2016 was not a great year when it comes to the progress of digital diplomacy in Asia. It might be better to say that there was ‘no progress’ at all. Despite the initial momentum of 2014 and 2015 there have been very few inspiring examples of digital diplomacy in practice in the Asian countries. This inertia is understandable given the nature of medium we are dealing with. Operation of social and new media require an approach that is always ‘switched on’ when it comes to narrative, content and engagement, which may very often go against the workings of government machinery. In addition the absence of a strategic intent in most cases was palpable. Nonetheless, let’s take a look at some of the interesting developments in digital diplomacy in Asia in 2016:
Diplomacy Live, a global research, advocacy, consulting and training platform recently ranked India among the top 10 nations when it comes to digital diplomacy performance. India and Mexico are the only two countries from the developing world in the list. India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) boasts of 1.2 million followers on its official Facebook page which is second only to the US State Department. India’s missions abroad have recently embraced social media in a big way too. But more than the presence on social media what might have clinched India the spot among the top 10 was the strategic use of social media in recent times during recent evacuation efforts from Yemen, Libya and post the earthquake in Nepal. Such instances have been rare in Asia.
China continue to influence digital diplomacy in interesting ways. Given that social media for China is unique with the country’s own set of channels and platforms, 2016 saw host of countries getting active on channels such as Weibo and practice their own versions of outreach to the Chinese population. On the other hand, the Chinese state missed a strategic opportunity to use an event as large as the G-20 summit to create opportunities for engagement. China merely used the event to broadcast updates on social media accounts. What it could have done instead was to create opportunities for direct engagement with world leaders and Chinese people. Most importantly China could have used the opportunity to moderate or lead a dialogue on international issues of strategic importance by facilitating and leading a dialogue with the online population of the world.
Japan has built up its own space on social media but it is far from anything meaningful . There are hosts of websites with a focus on country branding but there seems to be limited engagement. A review of Japan’s online presence will reveal that the channels function merely as content repositories and nothing more. This brings me back to my original point of view that there is far less strategic intent in content strategy among Asian nations, India might be an exception to a certain extent.
An interesting example of digital initiative came from non-state actors in 2016, whereby think tanks from the five BRICS countries — Brazil, India, China, Russia and South Africa, agreed to come up with a road map to create digital diplomacy following the BRICS digital conference which was held in New Delhi, India in April, 2016. Given that BRICS countries face similar challenges it was advocated that cyberspace be used effectively in finding solutions to common problems and also to enhance business and socio-cultural ties. Cyberdiplomacy was seen as a way forward and it would be interesting to see how this initiative is rolled out in 2017.
So what ails the growth of digital diplomacy in Asia? Primarily it has to do with a mindset. Digital Diplomacy is perceived to be too ‘public’ and most governments are averse to engage in proactive, direct communication too frequently. A lot of it has to do with the cultural ethos of Asia as well where a certain ‘reticence’ is practiced in public interactions. I would like to counter the first point and say that contrary to perception, social media provides more control over conversations and the message and can in fact go a long way to strengthen state’s control over the discourse. Vladimir Putin has discovered it, hope he doesn’t become an inspiration for the Asian leaders to focus more on social media!