Summary of a meeting sponsored by the Asia Program and the West European Studies Program with Howard J. Wiarda, Woodrow Wilson Center Senior Scholar

Howard Wiarda discussed Portugal’s desire to increase its engagement in Asia by drawing on its colonial legacy. According to Wiarda, Portugal is attempting to “box above its weight,” to carry out a global foreign policy that is remarkably ambitious for a small, relatively weak country on the fringes of Europe. Aided by their history as Europe’s “first globalizers,” the Portuguese are now trying to revive their reputation and influence in Goa, Macao, East Timor and even Japan, with an eye to gaining advantage in business and trade.

Methods vary. In Japan, where Portugal’s impact was fleeting, the Portuguese government can do little more than try to rekindle memories of how Jesuits brought Western medicine, science and public administration to Japan in the 16th century. According to Wiarda, Portugal’s sketchy efforts to promote itself through museums, exhibitions, textbooks and historical markers increase or wane depending on the ambassador’s interest.

In Macao, the Portuguese presence was longer and stronger—though the city has reverted to Chinese rule and is now 95% Chinese. Wiarda discussed how 450 years of Portuguese presence not only left behind churches and schools, but had a decisive effect on public administration, political culture, labor relations, civil service laws and the court system. As Portugal’s influence continues to fade, it has sought to promote the Portuguese language and maintain its position in civil society.

The Portuguese legacy is particularly strong in Goa, India, Wiarda explained. The Portuguese empire used Goa as its Asian headquarters and administrative center; as a result, Portuguese culture penetrated deeply into society. Even now, Goa is home to as many Christians as Hindus, and Portuguese methods had a profound impact on public administration, women’s rights, divorce law and political culture. In Goa, Portugal’s most urgent task is to preserve the rich archive of the Viceroy’s administrative papers, currently neglected and falling apart. Portugal also assists in restoring the churches that are in constant use.

It is in East Timor that the Portuguese have retained the most influence, although they are accused of abandoning their former colony in 1975 to Indonesian suppression. One of East Timor’s official languages is still Portuguese, and its new constitution nearly a replica of Portugal’s own—slipped in past the international community by an activist Portuguese government, Wiarda explained. Portugal has also delivered aid on a scale massive for a country by no means rich itself.

In general, Wiarda admired “the interesting niches and inter-stitches” of Portuguese activity in world affairs, which has been rather shrewdly based on what a relatively poor country can reasonably accomplish. According to Wiarda, Portugal’s strategy is one that other small countries might benefit by emulating.

Drafted by Amy McCreedy, Asia Program Associate, 202/691-4013
Robert M. Hathaway, Asia Program Director