Beijing plans to spread the message of "cultural harmony" by spending a whopping 10 billion dollars to build 100 Confucius Centres across the world by 2010.
Now, India is looking at ways to leverage its "very considerable soft power" — music, dance, movies, cuisine, books and art — to cope with the cultural onslaught from China.
The United States successfully exported the USIS, Britain the British Council, France the Alliance Francaise, Germany the Goethe Institute (Max Muller Bhavans in India), Russia its cultural centres and Japan the Japan Foundation. All of these organs of "soft diplomacy" are almost entirely funded by the foreign policy departments of those countries.
"India made a great beginning with the creation of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) in 1950," said Pavan Verma, Director General of ICCR. The aim was to "leverage India's status as a cultural superpower," said Verma, but "somewhere along the line we have fallen behind and appear unable to meet the demand".
Citing an example, Verma said that when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Kabul last year, he announced 500 scholarships for Afghan students to come and study in India.
Over 12,000 Afghan students swamped the Indian Embassy in Kabul to take that exam, of whom 500 were selected to study in universities across India. ICCR itself offers 1,800 scholarships each year and when these students go back home, "we have created goodwill ambassadors for this country. We would provide more if we could," said Verma.
In the first phase, India plans to raise the number of cultural centres it has abroad from the current 22 to at least 30, beginning with Washington, Paris, Kabul, Kathmandu, Beijing, Tokyo and "somewhere in the Gulf", probably Dubai, as soon as it can.
For this, the Ministry of External Affairs, which is the parent ministry for the ICCR, has sought an annual budget of Rs 100 crore, up from the Rs 60 crore it now gets for ICCR. Funds are a constraint, with the Finance Ministry "sympathetic but not entirely convinced", said ICCR President Karan Singh.
The Nalanda University project, the forthcoming Festival of India in Japan, the ongoing India-China Friendship year and the fact that India will soon assume the chair of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, are all opportunities to create more interest.
But "somewhere," said Verma, "we are going to lose out for lack of funds" because "we have entered a qualitatively new phase where demand for India exists everywhere. We don't have to create it. The antiquity and diversity of the past coupled with the excitement of the present and India's huge potential for the future have people across the world wanting more," said Verma.