Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Where is the emphasis on soft power and cultural exports in Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy?

soft power Mark Lee
NCT Dream's Mark Lee is one of a few K-pop stars born in Canada. Photo by SM Entertainment.

In 2014, Korean-American journalist Euny Hong wrote an insightful book about one of the world’s most innovative countries. The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture tracked how South Korea became a global entertainment power. This came through hard work, imagination, and clever public policies.

Through hit TV series like Squid Game, bands like BTS and Blackpink, and the Oscar-winning film Parasite, South Korea has won tremendous goodwill around the world. It’s a potent reminder of what countries can achieve through arts and culture, which is a tool of “soft power”.

Former Kennedy School of Government dean Joseph S. Nye, Jr. coined the term “soft power” in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead. The author defined soft power as “the ability to obtain preferred outcomes by attraction rather than coercion or payment”.

“At that time, there was a prevalent belief that the United States was in decline, and Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was a New York Times best seller (Kennedy, 1987),” Nye wrote in a 2017 paper. “Kennedy argued that the US was suffering from ‘imperial overstretch’, and would soon go the way of 17th century Spain or Edwardian Britain. Many others echoed these thoughts, and believed that the Soviet Union was passing us in military might and Japan was overtaking us in economic strength.”

Nye, on the other hand, doubted this conventional wisdom.

“With its universalistic values, open culture and vast popular cultural resources ranging from Hollywood to foundations and universities, the United States seemed uniquely placed to affect how others viewed the world and us,” Nye stated. “Of course, it did not make us attractive to everyone. Quite the contrary, as the Mullahs in Iran proved. But where we were attractive, it was a huge advantage.”

soft power

China engages with soft power

It’s certainly worth thinking about in light of various industrialized democratic countries’ rush to contain China through Indo-Pacific strategies. Canada, Australia, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom have all fashioned related approaches toward increasing engagement in this region. The essence of these strategies is redefining the alliance of these democracies in the world.

According to Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, this region encompasses 40 economies, four billion people, and $447.19 trillion in economic activity. By 2040, it’s expected to account for 50 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. But the western democracies clearly see one big troublemaker in the mix.

“China is an increasingly disruptive global power,” the Canadian document states. “Key regional actors have complex and deeply intertwined relationships with China. Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy is informed by its clear-eyed understanding of this global China, and Canada’s approach is aligned with those of our partners in the region and around the world.”

China has already gone extraordinary lengths to advance soft power in the region. This is amply demonstrated in a book of essays entitled China’s Influence and the Centre-Periphery Tug of War in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Indo-Pacific. Entire chapters are devoted to China’s influence on Hong Kong film production, Taiwan’s entertainment industry, and Taiwan’s religions.


Entertainment reaches the masses

Meanwhile, Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy has nothing to say on how the Canadian cultural sector can be deployed to “achieve preferred outcomes by attraction, rather than coercion or payment”. Reading the strategy, it’s as if Canada has no film, performing arts, literature or music industries.

One of the few sops to soft power is a call to bolster the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada’s engagement. This would come by “opening an office in the region and through a new range of activities”, such as seminars, events, and research planning related to the Indo-Pacific region.

That will exert influence on elites, business people, and the well-educated, which has value. However, arts and entertainment still have the most potential to reach the masses—as China fully realizes. In the Philippines, for example, Michael Bublé and Céline Dion might be Canada’s most effective cultural ambassadors.

Canada identifies five interconnected strategies in its Indo-Pacific Strategy:

  1. Promote peace, resilience and security.
  2. Expand trade, investment and supply chain resilience.
  3. Invest in and connect people.
  4. Build a sustainable and green future.
  5. Canada as an active and engaged partner to the Indo-Pacific.

Under Number 3, it mentions increasing feminist international assistance and advancing collective efforts toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This section also recommends engaging and defending human rights in the region, including women’s rights. But there’s zero acknowledgement of winning hearts and minds through Canadian cultural exports.

South of the border, the White House listed five objectives in the Indo-Pacific. They speak to the Biden administration’s emphasis on security, prosperity, and resilience.

  1. Advance a free and open Indo-Pacific.
  2. Build connections within and beyond the region.
  3. Drive regional prosperity.
  4. Bolster Indo-Pacific security.
  5. Build regional resilience to transnational issues.
Nye books
Joseph S. Nye, Jr. has written several books about foreign policy, including Soft Power.

Australia speaks about the arts

The Australian government was the first to focus serious attention on the “Indo-Pacific” in a 2017 white paper. Unlike the Canadian strategy released five years later, it mentions “Australian excellence in culture and the arts”.

Moreover, the document notes that this “works to establish networks and encourage collaboration and exchanges between Australian artists and arts organisations and their international partners”.

“It helps to expand audiences and markets for Australian artistic work and creative products,” the Australian white paper states. “We also promote Australian expertise in arts production and management, and build our reputation as a culturally rich and diverse society.”

In a University of Ottawa Centre for International Policy Studies report, scholars John Garrick and Margaret McCuaig-Johnston point out Australia and Canada are “advanced middle powers”. They remark that both have “felt the harsh brunt of China’s trade and arbitrary detention coercion in retaliation for various unrelated perceived slights”.

“In addition, both countries have been adversely affected by China’s predatory business practices,” Garrick and McCuaig-Johnston state in the paper. “In Canada’s case, this is one of the reasons why steps have been taken under the rubric of the Strategy to help companies diversify away from China to other countries in the region.”

However, they maintain that a good coordinated Australian and Canadian strategy would need to establish a bunch of things. That includes determining which areas “may require more considered application of ‘soft power’ to help, encourage, shape and persuade”.

In the meantime, the Japanese government has put more flesh on the bones in its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” plan. Its 54-page PowerPoint presentation cites specifics on how to advance connectivity, including by “enhancing human and cultural exchanges centering on youths who will lead the next generation”.

pop VCHA K-pop
The K-pop band VCHA’s members all hail from Canada and the U.S. Photo by JYP Entertainment.

Power through diversity

However, the tone of these Indo-Pacific strategy documents and the Australian white paper still miss the lesson of Euny Hong’s book, The Birth of Korean Cool. Cultural exports can win friends around the world and generate income for a country.

In other words, arts and culture have “the ability to obtain preferred outcomes by attraction rather than coercion or payment”, to quote Joseph S. Nye, Jr. That’s particularly relevant in Asia, given the stakes.

Canada could play a greater role in the Indo-Pacific, given the large number of immigrants with strong connections to the region. It’s worth noting that 23 percent of Canadian residents were born in other countries, compared to just 15.6 percent in the United States.

An ideal path would be through arts and culture from Canada that reflects this diversity.

Global Affairs Canada can address this shortcoming in the Indo-Pacific Strategy by inviting more input from Canadian organizations with expertise in Asian arts and culture. The federal government should also be thinking about how the Canada Council for the Arts, Heritage Canada, Telefilm Canada, the National Film Board of Canada, and Canada’s book publishers can play a role. That would be in addition to deploying more resources from the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada to the region.

Who knows? Maybe one day, it might eventually lead a Canadian of Asian ancestry to write The Birth of Canadian Cool.

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Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.



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