Performing Diplomacy: Lessons from Australia’s AsiaTOPA

On their recent mission to re-assure the Aussies that the US has not entirely checked out of the global community, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis could have learned a lesson about strengthening international ties from an unlikely Australian source: the groundbreaking Asia Triennial of the Performing Arts ( AsiaTOPA) Festival that took Melbourne and Australia by storm earlier this year.

Under its current leadership, the United States is turning inward, seeing diversity and immigration -- traditionally America’s strengths – as dangers, while Australia, with Asia TOPA did just the opposite, recognizing both the intrinsic and extrinsic value of its relationship with its Asian neighbors, and of its own diverse population. In addition to the aesthetic and educational value of international cultural exchange and collaboration, Asia TOPA also provided an excellent platform for developing critical economic, political, and security relationships between Australia and its Asian neighbors. Blind to the positive impact of arts and culture as well as of diversity, the Trump administration has sought to to eliminate government funding for the arts and humanities, including within the State Department.

Supported by a coalition of private philanthropy and government – federal and local – funding, AsiaTOPA revealed the full potential of creative leadership backed by enlightened public-private funding. Conceived and curated by Stephen Armstrong and Kate Ben-Tovim of the Arts Centre Melbourne, Asia TOPA aimed to reach out to Australia’s Asian neighbors, and to reach in to its own migrant communities. From spectacles such as The Red Detachment of Women; to Asian rock bands, Javanese dance rituals, and Chinese-Australian exercise groups at the late night XO State events; to the interdisciplinary Water Futures conference, Asia TOPA not only offered something for everyone, but also engaged substantial numbers of the local immigrant population.

Australia already had learned the value of harnessing culture to reach out to local immigrant populations as well as to neighboring countries during a crisis in its relationship with India. In 2012 after a spate of attacks beginning in 2009 on Indians living in Australia, the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) funded OzFest, a four-month program of Australian culture in India. Crucially, OzFest was not a typical public diplomacy ‘show and tell’ initiative, but instead involved collaborations between Australian and Indian artists—resulting in exciting, groundbreaking performances such as the opening night spectacular concert featuring Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka Shankar, Australian Aboriginal singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, and Australian didgeridoo virtuoso Mark Atkins.

Extending a hand through culture, as well as other efforts, paid off. The number of Indian students in Australia has steadily risen since 2012. This is no small matter, since foreign students contribute twenty billion dollars to the Australian economy.

Asia TOPA targeted the foreign student population with one of its most popular events, the Asia Pop Fest, held to welcome international students back at the beginning of the academic year. From heartthrob Chinese pop stars to Japanese VOCALOID IA to K-pop diva Ailee, the sold out crowd was enthralled. Contrast this type of inward cultural diplomacy, reaching out – or rather in—to Asian immigrant populations in Australia, as well as to international audiences abroad, with the recent spike in hate crimes and Islamophobia in the United States.

Just as there was an economic benefit to the Australian outreach to Asia, so there will be an economic cost to the increasingly hostile climate in the United States. Just ask the CEOs of leading American companies from Ford to Starbucks to Apple who have opposed Trump’s Muslim ban.

Climate change, another area where Australia and US CEOs see business opportunities -- as well as an environmental imperative – also figured in the AsiaTOPA Festival in the form of the Water Futures conference, bringing together scientists, artists, and indigenous voices in both fields to brainstorm innovative strategies to tackle the very serious challenges to water in Australia and the Asia Pacific. How different from Trump’s withdrawal from the world community on this critical issue by backing out of the Paris accord.

How Australian government and business leaders leveraged the power of culture for diplomatic and business purposes around AsiaTOPA also offers a valuable example of effective cultural diplomacy. Australia long has used hospitality around sports events to build diplomatic, trade, and business connections, but AsiaTOPA represented a significant shift in the way that contemporary performance culture has served as the platform for building these connections

Both the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Department of Trade and Investment of the State of Victoria government made significant donations to Asia TOPA for the express purpose of engaging with counterparts from Asia. Afterwards DFAT was abuzz with talk about how productive the engagements around Asia TOPA had been. Unlike inviting Chinese or Indonesia leaders to watch the Australian Open – with which they have no direct connection – extending an invitation to a great performance by their artists who have been honored by an invitation to perform in Australia already puts the Australian hosts on the right foot. They are essentially offering the Chinese or Indonesians (or whomever) a gift – the gift of respect and admiration for their cultural product.

Of course, not everything was perfect, and an incredible opportunity was missed when Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo arrived in Australia for his first state visit on February 24th, the date of the premier of Satan Jawa, a breathtaking new silent film in black and white (inspired by Nosferatu) by Indonesian director, Garin Nugroho, set to a score, performed live by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra playing together with a gamelan orchestra from Indonesia. Oblivious to this cultural embodiment of Indonesian-Australian cooperation, underwritten by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, taking place in Melbourne, the Australian and Indonesian heads of state dined in Sydney. What a great starting point for meetings with the new leader of Australia’s neighbor and essential trading partner attending the Satan Jawa premier would have been.

And there was also controversy – no big surprise for a major arts Festival. Questions were raised around the propriety of a period piece ballet about the Cultural Revolution (Red Detachment of Women) whose reign of upheaval was responsible for the deaths of 30 million people. Separately, the Chinese government authorities objected to the mention of the date of the beginning of the Tiananmen Square uprising during the play Little Emperors. Fascinating that they were bothered by a reference that eluded most audience members, but not by the plot of the play -- about the negative impact of China’s one child policy. The Australians ignored these complaints – or rather, listened politely and then ignored them -- and the show went on, Tiananmen Square date and all.

The brochure advertising Asia TOPA’s corporate hospitality packages shows how well performing diplomacy was understood Down Under: “Asia TOPA has been developed to promote Australia as a contemporary, creative, successful, diverse, and tolerant nation: and an attractive place to study, work, visit, and invest. …. Underlying Asia TOPA’s programming is a goal of breaking down cultural barriers locally, building bilateral dialogue and promoting Australia internationally as a confident, engaged, and diverse nation”.

Contrast that with “America first!”, a motto sure to land America anywhere but “first” in the globally connected, inter-dependent twenty-first century.

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