From cat toys to bamboo furniture, Taiwan’s “One Town, One Product” (OTOP, 一鄉一特產) program has promoted a wide variety of cultural products domestically and internationally. At its core, OTOP is a collection of initiatives aimed at providing grants, training, and selling opportunities to small business owners and craftsmen with the goal of protecting the viability of region-specific goods.

As Taiwan’s international space shrinks, particularly in official diplomatic ties, having attractive cultural goods on offer to bilateral partners can become an increasingly important tool in Taiwan’s diplomacy. Beijing’s coercion of Taiwan’s allies has been supplemented by its large sums of conditional financial support, making it difficult for Taiwan to maintain its relationships.

Programs like One Town, One Product could simultaneously expand Taiwan’s product market abroad while also developing partnerships based on mutual commercial interest — beyond aid and assistance. Given its diplomatic benefits, the current OTOP model has the potential to enhance Taiwan’s relationships with the international community while also increasing Taiwan’s soft power.

One Town, One Product

Since its inception in 1989, OTOP has evolved to become a marketing mechanism for cultural products unique to Taiwan’s various regions. It also functions as an international program that promotes traditional handicraft, food production, and agricultural development with the help of the International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF), a Taiwan-based international development organization. In addition to a workshop held in 2017 to train government officers from other countries to implement their own OTOP projects, the ICDF has also successfully launched similar programs in several Central American countries. Referred to as “Un Pueblo, Un Producto,” the ICDF’s initiatives in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua implemented the OTOP model to revitalize Central America’s bamboo industries, pottery market, and marketing of traditional handicrafts.

Although currently based on aid alone, these bilateral partnerships should instead act as mutually beneficial relationships in which Taiwan and its partners build the capacity of their cultural product industries. Participant countries could start by utilizing existing OTOP partnerships to build trade in-roads for Taiwanese businesses, as well as maintaining OTOP’s aid mechanism to create meaningful people-to-people ties. Enhancing these current relationships into a mutual exchange of goods and ideas can elevate both Taiwan’s reputation and its national brand.

How OTOP can influence Taiwan’s image, private sector partnerships, and soft power

It is no secret that Taiwan cannot compete with China when it comes to the sheer sum of aid committed to its diplomatic partners. Instead, it is important for Taiwan to build long-term, sustainable, and community-based partnerships with both official diplomatic and unofficial partners alike. To be sure, the goal of such endeavors is not necessarily attaining official diplomatic recognition, but rather raising the cost of China’s coercion of Taiwan through its economic partners. In doing so, Taiwan will foster a more positive image of itself, strengthen private sector ties, and more systematically deploy its soft power potential.

Using OTOP to improve Taiwan’s international image

One Town, One Project can only be effective in improving Taiwan’s diplomatic image if it provides tangible and sustainable benefits to the recipient nation’s small businesses, agriculture and handicraft industry, or any sector targeted through OTOP training. Similar projects in Vietnam, for example, generated employment opportunities, increased local income, and “enhance[d] creativity” among local people.

Additionally, as researchers at RAND argue, Taiwan’s aid assistance programs build interpersonal relationships between Taiwanese volunteers and the local people, fostering a long-term mutual recognition as partners rather than as donor and recipient. These people-to-people exchanges can be effective even in the instance that official diplomatic ties are broken. OTOP can be used as an umbrella brand for these efforts if: 1) more detailed, time-series data is collected on the effectiveness of OTOP programs to ensure tangible development outcomes, 2) emphasis is placed on OTOP volunteers’ partnerships with local NGOs, small business owners, community organizations, and local people, and 3) OTOP programs are extended to include non-allies to not only emphasize the altruistic nature of the program, but also to extend Taiwan’s economic reach.


Photo Credit: CNA

One Town, One Product participants at an exhibition in Singapore, October 22, 2018.

Using OTOP to improve Taiwan’s private sector partnerships

For small and medium enterprises (SME), access to international markets can be one of the most important factors in their success. Programs that assist in the international marketing and capacity building of local SMEs can create routes for trade partnerships. As Taiwan’s OTOP model currently stands, the promotion of local SMEs’ products and the display of Taiwan’s own products are separate implementations of the same program. If OTOP is expanded, it can bridge this gap to simultaneously promote Taiwanese products while also giving SMEs in other countries the platform needed to market their products abroad. Additionally, connections made between OTOP experts and volunteers with local businesses and NGOs can create openings for future trade and sourcing partnerships.

As noted by Huei-Jing Wu, however, Taiwanese products may face entry barriers depending on the OTOP partner market ranging from consumer knowledge gaps, cultural differences, and market competition. A bipartite version of the OTOP program that assists both domestic and Taiwanese business owners could instead allow Taiwanese business professionals to learn common practices from their OTOP counterparts — including consumer preferences, business trends, bureaucratic systems, and promotional strategies. OTOP could then be marketed as a mutual partnership rather than an aid service provided by Taiwan. This way, the OTOP could serve as the basis of a long-term and high-stakes partnership.

Using OTOP to solidify Taiwan’s soft power

For Taiwan, the dissemination of culture also provides an opportunity to increase visibility of Taiwan on a global stage. Due to Taiwan’s cultural ties with China and the fear of provoking Beijing, Taipei often has difficulty conveying to the international community why Taiwan and China should be considered separate countries. Emphasizing how Taiwanese products — and thus their national brand — differ from those of the People’s Republic of China could help differentiate the two nations, and additionally, do so in a more indirect way that is less likely to draw Beijing’s ire. While the debate surrounding the true efficacy of soft power is still ongoing, it is clear that culture is an important way of both building emotional ties with other countries and establishing a country’s image. By emphasizing Taiwanese products’ country-of-origin and demonstrating how they differ from other countries’ products, Taiwan can distinguish itself as a separate country to people everywhere.

Taiwanese products have been used as part of Taiwan’s nation branding strategy as early as the 1990s and early 2000s. Starting in 2014, the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Taiwan Excellence Award was awarded to products that exhibited “innovalue” (innovation and value), and these Taiwanese products were featured in the United States through an initiative known as the Taiwan Excellence Pavilion. Since its inception, Taiwan Excellence Pavilions have also been held in ASEAN countries, Germany, and Japan. Beginning in 2012, Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture has promoted Taiwanese made products abroad through exhibitions such as the Fresh Taiwan Pavilion. “Fresh Taiwan” gathers representative Taiwanese design brands to “become the standard-bearer for Taiwanese cultural soft power” and to participate in design shows worldwide. Fresh Taiwan Pavilion attended 17 exhibitions in 2017, six in 2018, and three in 2019. Yet Fresh Taiwan Pavilion visited many of the same countries that were also visited by the Taiwan Excellence Pavilions — the U.S., countries in Europe, Japan, China, and ASEAN countries.

Past efforts by Taipei show the missed potential of using existing frameworks to promote Taiwanese OTOP products. As shown by the Taiwan Excellence and Fresh Taiwan Pavilions, current efforts focus on the U.S., Europe, and Southeast Asia, and do not include counties in the Latin America and Caribbean region. When considering that these pavilions provide possibilities for strengthening economic and cultural ties, including Taiwan’s official diplomatic partners would help to solidify Taiwan’s existing bilateral relations. By expanding OTOP to a two-way exchange where Taiwan not only provides aid but also showcases Taiwanese-made products, Taipei has the opportunity to deepen connections with its diplomatic allies, address an area of outreach that is not fully explored in Taipei’s current nation branding strategies and build upon available infrastructure.

One Town, One Product represents unfulfilled potential for Taiwan’s bilateral relations also as a way of differentiating from China. By expanding the current OTOP framework into two-way interactions that consist of both training locals and showcasing Taiwanese products, Taiwan can deepen economic and cultural relations through people-to-people ties and increased trade, and contrast Taiwan’s reputation with that of China.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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