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India Needs to Flex its Soft Muscles

John Lee

The Chinese Communist Party is obsessed with building “soft power”—the attractiveness of China’s civilisation, culture, values and political system—as well as ensuring China is respected and admired for its achievements since reforms began in 1978.

In contrast, India puts little emphasis on promoting the country’s historical, economic, political and cultural credentials to the world. Its appreciation for the value of “cultural diplomacy” is poor. The mere mention of India as a great power usually evokes chuckles from an Australian audience. Although loathe to admit it, New Delhi would do well to learn lessons from Beijing about the importance of selling its strengths and achievements to the world.

One is the sheer amount of economic and human resources Beijing devotes to shaping its messages and selling its story. China has funded more than 270 Confucius institutes in 75 countries, teaching Mandarin and the party’s version of history to more than 100 million foreigners. Beijing aims to have 1000 institutes running by 2020. In contrast, India has 24 cultural centres in 21 countries functioning under its missions abroad.

Beijing’s diplomatic charm offensive has been in place since the mid-1990s. At present, China has more diplomats than any other country in the world—including America. In China’s state-dominated society, diplomats are chosen from the cream of the crop and are given extensive language and cultural training.

According to some estimates, Beijing dispatches more diplomatic, business and cultural delegations to all corners of the region each year than all other Asian countries combined. In contrast, foreigners complain about the aloofness, ineffectiveness and bureaucratic stubbornness of many of India’s diplomatic staff. For a country with a gross domestic product of about $US1.3 trillion ($1.5 trillion) and a population of almost 1.2 billion, official Indian delegations are small, infrequent and poorly utilised.

Indian diplomats might protest that China has significantly more resources at its disposal—its economy is three times larger and its state-dominated model places more resources into the hands of the party.

But the point is about purpose and intent in promoting a country’s soft power—an ambition Beijing has in spades. China measures its progress in terms of “comprehensive national power,” which goes beyond the size of its economy and military, and includes other “softer” capabilities such as the reputation of its economic and political system.

Favourable impressions of the country’s achievements have been carefully crafted by image-obsessed party officials. Compared to China, India is seen as a place of disorder, inequality and inefficiency. Yet Western commentators remain largely unaware there were 124,000 instances of “mass unrest” against the government in China in 2008 according to official figures—far more than in India.

China is now the most unequal place in all of Asia in terms of distribution of income, and absolute levels of poverty have increased since 2000. China has far superior infrastructure but India still uses capital 50 per cent more efficiently than China.

This is not to deny India has enormous social and economic problems. The argument is about the importance of soft power and taking the foreign reputation of one’s country seriously. Beijing is highly skilled at promoting its achievements and concealing its failings from Western eyes. In contrast, India’s failings are openly displayed and New Delhi puts little emphasis on promoting the country’s recent achievements, which are considerable.

But if India’s open society makes centrally crafted messages to highlight achievements and conceal weaknesses much more difficult, it does offer a significant advantage over countries such as China.

Despite Beijing’s efforts, the re-emergence of authoritarian China gives rise to as much apprehension as admiration. But regional capitals view democratic India as an attractive, co-operative and non-threatening country, and New Delhi’s domestic habits of transparency, negotiation and compromise will influence the way a powerful India interacts with others.

While few countries trust China, the eagerness to help India continue to rise is demonstrated by the rapid progress made in its strategic and military partnerships with countries such as the US, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Australia.

India is a rising and ambitious power but its re-emergence has failed to excite the collective imagination. This does not change the potential of India’s soft power—enormous compared to China’s. India will meet little resistance as it is rising within the existing normative order.

But New Delhi’s lackadaisical approach to promoting Indian leadership, image and achievements is frustrating for the people who realise the country’s importance to the region as a democratic leader and a constraint on Chinese ambitions.

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