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Sugar and Spice: Strategies for India’s Soft Power in China; By Asma Masood

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

Image courtesy: HT

C3S Paper No. 0040/2016

This article is a follow-up to the paper published on “Boosting India’s Soft Power in China; By Asma Masood” (vide ).

A Chinese delegation led by Mr. Wang Yajun, Director General in the Ministry of foreign affairs, traveled to Delhi for an India-China Policy Planning Dialogue on February 28 2016. They discussed perspectives on foreign policy priorities with their Indian counterparts, who were led by Shri Santosh Jha, Joint Secretary (Policy Planning & Research).

This meeting is a positive development as it serves to strengthen bilateral ties between the two countries. However India needs to follow up such initiatives with suitable soft power strategies. This paper examines certain actions that be taken by the Indian government to propel its soft power and ultimately its foreign policy with China.

Digging into the Diaspora Goldmine

There are more than 45,000 Indians in China. These include businessmen, professionals and students. A strategy of lobbying can be taken up by the NRIs in China. Indian businessmen operating successfully in China can push for support from the relevant local sectors to increase trade with India. They can even garner support for India-friendly policies. For instance, Prakash Menon has been successful in creating a pool of NIIT centers in China. His corporate can engage with local IT personnel, especially those who have benefitted from their training programmes, to support the cause of trade, R & D and investments in India’s IT sector.

It is true that such activities might draw suspicion from the Chinese authorities. However they can be carried out in a systematic process. For example, Indian businessmen can work alongside the India-China Business and Investment Forum (ICBIF) which was organized in January 2016 by the Consulate General of India in Shanghai. The ICBIF promoted a forum where Indian and Chinese businessmen were brought under one roof. The ‘Make in India’ initiative was a key focus. The forum is to be repeated with sector specific meetings in future. It offers a unique opportunity to carry out lobbying via legal, ethical methods. The Indian Consulate General in Shanghai is to be commended for their enterprising spirit.

Pushing Public Diplomacy and People-to-People contacts

However according to sources the Indian diplomatic representations in China are understaffed. There is not enough manpower to meet the requirement of sustaining hard power, let alone soft power strategies with the rising power. India must meet the deficit by expanding an internship programme across all Indian embassies and consulates in the country. Larger student exchange programmes will allow for greater scope for interns to assist Indian diplomats in China. Besides, consultants with suitable, qualified academic background can be also be taken on board. However the Indian diplomats needn’t work alone on these soft power strategies, as they have other priorities to consider. Private citizen-to-citizen initiatives will complement the soft power role to a large extent.

Image Building

The activities of the diplomatic representatives and private citizens can seriously pursue the cause of India’s image building in China. The majority of Chinese hold a dim view of India, given the state sponsored media’s reports on poverty, besides harassment and suppression of women in India. Indian community-sponsored events can be held in China to demonstrate the strides made by Indian women. Successful Indian women from various professional and entrepreneurial streams can be invited to participate and share their story. Similarly the perspective of India’s rural areas can be improved. Photograph exhibitions, video seminars and field visits to showcase the milestones achieved by Indian rural population can be held. They can display the Indian villagers proudly brandishing their ‘China mobile’.

Image building can also help to boost the number of Chinese tourists to India. A rise in the number of Chinese tourists will in turn lead to them bringing back positive stories to be shared with their Chinese brethren.

An integral part of image building is a country’s response to disasters abroad. When this author contacted the Indian diplomatic mission in Beijing to inquire what had been their initiative in the aftermath of the deadly Chinese earthquakes, there was no response. It indicates the absence of any significant, if any action at all. India is commended for its HADR mechanisms in other countries. It must not subordinate the importance of relief to China during its time of crisis.

Image building will also encourage people-to-people contacts on an elevated scale. It will create the necessary atmosphere to foster goodwill and cooperation, by breaking down stereotypes and misperceptions. Thus India’s public diplomacy in China needs a strong public relations strategy.

Role of Private Advertising Companies

India has some of the best advertising companies globally. These can be partnered with the MEA to create attractive advertisements on the various Indian policies and events in China. They can even set up shop in China, where businesses are thriving. Of course these strategies will require understanding the local culture, tastes, beliefs, customs and preferences. By adopting a target-centric approach, public relations and advertising messages can be tailored according to the Chinese audiences for maximum impact.

Customizing Entertainment Media Content

Advertising is not the only arena where local tastes must be considered by India in China. Content and storylines of Indian movies and soap operas can also be customized to appeal to Chinese audiences. The mainstream Indian mother-in-law – daughter-in-law serials which are a hit in Afghanistan will not be appreciated in China. There can be screenplays written to draw the Chinese youth. Issues such as educational pressures and non-discrimination based on religion will yield large crowds as seen by the success of ‘3 Idiots’ and ‘PK’ in China. Similarly there can now be focus on the difficulties of life while being a single child, or even the pressure put by society on single women above 30 years of age. These themes will be empathized with in China, given the predominant section of single child families and the case of single Chinese women being discriminated against as ‘Leftover Women’. The Indian film ‘Piku’ can be marketed in China to appeal to the Chinese based on such themes.

Bollywood needn’t be the only beneficiary. Kollywood, Tollywood and other language movies can be marketed as well. Chinese moviegoers will surely rave about the action stunt sequences in such films. However one drawback remains. Only 5 Indian films are permitted to be screened in China out of the 34 foreign films allowed per year. This can lead to competition between regional cinema producers in India. Dialogue among the parties for equitable representation is a possible solution.

Art and Literature

Movies may be a trend but art stands the test of time. China has become one of the fastest growing nation of art-lovers (vide China’s Art Boom; By Shruthi V.). India has numerous world renowned artists, painters and sculptors. Collaboration between Indian organizations such as Kalakshetra and Chinese art galleries and auction houses will open doors to vivid opportunities.

In addition, Indian literature can be translated into Chinese. The Chinese are fans of philosophy and will appreciate Indian classics. It will generate further benevolence among the people of the two countries. One recent example is the translation of a sample of couplets from the Tamil classic ‘Tirukkural’ into Chinese by Shri. D. S. Rajan, Chennai (vide Translation into Chinese language of Tamil Classic Literature, “Tirukkural “ – A Sample; By D. S. Rajan). Therefore academics is a potential area for boosting India’s soft power in China.

Science and Technology

Academics are not limited to the literary field when it comes to India’s soft power. R & D in science and technology will propel positive perceptions of a technologically empowered India in the eyes of rising China. Cooperation in the field of S&T education must not be neglected. Tie ups must be made between institutions such as Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) and Chinese technical institutions. India can also aid China to setup IIT-like schools in China, given that Beijing wants to emulate the Indian model of centralized technical education.

In addition, space is the final frontier of soft power cooperation. In this day and age it conjures appealing images especially to the youth. Interestingly, China’s space programme has gained recognition in Hollywood movies such as “Gravity” and “The Martian”. Similarly, India can project its own space schemes in China via sustained cooperative measures, training exchange programmes, and even shaping entertainment media around this very theme. Delhi can be bold enough to request China that the latter’s plans for a second space station, Tiangong 2, involve ISRO’s assistance. A joint Indo-China space station in the heavens will echo positive magnetic fields back among the two countries’ citizens on earth.


These strategies are just the tip of the iceberg for India’s soft power potential in China. If applied, they can significantly increase the positive perception of India among the Chinese. It will be a slow journey, and there is bound to resistance from certain quarters in China. However Beijing has expressed that it is ready to grow alongside India. Such intentions cannot be fulfilled without allowing for constructive Indian auras to permeate the Great Wall. India too cannot afford to be a fence-sitter on this very wall. India needs to understand that her culture can hold great attraction for the Chinese.

These strategies can also be applied on a global level, where India can be on par with China in the soft power domain. According to Dr. Raj Verma, Asst. Professor of International Relations, School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University, “Most of the people go to China and learn Mandarin because of economic opportunities. Very few people are interested in Chinese culture. More often it is not from the heart, unlike for India.”[1]

Nevertheless India needs to go forth with the spirit of cooperation and not competition with China. Soft power strategies may not resolve the India-China border dispute in the near future, but ideas such as harnessing the diaspora dividend and pushing public diplomacy may have a quick solution for the trade deficit.  Thus proactiveness is the need of the hour. India already has all the ingredients for soft power. It just needs to package them in a bottle, label it and market it efficiently. It will create not just a brand, but a SuperBrand India. The time is right for India to adopt an ‘Act Soft Policy’!


[1] Email Interview with Dr. Raj Verma, Asst. Professor of International Relations, School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University, February 29 2016.

[Asma Masood is a Research Officer with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, India. Email id : Twitter:@asmamasood11]

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