In conversation with Jonathan McClory, Portland’s General Manager for Asia

The idea of the 21st century being the Asian century has been around for several decades now.

Over a year ago the Financial Times featured an excellent analysis based on a range of economic, population and development indicators.It concluded that a new Asian century was set to begin, with a region that was the envy of Europe in the 1700’s going full circle and becoming the centre of the world once again.

The direction of travel seems indisputable based on social, political and economic examination. However, analyses often fail to paint the full picture by omitting the cultural or 'soft power' perspective and not examining the pull factors between nations.

I caught up with Singapore-based Jonathan McClory, a specialist in soft power, public diplomacy, cultural relations and place branding. Jonathan is also Portland’s General Manager for Asia and we discussed the Asian century and the impact of COVID-19 on the soft power of countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Singapore and UK Governments have been on different timelines, have responded differently, and the pandemic has evolved differently in each location. Nevertheless, Jonathan and I immediately identified things we had in common. We were both speaking from our respective island locations and everyday life in the UK and Singapore seemed remarkably similar. We were both in isolation but well connected. Both of us were working from home and quickly adapting to it, enabled by good digital infrastructure.

We reflected on the impact of the pandemic on the relationship between the state and citizenry and how this varies in different places and also over time. The increased willingness on the part of populations across very different country contexts to share personal data with government for health and safety was notable. There were however questions about whether this will come to a halt over time.

Jonathan expressed his disappointment, and I think a hint of surprise, over the lack of collaboration and joint response to the coronavirus globally.

For soft power, the glue that holds countries together and enables them to convene and work together, it hasn’t been a great couple of months. 

I suggested that this can’t be a surprise, given the wider international relations context of big power competition. In response, Jonathan puts this down to the focus of national governments on their own domestic situations and to some extent down to capacity. He went on to call on governments to kick-start greater international collaboration in coming months for two critical reasons. First, for the benefit of all humanity in eradicating COVID-19. Second, to demonstrate the power of effective cooperation in meeting the wicked global challenges of our time. What former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called ‘problems without passports’.

The workings of soft power vis a vis East Asia

I asked Jonathan to explore the relevance of soft power in the COVID-19 era. He immediately made the point that the concept needs disaggregating to be properly understood. In order to understand influence and soft power of different nations, he argues that distinction needs to be made between three different and important aspects of soft power:

-the actual reputation of a country in the eyes of others

-the quality and strength of the assets a country has at its disposal

-the ways in which countries are using their assets 

Jonathan emphasised that the crisis means perceptions of the competence and effectiveness of governments will be more important than at other times. Those who have dealt well with significant outbreaks of COVID-19 are likely to see their soft power rise. He added that, conversely, both China and the USA will likely experience setbacks in terms of their ability to attract other nations willing to collaborate with them.

In terms of perceptions of the UK, Jonathan suggested that that there may be a negative impact from seeming to have one of the highest recorded number of fatalities globally. However, by turning the corner quickly, and managing the process of coming out of lockdown well, the UK can recover its reputation.

Jonathan also pointed to another dynamic. It is that smaller well-run countries are accruing soft power not by accident, but as a positive knock-on effect of being seen to respond efficiently and effectively to the crisis. This includes smaller European nations like Norway, Austria and Switzerland. It also includes countries and territories in Asia Pacific such as,  South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand. All have seen their stock rise. Their dynamism is naturally attractive, and people will want to learn from and engage with them.

The outcome for Singapore is a harder one to predict, he feels. While it was hailed as a model of effective response early in the crisis, it has just passed 25,000 known coronavirus infections. Most of those have been experienced by foreign workers living in dormitories. The way cases have exploded in these dormitories in recent weeks tells a less positive story about Singapore. Both at home and abroad, the current system has come in for criticism, and there may well be a reputational impact when the dust settles.

The UK in the Asian century

When considering how the UK can make the most of the long-term opportunities of the Asian century, Jonathan highlighted the unique position of UK cultural organisations and institutions. This is brought out by both Portland’s Soft Power 30 index and recent British Council data. The UK hosts the second highest number of international students globally and its cultural assets are a huge draw. This represents a great advantage at a time when international travel is reduced and countries are looking for new ways to connect with others and learn from each other.

People will still have an interest in what is happening in the UK and we should double down on this to bring people together while there is an appetite but working around the old face-to-face models.

Greater confidence of East Asian rising soft powers is cause for optimism

Asked about the impact of Covid-19 on the soft power approaches of the rising East Asian nations, Jonathan is clear. He predicts that they will become more confident. For countries like South Korea, having worked hard at developing influence and reputation and moving up the rankings, they are no longer catching up. Instead they are enjoying great success, as demonstrated by e.g. the recent Oscar won by the film ‘Parasite’.

Moreover, the competence demonstrated by a number of Asian governments in the face of the coronavirus outbreak will be a further boost to their soft power.

With many of the countries in the region also performing well through the pandemic, they will come out walking with heads held higher. Vietnam, for example, has fewer cases and deaths than the UK, despite its larger population and border with China. In McClory’s view, China is the notable exception to this story of growth in soft power amongst the East Asian nations.

Jonathan sees this new Asian confidence as a cause for optimism and an opportunity for the UK.

To open up these relationships the UK needs to position itself more strongly in terms of mutually beneficial engagement.

He sees a clear role for the British Council in brokering opportunities for co-operation across the arts, culture and creative industries as well as education and science. And he is encouraging the British Council to show ingenuity and make the maximum effort to find new ways to work, and to maintain and build bridges. This will benefit the UK as much as the countries in which it operates.

Based on this conversation, the signs are that in soft power terms too this may become Asia’s century. Considered together, countries in the region are making steady progress across all three dimensions of soft power: improving perceptions and reputation in the world, possessing increasingly attractive cultural assets, and developing new and effective ways of using soft power assets internationally.

The UK and other Western soft power superpowers will need to renew their efforts and keep up their investments to be able to compete. This will also be necessary to provide the kind of partnership and collaboration which many East Asian economies are looking for. Partnerships and collaboration are precisely what the world so desperately needs as it responds to the pandemic and other global challenges.