Review of Parama Sinha Palit, Analyzing China’s Soft Power Strategy and Comparative Indian Initiatives, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, SAGE, 2017.
Because India is situated at the very geographic center of the South Asia-Indian Ocean region, Indian civilizational influences have washed repeatedly over that vast region. Indian patriots are keenly aware of this history, and it is easy to assume that Indian influence in the region is somehow natural or inevitable. That may indeed be the case, but the breadth and vigor of China’s efforts to make itself and its policies attractive to the publics and governments of the region suggests that Indian soft power faces a new and very strong competitor.
Dr. Parama Sonha Palit’s book, Analyzing China’s Soft Power Strategy and Comparative Indian Initiatives, offers an interesting and solid study of an important but under-researched aspect of China’s rise in Asia: the scope and character of China’s exercise of soft power. After extracting from the secondary literature a working definition of soft power (the attractiveness of a country) and exploring the evolution of Chinese scholarly thinking about soft power with Chinese characteristics, Palit examines China’s pursuit of soft power in several geographic regions, starting with South Asia. The overarching purpose of China’s soft power activities in the region, Palit concludes, is to establish the image of China as a benign power. Palit turns to a survey of the various mechanisms China uses to advance this soft power goal. The list is long.
Diplomacy: China’s leaders travel frequently and strategically, explaining China’s policies and inveigling foreign support for those policies, assisted by a large and growing cadre of well-trained young diplomats assigned to regional capitals. China participates effectively in multilateral organizations, including a few that it effectively controls (e.g. the Shanghai Cooperative Organization), and is frequently able to block activities adverse to China’s policy interests.
Information: Agencies of the Chinese government (including the Information Office of the State Council) issue a substantial and growing volume of documents outlining and defending China’s policies. An array of attractive magazines – often targeting specific foreign audiences and explaining China’s views – are supported and guided by the government. The Xinhua News Agency provides global coverage educating China’s people about foreign events, and educating foreign audiences about China’s own policy perspectives. China Central Television (CCTV) offers an attractive view of China and presentation of China’s view of world affairs. Party and state organs guide almost all these information activities.
Economic: The huge size and rapid growth of China’s economy, plus China’s success in lifting hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty, hold considerable attraction for foreign firms and governments. Foreign governments seek trade and investment with China. Beijing occasionally uses foreign hopes of expanded economic cooperation in a carrot-and-stick fashion to influence foreign policies in other, non-economic, areas of interest to Beijing. China also provides loans or grants to countries it views as strategic. Foreign governments sometimes find Chinese assistance more attractive than loans by Western countries that carry transparency stipulations. Repayment obligations derived from Chinese loans give Beijing further leverage. Multiple lavishly funded infrastructure projects linked to China often are attractive to countries in the region.
Cultural Diplomacy: Confucius Institutes serve as gateways to interest in China’s civilizational heritage. Presentation of China as an ancient, glorious but non-Western civilization appeals to non-Western countries perhaps resentful of histories of Western domination. The nonviolent, harmony-seeking nature of China’s traditional Confucian civilization is juxtaposed with the violent, conflict-ridden and exploitative nature of Western civilization.
Higher Education: China recognizes U.S. leadership in higher education as a major component of the great influence of the United States in the world. Beijing is striving to turn China into a leading global provider of higher education through dispensing of fellowships, recruitment of prominent foreign faculty, linkups with leading non-Chinese universities, and establishment of English language-based programs to attract foreign students. The objective is to educate coming generations of foreign leaders, giving them in the process an understanding of China’s view of the world.
Supplying higher education to bright and ambitious young men and women from South Asian countries will probably be a key factor influencing the relative status of India, China and other countries in future decades. Palit offers an interesting discussion of China’s “aggressive marketing” of Chinese university study to South Asian youth – initiatives that include participating in exhibitions, offering scholarships for students and faculty, or establishing programs using English as the language of instruction. When Xi Jinping visited India in 2014, for example, he announced plans to offer 10,000 scholarships for South Asian students and faculty. Tertiary education in China also has the distinct competitive advantage of being much cheaper than study at American, European or Japanese universities. Palit notes that large numbers of Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan students are studying medicine in China.
One of the most intriguing questions raised by Palit’s study is whether China might actually become the dominant purveyor of soft power in the South Asian region. This is not a concern raised by Palit herself. Although the book title promises to examine “comparative Indian initiatives,” there is no systematic effort to compare India’s activity in each of the areas deployed by China and enumerated above. Chapter 9 addresses “Indian Soft Power: Strategies and Approaches,” but does not compare Chinese and Indian efforts in, for example, trade with and investment in South Asian countries, the scope of the two rivals’ respective information operations in key South Asian countries, the frequency and level of leadership exchange visits, or the number of South Asian students who receive tertiary education in India and China. It would be interesting to know how India compares with China as a provider of tertiary education to youth in key South Asian countries. This could be a major variable influencing the reputation and status – the soft power – of India and China in the region over a longer period. Palit acknowledges this by discussing the Chinese side of the equation, but comparison with India’s role is absent. It is widely understood that Indian universities have educated large numbers of youth from across South Asia. Is China now surpassing and supplanting India in this crucial regard?
A comparison of the reciprocal exchange of high-level Chinese and Indian leaders with various South Asian countries would also be interesting. Palit examines the coming and going of China’s leaders, and explains how such visits help create a positive, benign image of China. Data comparing visits by Chinese and Indian leaders to South Asian countries is readily available – for example on the websites of the foreign ministries of various countries – but none is provided by Palit. Similarly, one searches in vain for comparison of the information operations of China and India in South Asian countries. In such economic areas as trade and investment, comparisons of Indian and Chinese roles with South Asian countries (e.g. trade with India and China as percent of various South Asian countries’ total trade) would be useful. Palit’s presentation of data suggests that China is about to surpass India, or perhaps already has, in soft power in South Asia. India is only “beginning to articulate soft power… in a more forceful fashion that any time in the past.” (Italics added.) India’s soft power effort has been “less pronounced in scale in the past than similar Chinese efforts.” It is “likely” that under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s soft power effort will “undergo some fundamental change.” India’s soft power efforts labor under considerable burdens, Palit says. India’s stress on its history of cultural influences in the region is “somewhat risky” in that it “might give rise to fear of cultural colonization by India… India’s ability to command respect is considerably diminished by the resentment it meets in the region.”
India, like almost every country in the world, is pondering its response to the remarkable rise of China as a leading power. The question is more portentous for India because it has long dominated the geography of South Asia as well as the maritime flanks constituting the Indian Ocean. Repeated waves of Indian cultural influences did indeed wash over India’s home region and the broader world. And China was kept far away by burdensome geography and technological backwardness. Now those barriers are vanishing. China is becoming a major power, perhaps the major power, in the region. A robust literature has emerged already on the swift development of Chinese naval power across the Indian Ocean, on Beijing’s ambitious One Belt, One Road infrastructure-building efforts, on China’s rise as the leading economic partner for most of the countries of the region, and on China’s push for deeper partnership with countries from Myanmar to Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Iran and Djibouti. Despite omissions about India’s efforts to counter China’s soft power rise in the region, Palit’s study adds an important component to the observation of the evolving rivalry between these two ambitious and proud powers.