The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is obsessed with building ‘soft power’ — the attractiveness of a country’s civilisation, culture, values and political system — as well as ensuring that China is respected and admired for its achievements since reforms began in 1978. In contrast, India puts little emphasis on promoting the country’s historical, economic, political and cultural credentials to the world. Its appreciation for the value of ‘cultural diplomacy’ is poor. One result is that the mere mention of India as a Great Power usually evokes only chuckles from an Asian audience. Although loathe to admit it, New Delhi would do well to learn lessons from Beijing about the importance of selling its strengths and achievements to the world.
One lesson is the sheer amount of economic and manpower resources Beijing devotes to shaping its messages and selling its story. For example, China has funded more than 270 Confucius Institutes in 75 countries teaching Mandarin and the CCP’s version of history to more than 100 million foreigners. Beijing aims to have 1,000 institutes up and running by 2020. In contrast, India has only 24 cultural centres in 21 countries functioning under its missions abroad.
Another example is Beijing’s active and effective diplomatic charm offensive, which has been in place since the mid-1990s. Currently, China has more diplomats than any other country in the world, including America. In China’s State-dominated society, diplomats are chosen from the cream of the crop and are given extensive language and cultural training. Moreover, according to some estimates, Beijing dispatches more diplomatic, business and cultural delegations to all corners of the region each year than all other Asian countries combined. In contrast, foreigners complain about the aloofness, ineffectiveness and bureaucratic stubbornness of many of India’s current diplomatic staff. For a country with a GDP of around $1.3 trillion and a population of 1.2 billion, official Indian delegations are small, infrequent and poorly utilised.
Indian diplomats might protest that China has significantly more resources at its disposal — both because of its economy, which is three times larger than India’s, and also because of its State-dominated model, which places more resources into the hands of the CCP. But the point is one about purpose and intent in promoting a country’s soft power — an ambition Beijing has in spades. After all, China explicitly measures its progress in terms of ‘comprehensive national power’ that goes beyond the size of its economy and military, and includes other ‘softer’ capabilities like the reputation of its economic and political system. Favourable impressions of the country’s achievements have been carefully crafted by image-obsessed CCP officials. For example, in comparison to China, India is seen as a place of disorder, inequality and inefficiency. Yet, Western commentators remain largely unaware that there were 124,000 instances of ‘mass unrest’ against the government in China in 2008 according to official figures — far more than in India. China is now the most unequal place in all of Asia in terms of distribution of income, and absolute levels of poverty have increased since 2000. China has far superior infrastructure. But India still uses capital 50 per cent more efficiently than China.
This is not to deny that India has enormous social and economic problems of its own. The argument is about the importance of ‘soft power’ and taking the foreign reputation of one’s country seriously. Beijing is highly skilled at promoting its considerable achievements and concealing the country’s also considerable failings from Western eyes. In contrast, India’s failings are openly displayed and New Delhi puts little emphasis on promoting the country’s recent achievements, which are considerable. But if India’s open society makes centrally-crafted messages to highlight achievements and conceal weaknesses much more difficult, it does offer it a significant advantage over countries like China.
Despite Beijing’s efforts, the re-emergence of authoritarian China gives rise to as much apprehension as admiration. But regional capitals view democratic India as an attractive, cooperative and non-threatening country. Unlike Beijing, it is believed that New Delhi’s domestic habits of transparency, negotiation and compromise will influence the way a powerful India interacts with other states. While few countries trust China, the rising eagerness of regional capitals and America to help India is demonstrated by the rapid progress made in India’s strategic and military partnerships with countries like the US, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Australia.
India is a rising and ambitious power. But its re-emergence has failed to excite and capture the collective imagination. This doesn’t change the fact that democratic India’s ‘soft power’ potential is enormous compared to China’s. India will meet little resistance as it’s rising within the existing normative order. But New Delhi’s lackadaisical approach to promoting Indian leadership in the region, as well as the country’s image and achievements, is frustrating for a small but growing number of people who realise the country’s importance to the region — as a democratic leader and a constraint on Chinese ambitions. When New Delhi eventually catches on, Asians will no longer chuckle every time India is mentioned as one of the powers that will shape the ‘Asian century’.
John Lee is a research fellow at the Center for Independent Studies (CIS), Sydney. His paper, ‘Unrealised Potential: India’s Soft Power Ambition in Asia’, was released by the CIS on June 30
The views expressed by the author are personal