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India’s Edge Over China: Soft Power

John Lee

While China’s neighbors look at the country’s rise with a mixture of apprehension and admiration, the story of India’s reemergence as a regional power is more attractive to many states in the region. After all, unlike China, India has no history of invasion or domination in East and Southeast Asia and does not have competing claims in the South China Sea with other Asian states. Moreover, “in today’s world,” India’s then-Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor said in a speech last November, “it is not the size of the army that wins but the country that tells the better story.” As the world’s largest democracy, with a vibrant press and thriving entertainment industry, India has huge soft power advantages over China and its state-controlled media. The implication is India can take advantage of that goodwill as Asia’s two giants battle for influence in the region and around the world.

Tharoor is correct to refer to India’s soft-power advantages. But goodwill towards India and the enormous potential of Indian soft power—the ability to influence the behavior of other states through attraction and cooptation rather than military force or economic inducement—does not arise simply from the growing popularity of Bollywood movies or the fact that Indian contestants (along with those from Venezuela) have won more Miss World contests than any other country. The fact that one likes Indian culture may not necessarily lead foreign governments to accede and acquiesce to Indian foreign policy objectives.

Instead, power—soft or hard—needs to be understood within the context of how attractiveness and influence in the region is acquired and wielded. The regional order over the past two decades has been characterized by a move toward open markets, multinational cooperation, international rule-of-law, and an evolving democratic community—all backed by American preeminence and Washington’s security alliances and partnerships with key capitals, such as Tokyo, Seoul, Canberra, Singapore, Manila and Bangkok. The enduring preference of all key states (with the exception of China) is to maintain the existing order vis-à-vis newly reemerging powers such as China and India.

Strategically Comfortable

That India is rising through full and unapologetic participation in the American-led regional order works to its advantage. Although India is not looking to become an American ally, New Delhi is fundamentally satisfied with the existing strategic order. As Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo puts it in an interview with The Hindu newspaper in January 2007, “We see India’s presence as being a beneficial and beneficent one to all of us in Southeast Asia.”

Moreover, India was already a robust democratic country that has remained intact despite still-open wounds from decades of disastrous socialist economic policies. That allows the country to leverage what Professor Michael Mandelbaum of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies calls “democratic exemplarism”—a paradigm emerging from the successful examples of not just the U.S. but the evolving liberal democracies in East and Southeast Asia.

In particular, Indian politics and society are well aligned with regional standards of what constitutes a modern and legitimate social and political system. Unlike the intolerance of political pluralism in China, India’s domestic habits of negotiation and compromise from 60 years of robust democracy offer greater reassurance to other states that these virtues will be carried over in New Delhi’s interaction with other capitals.

Not Much Apprehension

Therefore, in addition to being impressed with India’s recently acquired hard-power abilities (such as its naval fleet of almost 60 surface ships), plus an economy that has been growing at a rate of 7 percent to 8 percent for almost two decades, political and strategic elites increasingly see India as a predictable, stabilizing, cooperative, and attractive rising power. The notable lack of apprehension about India’s rise and the eagerness to help India emerge as a new center of power in Asia is demonstrated by the remarkable speed with which India has been welcomed as a trusted strategic player in the region by all status quo states—fulfilling New Delhi’s objective of becoming an indispensable and crucial player in the regional security setup.

But if political and strategic elites are more than willing to help India become a great power, such surveys as the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index and Chicago Council reports reveal that India’s soft-power credentials among the region’s economic and social elites as well as the general population are still weak. India still has an image problem: Its hard-power achievements since 1991, although impressive, are often ignored or dismissed.

That India is relatively poorly integrated into the East and Southeast Asian economies has something to do with it. But it is also the case that President Harry S. Truman’s depiction of India back in 1947 (as Robert L. Beisner writes in his 2006 book, Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War) as a country “jammed with poor people and cows wandering around the streets, witch doctors, and people sitting on hot coals” still holds true, in large part. The Indian economy is both cutting-edge and medieval. Despite having what is arguably the world’s largest middle class, more than one fifth of its people still live below the poverty line, and one third remain illiterate. The vibrant reputation of the country’s entrepreneurialism exists alongside a discriminatory caste system that is still strong in rural regions and small towns.

Moreover, although India has world-class “micro-level” strengths in such industries as pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, IT outsourcing, and telecommunications, its record of achieving widespread and enduring macroeconomic and structural reform—in addition to building much-needed infrastructure and educating its people—is still unproven.

Irreversible Modernization?

Finally, unlike a country such as China, where information is restricted and social failings largely hidden from foreign eyes, India’s social ills are openly displayed, talked about, and debated. New Delhi cannot easily enlist the media to devise or shape a consistent message about Indian successes to a foreign audience.

India suffers from a perception gap: Its confidence in the country’s future is not yet shared by foreign audiences, who remain unconvinced that India is irreversibly set on the path of modernization and prosperity. Outside regional foreign and defense ministries, the 21st century Indian success story—so important for its soft-power credentials—is still seen as a speculative bet. In the struggle to win support around Asia, India has an important advantage over China. India cannot realize its potential in this area, however, unless it proves to the world that its days of economic and social stagnation (summed up by the derogatory phrase, the “Hindu rate of growth”) are truly a thing of the past.

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