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Full text of Special Address delivered by Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd.) at the International Confere

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

Article No. 11/2019

(The following is the full text of the Special Address delivered by Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd), Director Chennai Centre for China Studies and Regional Director NMF (TN) at theInternational Conference on ‘Soft Power and Public Diplomacy in India and China’ jointly organised by Department of International Relations, Central University of Jharkhand in collaboration with the Department of Education, Central University of Jharkhand and co-sponsored by Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi & Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi. It was held at Central University of Jharkhand, Brambe, Ranchi, Jharkhand on 21 February -22nd February 2019.)

It is a great pleasure and honour to participate in the valedictory at the end of these two days of intense discussions and deliberations which have brought out the nuances of soft power as well as public diplomacy and application in all its facets. An effective SWOT analysis has been carried out vigorously during most of the sessions which deliberated on the limitations of soft power on one hand and the power of soft power along with hard power which has become smart or sharp power depending on the interpretation.  By all counts, Joseph Nye would be very pleased with the proceedings of these two days, where he was quoted, discussed and dissected in almost all the sessions. Am sure if you have to prepare his portrait, today, it will be with a smile from ear to ear and perhaps better than that of Mona Lisa.

During the panel discussion on Day 1, I gave the examples of various wars which were fought in India. These wars whether in 1962, or 1965 or 1971 or Kargil have brought out the limitations of soft power. Unfortunately, soft power quotient if any was conspicuous by its absence with the desire of the warring nations to apply hard power in all its manifestations. Relevant in that context is how does the soft power help, for example, if at all, when  the countries are engaged in the Global War on Terror (GWOT)? The fact that all other means have been exhausted including soft power is what led these nations to taking to hard measures. In the context of terrorism being adopted as a State policy by Pakistan supported by Jihadi ideology, how does soft power apply? So while not discounting the prospects of soft power application we are perhaps overstating its potential of soft power.

Also when there is unequal distribution of power in international governance/structure the instruments of soft power and public diplomacy appear weak and pushed to the background. The specific reference is to the use of veto by China whenever it wishes to bail out its all-weather ally Pakistan.

The case of China blocking India’s aspirations to be on the high table whether in the UNSC or admission to the NSG is demonstrative of the limitations of soft power diplomacy. Essentially geo political/economic/strategic considerations override leverage if any of soft power. In the best case scenario, at best, it might complement effort by other means.

Economic engagements have always preceded a political strategic thrust in to target countries which serve the long term ambitions and aspirations of big powers. China has effectively and characteristically used this route to serve its long term objectives. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a classic example of flag following trade. We need to remember how the British came to the sub continent through the East India Company and subjugated India and ruled us. History has a tendency to repeat itself and the BRI is a clear illustration of a new form of economic subjugation though it is being showcased as a benign investment project. The experience of Sri Lanka which had to give away control of Hambantota for 99 years due to inability to pay the loans has brought in a great degree of caution by other nations who are doing business with China particularly as part of the Maritime Silk Route investments.

I would like to bring in a new term tolerance warfare which is being increasingly discussed in terms of the global power play. It is clear that the nature of warfare will now perhaps fall in to this new realm of warfare. Not that it was not already happening, but it has been given a theoretical construct and will form the basis for some more academic work. So what will happen is that the soft power push will be dovetailed to expand the limits of tolerance warfare.

There have been enough discussions on using travel, medical tourism, religious and cultural linkages, food, movies as fulcrums of soft power during the two day conference. All these are indeed important avenues to complement the soft power potential by concerted efforts of the stakeholders supported by the Government and the private industry.

There are other tools of diplomacy that did not find mention in the discussions possibly due to paucity of time. Am referring to track two dialogues and people to people contact which help in extending the limits of tolerance warfare which I alluded to earlier.

In the specific context of India China relations, there is not much emphasis on people to people contact. It is only in recent years that there is some effort to address these important issues. During the very first panel discussion, in my opening remarks, I gave the examples of various wars which were fought where soft power if any was irrelevant. How does the global war on terror pan out if soft power has to be applied? Does it have a role at all when push comes to shove? The clichéd winning the hearts and minds is a good slogan but poses many challenges for soft power application when there is ideological conflict.Also, when the veto power is misused and abused by China, instruments of soft power and public diplomacy look totally irrelevant and useless. The case of NSG, UNSC, blocking of Masood Azhar, etc. bring forth the limitations of soft power and diplomacy.  The importance of language has been underplayed in our discussions and to me this has a great role as a tool of soft power and diplomacy. English for us has been an enabler of promoting our reach and influence.  It has also given us the edge in IT and service sector though other nations are competing for space in this sector.  

There was some discussion on the role of think tanks. India today has the second largest number of think tanks after USA closely followed by China. Again, whether the efforts of these think tanks can be synergised to provide some options for soft power is something that needs be discussed. In the case of China it is perhaps easier with the mushrooming of think tanks which are fully supported by the government. So there are also issues related to what they can discuss and what they cannot discuss and the degree of independence enjoyed by them. Therefore there would be a certain amount of restrictive practices in what these think tanks in China can do. This is relevant in the backdrop of a homogeneous society with a Communist party under Xi Jinping who is now leader for life.  The role of think tanks was enunciated by Xi Jinping in 2013 to work to build a positive image and contribute to nation building. The think tanks have been tasked to show China in a positive light and use it as an instrument of effective soft power not just in India, but in all other countries of the world. One witnesses a lot more participation by Chinese delegates in various forums these days and this would help in bringing academics together. A lot has been said about the importance of using Buddhism as a tool to promote our soft power quotient. It is important to also remind ourselves about the tenets of Buddhism. It is a religion of peace and has a lot of emphasis on bringing about harmony within one’s self. This inner harmony at the level of the individual will help the society to achieve a higher level of productivity and prosperity. The Chinese to some extent relate it to Confucianism. So while the intention of using Buddhism as a tool as a soft power tool is a good one, unfortunately even here China has taken a lead over India. The Chinese have wisely showcased Buddhism as something that not only flourished in China but has influenced their own way of living and thinking with similarities in their practices and beliefs as propounded by Confucianism and Taoism The other tool is the disruptive social media which is shaping opinions not necessarily in a positive manner. The digital and print media do contribute to the process of shaping opinions and the challenges in a democracy with a free press. However, these are very different China where everything is state controlled. Yet, social media in China is also becoming more and more active despite the watchful eyes of the authorities. The youth are finding innovative ways to engage in discussions on social and other issues of human and national interest. Unfortunately again we have not given enough importance to people to people relations between India and China. Now there is some kind of a one-way student movement to China for higher learning because it’s also viable economically. They also use English language as the medium of instruction in many institutes so this is something that will bring our youth in close contact with their counterparts in China. Such professional and personal contacts will contribute to enhanced soft power quotient on both sides.

So it is important that we invest in learning language skills in Chinese.

There is also a need for increasing greater participation in academic studies by Chinese counterparts. This will perhaps bridge the gap in understanding each other and also help in being sensitive to the aspirations of the two big powers of Asia who will define the contours of the Asian century.

Finally, I would like to thank the organizers for thoughtfully planning and executing this programme of great academic and social relevance. The professional and social interactions have enabled the researchers including from our friendly neighbouring countries to gain new insights in an area of study that would help in promoting bilateral and multilateral engagements.  

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