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Boosting India’s Soft Power in China; By Asma Masood

Updated: Feb 1, 2023


Image Courtesy: Boosting India


C3S Paper No. 0150/ 2015


Courtesy: India-China Chronicle, May-June 2015 issue

In the third and final leg of his three-day maiden visit to China, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, stopped at Shanghai to address the Indian community. Before his speech, a group of Indian folk singers sang Indian songs whereas some in the audience danced. Later during the speech, video projections displayed Indian culture and thought.


This visit is likely to open a new chapter for India-China soft power relations that have the potential to take the mutual friendship to an unprecedented level. Mr. Modi tried to work on his image in China before the visit. Ten days before his departure, on May 4, he joined Chinese Weibo account(China’s microblogging site akin to Twitter) wherein his first post read, “Hello China! Looking forward to interacting with Chinese friends through Weibo.”  Within five hours, he had more than 20,000 followers and more were joining in. Similarly his Twitter account was abuzz during the visit with updates including a selfie taken with Chinese counterpart Premier Li that broke the “Chinese Firewall”. Mr. Modi has certainly not underestimated the soft power of social media in China. It will be interesting to observe how the other dimensions of soft power were played out during Mr. Modi’s visit to Xian,Beijing and Shanghai.


India’s Soft Power: A Dynamic Package

Joseph Nye stated that a country’s soft power rests primarily on three resources: its culture, its political values and its foreign policies. India’s soft power vis–à–vis China largely surrounds the cultural and foreign policy component. As it is observed, cultural attractions span a wide prism. Contemporarily, the attraction is ‘Make in India’ foreign policy campaign.

India has only recently started exporting soft power as part of its foreign policy. Rather than creating new soft power dimensions, India can first focus on repackaging its inherent qualities. These are interwoven in all aspects of Indian thought and practice with the potential of beckoning other countries in its charm. Interestingly, the major component of India’s soft power, its exemplar democracy, does not permeate the Chinese arena. The Chinese are exposed to state-sponsored media that praises India’s freedom of speech but doubts the consolidation of democracy.


Buddhism and Yoga: Ancient Attractions

How can Buddhism and Yoga play as soft power tools? Buddhism has been a key factor during Mr. Modi’s China visit. The Indian position underlines that the Buddhist message is a “cultural, not a religious one”. India is the birthplace of Buddhism and China is home to half the world’s Buddhist population. This is not an insignificant number. It denotes that India must capitalize on this soft power stratagem at the earliest. Buddhism is an ancient phenomenon, one that transcends beyond borders and time without interruption. It is no wonder then that Mr. Modi spoke at length about the India- China Buddhist linkages. During his visit, he cited the example of the ancient Chinese scholar Huien Tsang who had visited Gujarat and exchanged cultural connections.


Given the importance of sharing cultural links, China has realized it can’t ignore the Buddhist angle in its Tibet policy. India has a unique opportunity to collaborate with China in reviving the latter’s Buddhist heritage. India has already built a Buddhist temple in Luoyang in China in 2006. Hence the cultural ingredient of Buddhism can add much needed zest to India’s soft power recipe in China.


Mr.Modi and Premier Li attended the Yoga-Taichi demonstration event in Beijing. The two countries agreed to work together to commemorate the International Yoga Day on the 21st of June. This development will add weight to India’s soft power in China. Yoga in China has gained significant popularity. But cost is a factor to watch out for. A class can cost as much as RMB 200 (USD 30), leaving it inaccessible to many. The leaders’ emphasis on yoga may augur well for bringing it to the wider Chinese public.


Brand India Appeal: Business, Movies, Language and Media

Mr Modi’s call for a favourable business environment is another reason to cheer. Delhi plays host to a vast group of Chinese businessmen. The number of visas issued to Chinese executives increased nearly fourfold to 60,000 between 2004 and 2010, according to Chinese Embassy data. While recent figures are not available, it is guessed that they have risen.  India announced the granting of e-visas to both Chinese tourists and businessmen. This will smoothen the arrival of Chinese businessmen and promote a harmonious business climate. However, there has been criticism from some quarters regarding the e-visa, amidst demands that the issue of stapled visas should have been first resolved.


Emphasizing on a note of two countries’ economic strength, Mr. Modi has declared China to be ‘factory of the world’ and India to be the ‘back office of the world’. It is claimed that ‘Make in India’ campaign will appeal to Chinese businessmen. As regards communicating India’s soft power via Bollywood, the movies are highly effective tool. India’s movie brand aka Bollywood has enthralled Chinese audiences since Raj Kapoor’s times. More recently, movies like ‘3 Idiots’ are reportedly said to have “breached the Great Wall”, with storylines that resonate closely with China’s educated youth. Aamir Khan’s production garnered Rs.11 crore at the Chinese box office. His latest venture, ‘PK’ is also set to release in China and is expected to do equally well. The China Film Group Corporation (CFGC) allows only five Indian films to be screened, out of 34 foreign films every year, yet there is room for taking advantage. Marketing based on local audiences’ taste will ensure heavy returns if Chinese moviegoers like Indian movies. In this spirit, two movies are to be jointly produced by Indian and Chinese filmmakers: ‘Kung Fu Yoga’ starring Jackie Chan and another movie based on the famous Chinese Buddhist Monk Xuan Zang’s 17-year-long journey to India in the sixth century C.E. Mr. Modi could have taken the silver screens aspect of cultural linkages. Movies in Hindi will not only raise a Chinese spectator’s artistic leanings but can also pique his/her interest in Hindi language.


Languages communicate ideas and beliefs.The Centre for India Studies was setup in 2003 at China’s prestigious Peking University that specializes in Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu, and Bengali. The Centre’s courses are in great demand and are often oversubscribed. This reflects a Chinese interest in communicating across the borders and facilitating trade. Several Chinese in the IT sector, who for instance, travel to Bengaluru for research and development, are interested in picking up the local language. To meet the rising demand, other institutes such as Beijing’s Foreign Languages University have also begun Hindi courses. India can be commended for supporting this cause, as seen by its grant of Rs. 50 lakhs to the Centre for India Studies. Initiatives to expand Indian language training too could have been highlighted during Modi’s visit. It could well serve to complement the Confucius learning curve in India.  After all, a few words in the native tongue will go a long way in breaking the ice between the Indian and Chinese executives across the boardroom table. Two-way communication is essential as it permeates influential forums such as Track- II dialogues.


India and China maintain a healthy Track-II spirit. Mr. Modi’s visit to China has yielded establishment of the ‘India-China Think Tanks Forum’, which will meet annually, alternately in India and China. Several Indian and Chinese think tanks are already convening regularly. The plethora of Track-II forums displays the commitment of both countries to strengthen bilateral and multilateral hard power relations. The Bangladesh-China–India-Myanmar(BCIM) Forum has already demonstrated success, with the setting up of the BCIM Business Council. Mr. Modi’s China visit reiterated the importance of the BCIM Economic Corridor. Such proactive stances will show that India is keen to take the intellectual partnership forward.


Media cooperation and More

The Chinese state media encourages India to collaborate on ambitious projects in Latin America, West Asia and Africa. Such suggestions imply that the Chinese media believes India and China can rise together as global powers. India can cash in on this sentiment to clear the existing misconceptions. Modi’s visit brought forth Sino-India media cooperation; a joint effort to institutionalize ‘High Level Media Forum’ was laid out. The Ministry of External Affairs of India and the State Council Information Office of China will convene on an annual basis, alternately in India and China. The Chinese media has a skeptical view of India’s democracy due to factors like corruption and inequality. It would be a welcome step to sponsor Chinese media visit India and know the country in its entirety.

Chinese diaspora in India primarily includes students, businessmen, dentists and teachers. They are a valuable channel for communicating their Indian stories. Similarly, the Indian diaspora in China, estimated to be 45,000, are an indispensable conduit for spreading India’s soft power. Indian companies in China are known to hire local Chinese workers, thus creating job opportunities for the local population. Mr. Modi’s Shanghai speech showcased the immense investment opportunities available in India; 21 business agreements were signed worth $22 billion.


With bilateral relations gaining strength, the spirit of the Delhi-Beijing friendship needs to permeate beyond bureaucratic hurdles. There may be delays in resolving the contentious border dispute and trade deficit, nevertheless soft power is India’s most promising tool in its foreign policy kit.


[Asma Masood is Research Officer at the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Her areas of interest are China, South Asia and Dynamics of Foreign Policy. Email id : asma.masood11@gmail.com Twitter: @asmamasood11]

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