Cultural Diplomacy: Australia's Chance in the Pacific

Cultural Diplomacy: Australia's Chance in the Pacific

Published 20 Aug 2018

Earlier this year, in response to a question about what keeps him awake at night, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans admitted to regularly pondering on whether Australia is using its ‘middle power’ status effectively.[1] But he’s not the only one who should be concerned. The question of how Australia can better leverage its position in international affairs ­needs examining by many Australians, particularly in the context of aid distribution within the Pacific region.

The Lowy Institute reports that the Chinese aid system, which does not employ rigorous reporting and accountability systems like Western donors,[2] has injected more than US$1.7 billion in aid into the Pacific region between 2006 and 2016 and is continuing to increase.[3] This article argues that, in response to increased Chinese aid in the Pacific[4] – which is distributed partly to influence how a state develops, how its economy is structured, and whom it trades with – ‘cultural’ diplomacy provides an opportunity for Australia to retain its important standing in the region. Cultural diplomacy involves deepening cultural connections between states through establishing inter-polity communication using cultural artefacts. For Australia, this deepening of relations with Pacific neighbours is not for immediate, reciprocal economic gain, but for greater cultural connection between the states. This could allow Australia to remain influential over normative behaviours – the accepted behaviours allowed in a society – that govern the Pacific region. Consequently, cultural diplomacy could help Australia secure like-minded partners in the region that more closely share Australia’s national values.

Competition in the Pacific: Australia’s New Reality

Addressing the AIIA’s national conference in 2015, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop outlined a plan to focus Australian diplomatic efforts on “economic diplomacy”. This includes the mandate for Australia’s “Heads of Mission [having] a KPI based on increased economic activity that they are able to generate with the host country.”[5] This means that Australian diplomats in the Pacific have been given a mandate – now described as “DFAT’s role in trade and investment”[6] – to increase bilateral investment and encourage greater consumption of Australian commodities. However, this focus on achieving greater economic cooperation between Australia and Pacific nations has been accompanied by an absolute decrease in Australia’s Foreign Development Aid (FDA) budget. The budget will remain at AUD$4.2 billion for another four years[7] and has been described as “its lowest level since the 1970s”.[8]

Although Australia’s economic commitment to developing the Pacific region remains a priority through aid, development funding, and the aforementioned ‘economic diplomacy’,[9] the decrease in aid and development funding has opened a vacuum for Chinese influence. Comparatively, China has increased aid and development spending in the region over the decade between 2006 and 2016.[10] China has sought to use this development and aid funding as a means to promote Chinese national interests through the concentration of infrastructure projects into specific large-scale programs that favour Chinese investment.[11] One example includes China’s acquisition of the short-band radio frequency previously employed by the ABC to broadcast in the region, expanding Chinese influence over broadcasting in the region.[12] This direct competition for aid and development influence is now Australia’s main challenge in the region because, per capita, development and aid spending is higher in the Pacific region than anywhere else in the world.[13] The Pacific region, too, is home to 10 of the top 25 states with the highest proportion of overseas development assistance (ODA) as a proportion of their national income.[14] This is important, as international aid does not exist outside of foreign policy objectives. Foreign aid does increase human welfare globally but does so within the anarchical international system. As such, a state does not give aid to a foreign state without achieving foreign policy objectives.[15] Therefore, when a region is as reliant upon aid as the Pacific is, foreign policy can be significantly advanced in the region through foreign aid.

Consequently, while Bishop claims that Australia’s FDA reduction will ultimately be a good thing for the Pacific region,[16] it is increasingly clear that Australia’s relinquishing of certain regional aid and development projects has resulted in increased Chinese influence – a development that could restrict Australia’s goals of ensuring that the Pacific region remains aligned with core Australian values. A region of likeminded countries would be in the direct interest of Australia, as shared values would undoubtedly facilitate better trade agreements and partnerships with Pacific states. In view of China’s rivalry in the Pacific region and the decrease in Australia’s FDA, how can Australia best leverage its place in the region to strengthen cooperation with Pacific states?

Cultural Diplomacy: Producing Sites for Deeper Understanding

One area where Australia could arguably develop its connection to Pacific states to create mutual understanding of shared goals and interests between populations is ‘cultural diplomacy’. ‘Cultural Diplomacy’ involves governmental programs that allow populations to interact with each other through cultural artefacts. Those artefacts can reflect any aspect of the state’s culture, and can involve food, visual art, literature, cultural exchange programs, academic exchange and overseas student programs, and language classes to name a few.

An important example of cultural diplomacy is the way in which the European Union (EU) conducts its foreign policy. The EU uses cultural diplomacy through external relations to produce situations in which it can achieve greater mediation of differences with foreign states, foreign populations, and allow EU citizens to better understand others.[17] This form of diplomacy aims to transform patterns of state behaviour by introducing and reshaping existing values and state interests. Cultural diplomacy is different to public diplomacy as it aims to create inter-public connection through cultural artifacts[18] with the aim of improving intercultural relations for its own sake, and not as a means to a specific end.[19] Where DFAT defines its public diplomacy projects as deliberately aiming to “inform, engage and influence audiences overseas”,[20] effective ‘cultural diplomacy’ aims to create shared cultural knowledge not to influence or produce immediate economic benefit, but to mediate differences between populations through culture – be it food, art, dance, literature – to shape the conditions within which significant advances in deepening inter-state relationships can be achieved.

Currently, cultural engagement in the region remains underdeveloped. Compared to the AUD$206.6 million budget for regional aid spending in the Pacific for the 2018-19 financial year, only between “$400,000 and $500,000” was made available for the Australian Cultural Diplomacy Grants Program in 2018-19.[21] While funding programs that may not deliver an immediate and quantifiable economic benefit for Australia may seem an unproductive use of resources, one must remember that the aim of diplomacy is not solely that of increasing economic gain: diplomacy’s role is to mediate between states. Professor Oran Young argues that diplomacy is a set of established, consistent practices with recognisable roles and fundamental norms that govern behaviour for the management of interstate relations.[22] By adhering to these behavioural guidelines, diplomacy has the ability to “constrain activity, and shape expectations,” which effectively control international systems.[23] When understood in this way, cultural diplomacy can provide Australia the chance to better understand Pacific nations through cultural exchanges. It also provides a means for Australia to persuade states to change priorities to align with Australia’s interests. This type of exchange in the form of ‘cultural diplomacy’ has shown promise in building shared cultural understanding, which makes mediating the differences between the societies easier. As sites for cultural exchange aim to allow for better understanding of foreign publics, and a more positive view of a foreign public amongst a domestic public,[24] this form of diplomacy allows states to seek common ground with foreign publics to identify where there are shared beliefs and goals.

Results of such exchange can dramatically increase connection between societies not normally considered as sharing common understanding. One such example of this connection between seemingly disparate polities is embodied in the 2008 New York Philharmonic’s Pyongyang concert that ended with a rendition of Korean folk song ‘Arirang’. This cultural olive branch, partly orchestrated by the US State Department, was met by applause “for more than five minutes… orchestra members, some of them crying, waved. [North Korean] people in the seats cheered and waved back, reluctant to let the visitors leave.”[25] This, too, came amidst what was described as a “low point in US—North Korean relations”[26] – a relationship not exactly famed for its amicability at the best of times. This is illustrative of cultural diplomacy’s ability to overcome political disagreements to open diplomatic sites for engagement where previously it would not have been possible.

By producing shared cultural knowledge without the need for specific and reciprocal financial gain, ‘cultural diplomacy’ can significantly improve the chances of allowing Australia to shape the Pacific region, and allow it to compete with growing Chinese influence not through a dollar-for-dollar spending model which may soon become impossible. As China increases aid and development spending in the Pacific, it may employ aid that comes with “no strings attached”.[27] This has already been done in states like the Philippines, and has seen China recently become the biggest aid donor to Africa.[28] Given the region’s reliance upon aid, this “opaque”[29] form of lending or spending may be attractive. However, by deepening the cultural connections that already exist between Australia and its Pacific neighbours – be those sport, artistic, or education – Australia could shape how further aid is spent by respective states. If aid is given without any stipulation on how a portion of it should be spent, Australia’s ability to shape accepted domestic and international behaviours could ensure that money is spent in ways that ultimately benefit not just the recipient state, but also Australia. The argument, then, is that as ‘cultural diplomacy’ is a government-led action, the cultural artefacts shared or created or consumed are not as important as using that cultural object to genuinely engage in mediation between cultures. Genuine mediation between Australia and its Pacific neighbours could provide Australia with the ability to shape the Pacific not for any specific monetary gain, but to ensure that Australia can affect how our nearest neighbours see themselves, the region, and their relations with Australia and the rest of the world. This could help to ensure that even as the make-up of aid donors changes in a region defined by its need for that aid, states may look to Australian normative practices to model how they should construct institutions, laws, and their economic system.


By responding to the question of how Australia can more effectively leverage its place in international affairs to achieve national interest, this article has argued that greater funding for cultural diplomacy could give Australia a significant advantage in continuing to politically, economically, and culturally shape the Pacific region, not through aid or development spending, but through highlighting shared goals and interests between the Pacific states and Australia. By investing not just in actions that elicit an immediate economic benefit, Australia could retain influence in a region that is becoming the centre for Chinese primacy.

However, increasing the cultural diplomacy budget does not fit with Australia’s current economically-driven diplomatic agenda. As mentioned previously, the shift towards ‘economic diplomacy’ has refocused Australian diplomacy in the Pacific region from mediation towards a focus on integrating the disparate economies with the intention of creating economic interdependency. This is evidenced even in DFAT’s guidelines for what is required of a cultural diplomatic program, which state that it must “establish networks and exchanges… and international partners, to expand audiences and markets.”[30] Although the focus on integrating Pacific economies will provide immediate economic benefit, the long term alignment with fundamental Australian goals, including democratic governance and human rights, will allow Australia to compete with far larger economies in the region and allow Australia to shape the region to best reflect its national interest. Cultural diplomacy could allow Australia to retain its ability to influence the region’s long-term direction and, perhaps, allow a certain distinguished Australian to sleep at night.

By James M. Carey


[1] ABC Radio National, 2018, ‘Gareth Evans on Optimism and the Power of Diplomacy’, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 5 January, accessed 13 June 2018, <>.

[2] Larry Diamond, 2008, ‘The Democratic Rollback – The Resurgence of the Predatory State’, Foreign Affairs, March/April, [online], <>; Jonathan Pryke, 2018, ‘The bad – and good – of China’s aid in the Pacific’, [online], Lowy Institute, accessed 9 July 2018, <>.

[3] Jonathan Pryke, 2018, ‘The bad – and good – of China’s aid in the Pacific’, [online], Lowy Institute, accessed 9 July 2018, <>.

[4] The ‘Pacific’ region is defined using the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade definition. A list of states that fall within this regional definition can be found at:

[5] Julie Bishop, 2015, ‘Australian Institute of International Affairs National Conference’, speech, [online], Minister for Foreign Affairs, 19 October, accessed 15 June 2018, <>.

[6] DFAT, 2017, ‘Economic diplomacy: DFAT’s role in trade and investment’, [online], accessed 15 June 2018, <>.

[7] Ben Doherty and Eleanor Ainge Roy, ‘In Australia’s historically low aid budget, Pacific gets lion’s share’, The Guardian, [online], accessed 15 June 2018, <>.

[8] Dr Nichole Georgeou and Dr Charles Hawksley, 2016, ‘Australian Aid in the Pacific Islands’, [online], Australian Institute of International Affairs Outlook, <>.

[9] DFAT, 2018, ‘Development assistance in the Pacific’, [website], accessed 20 June 2018, <>.

[10] Lowy Institute, ‘Chinese aid in the Pacific’, [website], accessed 18 June 2018, <>; Michael Safi, 2015, ‘China increases its aid contribution to Pacific Island nations’, The Guardian, [online], accessed 15 June 2018, <>.

[11] Jonathan Pryke, 2018, ‘The bad – and good – of China’s aid in the Pacific’, [online], Lowy Institute, accessed 9 July 2018, <>.

[12] ABC News, 2018, ‘China takes over Radio Australia frequencies after ABC drops shortwave’, 22 June, [online], Australian Broadcasting Corporation, <>.

[13] Matthew Dornan and Jonathan Pryke, 2017, ‘Foreign Aid to the Pacific: Trends and Developments in the Twenty‐First Century’, Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 386–404.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Clair Apodaca, 2006, Understanding U.S. human rights policy: A paradoxical legacy, New York, US: Routledge; Glenn Palmer and Clifton T. Morgan, 2006, A theory of foreign policy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[16] Julie Bishop, 2018, ‘The New Aid Paradigm’, speech, [online], Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, 3 July, accessed 5 July 2018, <>.

[17] European Union, 2016, ‘New European cultural diplomacy platform launched’, [online], accessed 30 June 2018, <>.

[18] Iver B. Neumann, 2013, Diplomatic Sites: A Critical Enquiry, New York, US: Columbia University Press, pp. 1-14.

[19] Maurits Berger, 2008, ‘Intrdouction’, Bridge the Gap, or Mind the Gap? Culture in Western-Arab Relations, Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’, [online], <>, p. 3.

[20] DFAT, ‘Public Diplomacy Strategy 2014–16’, [online], accessed 20 June 2018, <>.

[21] DFAT, ‘International Relations Grants Program: Australian Cultural Diplomacy Grants Program 2018 Guidelines’, [document], accessed 20 June 2018, available at: <>.

[22] Oran R. Young, 1989, International Cooperation: Building Regimes for Natural Resources and the Environment, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, p. 32.

[23] Robert O. Keohane, 1988, ‘International Institutions: Two Approaches’, International Studies Quarterly, vol. 32, p. 383.

[24] Cynthia P. Schneider, ‘Culture Communicates: US Diplomacy That Works’, in eds. Melissen, Jan, The New Public Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 147-168.

[25] Daniel J. Wakin, 2008, ‘North Koreans Welcome Symphonic Diplomacy’, New York Times, [online], 27 February, accessed 27 April 2018, <>.

[26] Patricia M. Goff, ‘Cultural Diplomacy’, in in Cooper, Andrew F., Heine, Jorge, Thakur, Ramesh (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 431.

[27] Xinhua, 2018, ‘China’s aid to Philippines has no strings attached: FM’, [online], XinhuaNet, accessed 9 July 2018, <>.

[28] Kafayat Amusa, Nara Monkam, and Nicola Viegi, 2016, ‘How and why China became Africa’s biggest aid donor’, [online], accessed 9 July 2018, <>.

[29] Jonathan Pryke, 2018, ‘The bad – and good – of China’s aid in the Pacific’, [online], Lowy Institute, accessed 9 July 2018, <>.

[30] DFAT, ‘Australian Cultural Diplomacy Grants Program’, [online], accessed 20 June 2018, <>.