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China- Nepal- India: The Soft Power Dimension – By Asma Masood

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

C3S Paper No.2096


 China recently announced that it is going to open a cultural centre in Nepal in its bid to augment the cultural bond between the two neighbouring countries. Beijing believes that the establishment of a cultural centre in Kathmandu can enhance mutual cooperation between the two countries. It was also stated that the establishment of cultural centre will help reduce cultural distance in hearts of the peoples of the both countries.


Why is China at a disadvantage when compared to India regarding the question of soft power? How can India’s soft power translate into hard power and thus counter the influence of China in Nepal?


China- Nepal vs. India- Nepal

China has an inherent culture of oneness. The awareness and expression of cultural diversity is absent or discouraged. Lucian W. Pye describes in his work “Asian Power and Politics” that in China culture single-mindedness is an unquestioned virtue. [1] Such perceptions cannot serve to strengthen people to people contacts. This occurrence is inevitable as a people’s national culture that discourages internal diversity will find it difficult to embrace a multi-hued global culture. Pye states that although Sinic culture has had an impressive impact on Korea, Japan and Vietnam, it has come a poor second to the Indian culture in attracting other peoples 1. On the other hand, Nepali society and state function on the basis of pluralism. This brings the buffer state on parity with the celebrated heterogeneous culture of India.


The ease of communication between India and Nepal permeates beyond political boundaries, extending to the people-to-people realm. There are four areas that may be focused on while studying soft power linkages: aid; scope of civil society bonding on hydropower issues; educational cooperation and cultural exchange.


China views aid as a purely strategic tool to increase regional clout. It is clear from granting aid being a function of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, unlike in India which operates aid from the Development Administration Partnership under the Ministry of External Affairs. While India too has strategic interests in Nepal, there is a vast contrast from the Chinese procedure of granting aid. Aid involves linkages with industries. For instance, State Owned Enterprises in China observe ground realities in Southeast Asia and report back with suggestions for aid. Such trends will make Nepal wary of China’s strategic shadow. The size and purpose of aid are also factors:  In 2010-11, China pledged US$35.48 million in aid to Nepal, which is smaller compared to India’s recent announcement of US$1 billion in aid to the buffer state. The Indian grants will build power plants and roads. India also contributes to the development efforts of Nepal by undertaking various development projects in the areas of infrastructure, health, rural and community development, education, etc. However a sizeable portion of Beijing’s aid goes to Nepal’s army and police.[2] Thus China may use the soft power of aid as a hard power tactic, by viewing it through the lens of business more than benevolence. The essence of China’s soft power is hence dented in Nepal.


One area where China and India remain close competitors is hydropower cooperation with Nepal. There is extensive scope for projecting India’s soft power in Nepal vis-à-vis China and water diplomacy. Nepal with its rich water resources attracts immense attention from both the fast developing states. However several Indian hydropower projects such as Arun III and Upper Karnali were stalled because of protests from Maoists against foreign investments and developments.[3] Civil society participation is indispensable in the decision making process for future hydropower projects between Delhi and Kathmandu. It will enable effective dialogue as well as facilitate adequate compensation and proper resettlement of displaced groups. Engaging the public will allow smooth implementation of the recently signed Power Trade Agreement between India and Nepal. Public support and positive opinion of India can prevent a pro- China shifts in Nepal’s hydropower sector. Incidents like Nepal diverting the West Sethi project from India to China can be avoided. Disaster management groups can also cooperate to prevent the adverse effects of the dam projects on Nepal’s seismic territory.


Technical educational cooperation is another area where India can compete with China. The root cause for this discrepancy may lie in the inherent Chinese state culture of discouraging innovation. As Pye records, the traditional Chinese belief that legitimate power should appeal to be omnipotent and omnicompetent has made it difficult for technically skilled Chinese to find scope for their skills in government 1. The scholar also notes that in Deng Xiaoping’s China, cleverness has focused on “reverse engineering” 1. These patterns enable India to step ahead as a global leader in research and development of new technology. Its expertise is being shared with Nepal via the B.P Koirala India Nepal Foundation in Delhi. Its focus includes cooperation in education, agricultural research, science and technology and technical training.  There is also a reflection of Indian technical expertise as seen by Indian engineers and IT personnel constituting a large number of the 600,000-strong Diaspora in Nepal.


On the cultural front, it is observed that China exports a single Confucian channel, while India harbours a diverse outlook. While there are 19 Confucian Centers in Nepal, there are comparatively fewer efforts to induct Nepali culture into the Sinosphere, despite the cultural deficit. Hence the establishment of Confucian Centers is largely a strategic move, to counter India’s traditional influence in the Himalayan kingdom. On the other hand India and Nepal share an ancient cultural affinity and invest adequately for the required cross-border cultural capital.


One major aspect of this capital is Buddhist diplomacy.  Nepal is home to Lumbini, site of the earliest Buddhist shrine at the Maya Devi Temple. Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated during his recent SAARC visit that Lumbini was the birthplace of Buddha. Such declarations help to increase goodwill. On a tangible note, Narendra Modi has offered to connect Lumbini to India’s Buddhist circuit in order to attract international tourists. With India’s help, Nepal is set to develop Lumbini as pilgrim tourist centre.  A diplomatic goodwill is observed in the manner of India’s offer. On the other hand, China employs hard-line tactics while colonizing its Buddhist region of Tibet. Chinese pressure also deterred Modi from paying a visit to the Lumbini shrine during the SAARC summit.[4] Such reports will not increase positive perceptions of Beijing in Kathmandu, despite China’s infrastructure projects in Lumbini.


It is also interesting to observe that while India receives the lion’s share of influx of Nepali citizens, the small state is home to the world’s second largest Tibetan community.  It is also significant as China seeks to constrain Tibetan refugees in Nepal and halt their anti-China activities as much as possible lest they inflame the already tense situation in Tibet proper.[5]  These ripples across the border may impact trade between China and Nepal which is largely conducted via Tibet. However India and Nepal remain strong allies on the cultural cum trade front.


Soft Power Spillover into Hard Power

This alliance may be elevated by the strategic mechanism of soft power. Narendra Modi has reacted with élan at China tactics of aid to Nepal and infrastructure development at Lumbini.  By granting the amount of US$1 billion in aid to Kathmandu, which the latter has initially sought as a loan, India has sowed sturdy seeds of soft power. It will reap dividends at the political and trade levels. This approach is more effective than coercive or aggressive reactionary measures.  Nepal has already demonstrated that intimidation will only augment diplomatic distance. This has already occurred in 1989 when India laid a trade siege on Nepal after the erstwhile kingdom signed agreements with China on weapons procurement and road building.


On the other hand soft power may be given some credit for forging ties as seen in the signing of the Power Trade Agreement. This approach will enable India to realize its grand design in Nepal. The end game is to cement the existing economic and political ties and gain in Nepal an unwavering ally in South Asia. There is also the need to balance China’s growing influence in the region. Beijing eyes Nepal for its proximity to Tibet, its water resources and its potential as a tool to counter India. Narendra Modi must thus not ignore the strategic importance of soft power while dealing with the Himalayan kingdom.


Conclusion

The reason soft power is not an integral part of India’s foreign policy is that India’s very existence as a democratic and demure state serves as a soft power stratagem in itself, whereby it attracts its neighbouring countries including Nepal. The democratic promotion of cultural diversity is also significant when compared to China: The ‘One China’ is not only a political gesture; it trickles down to the cultural circle where every Chinese is taught to think of himself in terms of a single identity. However, the national identity that prevails in India is supported by the indispensable principle of unity in diversity. The observed soft power is involuntary. Yet it fuels hard power whereby Nepal voluntarily has strong historical political relations with India.


Similarly Delhi’s proactive soft power stratagems have also added value to the India- Nepal equation. The sum of US$1 billion in aid may go a long way in creating a pro- India tilt in Kathmandu.  Other innovative measures are called for- A similar leaning can be generated by engaging civil society in water diplomacy. Disseminating innovative ideas via technical education is also a step towards creating employment generation and economic growth in Nepal. While Nepal can be developed as a technically advanced nation with India’s help, there is also spacious room for creating a cultural hub across the border. Buddhism is a cornerstone of these cultural ties, and the commitments to cultivate Buddhist tourism in Nepal are noteworthy.


These measures have thus aided in strengthening Indo- Nepal ties to a vast extent.  The inference drawn is that if such small steps are reaping large dividends, then the prospects for Delhi undertaking an integral soft power foreign policy are immense.  India must seek to amplify the positive perceptions in enjoys in Nepal. Or China may take advantage of a complacent outlook. There are signs of this already happening with China’s response to India’s announcement of US$1 billion in aid. China has now pledged to increase its aid to US$128 million from 2015-16, up from the current US$24 million.[6] Delhi thus needs to adopt a soft power strategy with Indian characteristics as soon as possible.  India can easily build on the existing soft power links with Nepal, be it based on Buddha or Bollywood, track II dialogues between business forums or tête-à-têtes among educational circles. While China funds police and army infrastructure, India can promote dialogue among the defense forces to foster harmonious border protection. Another tactic is charming the Nepalese media who are critical of Modi’s “interference” in the country’s internal matters. The Prime Minister’s suggestion that the Nepali Constitution be written in consensus was not well-received.[7] Creating a positive opinion among the fourth estate is indispensable. Until a Brand India is well-established, we may not observe any overt commemoration of the kinship amidst Nepal and India. But this silence might as well be the sound of imminent success.


[1] Lucian W. Pye, 1985. Asian Power and Politics- The Cultural Dimensions of Authority. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. United States of America.

[2] Dinah Gardner. (2014, Aug 17). Power Play: China and India jostle for influence in Nepal. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1572819/caught-middle

[3] Sonali Mittra, 2012: “Impediments to India- Nepal Corporation over Hydropower” Observer Research Foundation. Volume IX Issue 14 Sep 18. Retrieved from http://www.orfonline.org/cms/sites/orfonline/modules/enm-analysis/ENM-ANALYSISDetail.html?cmaid=42452&mmacmaid=42453

[4] Jayadewa Ranade. (2014, Nov 29). Chinese pressure blocked PM’s Lumbini visit. The Sunday Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/news/chinese-pressure-blocked-pms-lumbini-visit

[5] John Daly. (2012, Mar 13). India and China Vie for Influence in Nepal. Oilprice.com. Retrieved from http://oilprice.com/Geopolitics/Asia/India-and-China-Vie-for-Influence-in-Nepal.html

[6] Gopal Sharma. (2014, Dec 26). China raises Nepal aid five-fold in regional diplomacy push. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/12/26/us-nepal-china-idUSKBN0K40LK20141226

[7] Damakant Jayshi. (2014, Nov 27). Modi breached diplomatic norms: Nepal media. The Hindu. Retrieved from http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/south-asia/modi-breached-diplomatic-norms-nepal-media/article6639682.ece 


[Asma Masood is Research Associate at Chennai Centre for China Studies. She has worked as an Independent Researcher on International Relations in the Asia Pacific, during which time she published several articles on ethnic, economic and strategic issues. She has also interned at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Her areas of interest are China, South Asia and Dynamics of Foreign Policy. Email id : asma.masood11@gmail.com]

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