contrast, diplomacy through foreign aid and climate finance may not necessarily be financially rewarding. There is often constant pressure calling for additional foreign aid. Furthermore, climate finance is usually not materially profitable as the nature of the financed public infrastructure is not necessarily profit-generating. Even worse, foreign state finance can easily attract moral accusations such as it being a debt trap, or having political strings attached.

Very importantly, food diplomacy can be initiated by either side – either the exporting country or the importing country. On one hand, the exporting country can introduce their good food to other countries. On the other hand, the importing country can source food from countries that they intend to build closer ties with. Conversely, for foreign aid and climate finance, there is often be a dominance-subordination relationship between the provider and the recipient.

Effective food diplomacy requires the understanding that food is not just a commodity for trade, or a means of satisfying hunger. Rather, it can bear a distinctive and representative cultural origin, which should be promoted. Both ASEAN and the EU, have long lists of food products that have been registered under the respective schemes of Geographical Indication. The scheme indicates the unique place of origin of the food products, such as Malaysian Durian ‘Musang King’ and the Indonesian Cilembu sweet potato. The point being that there are plenty of food choices with rich cultural heritage for food diplomacy to explore.

What should be done?

Food plays a particularly vital role in the Asia-Pacific region given the voluminous amounts of exports and imports, and the region’s deep cultural connection to food. Yet, regional food trade is currently under threat.

India has banned the export of wheat with the aim of stabilising the domestic price, Indonesia recently banned the export of palm oil for three weeks in order to curb rising domestic prices, Thailand and Vietnam have considered forming a cartel in order to raise the price of rice, and Malaysia has banned the export of chicken to Singapore due to a domestic shortage.

Irrespective of the reasons for the export restrictions, they have devastating consequences to the regional relations. For example, there have been widespread criticisms and concerns over the disruption to the regional food supply and the rise in food prices. In light of the situation, it is important to realise that food is not just about trade between countries, but it can also serve the function of public diplomacy.

First and foremost, it is essential to ensure a steady supply of staple food for the region — which is a basic requirement for promoting regional harmony and fending off protectionism.

But what more can the region do? Food diplomacy may offer a solution. As an illustration, Australia and Indonesia could engage in food diplomacy. A decline in cultural connections between two can be discerned from recent developments, such as the decrease of Indonesian language programs in Australian universities. Nevertheless, Australia is now very keen to forge closer ties, and food diplomacy can help by exposing the Australian public more to Indonesia and its culture. Such an exchange should not be limited only to participating in Indonesia’s Spice up the World program which involves spices and herbs. For instance, they can also consider introducing more varied gourmet food like Indonesia’s signature aforementioned Cilembu sweet potato to Australia.

There are certainly more possible opportunities for food diplomacy. New Zealand is exploring ways to establish closer ties with their neighbours, especially the Pacific Islands. A study revealed that, contrary to the difference in population, there are more Kiwifruits exported to Hong Kong than each of the ASEAN countries, India, and the Pacific Islands. In other words, there is room for further food and culture promotion opportunities for New Zealand.

Governments within the Asia-Pacific are urged to reconsider the potential and implications of food trade. Just like China’s panda diplomacy and South Korea’s K-pop diplomacy, food diplomacy shares national treasures with the general public, promotes good will, and strengthens regional connections. It is time this form of diplomacy was not only recognised, but celebrated.

Martin Kwan is an APAC analyst and a 2022 UNESCO-APCEIU Youth Leader on GCED.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.