China’s hard-power advantage over India — economic power plus military power — is well known. Less understood is its soft power advantage. Soft power is getting others to do what you want by persuasion. Soft-power theorists suggest that the ability to persuade rests on the power of attraction. We in India may think we are more attractive than China. The numbers show otherwise.
Joseph Nye, the political scientist who gave us the notion of soft power, suggests that it consists of foreign policy, cultural and political influence. Foreign policy influence comes from the legitimacy and morality of one’s dealings with other countries. Cultural influence is based on others’ respect for one’s culture. Political influence is how much others are inspired by one’s political values. Soft power is difficult to measure. Fortunately, the Lowy Institute in Australia has produced various measures which correspond roughly to foreign policy influence, cultural influence and political influence.
In diplomatic influence, overall, India ranks sixth and China ranks first among 25 Asian powers, which include the US (given the US’s huge diplomatic, military, and economic presence in Asia). Lowy further distinguishes between diplomatic networks, multilateral power, and perceived foreign policy leadership, ambition and effectiveness. On networks, India nearly matches China in the number of regional embassies it has but is considerably behind in the number of embassies worldwide (176 to 126). Multilaterally, India matches China in terms of regional memberships, but, crucially, its contributions to the UN capital budget are completely dwarfed by Chinese contributions (11.7 per cent to 0.8 per cent of the total). In surveys of foreign policy leadership, ambition, and effectiveness, China ranks first or fourth on four measures while India ranks between fourth and sixth in Asia.
Lowy’s overall measure of cultural influence ranks India in fourth place and China in second place in Asia. Lowy then divides cultural influence into three elements, of which “cultural projection” and “information flows” are the most important.
In cultural projection, India scores better on Google searches abroad of its newspapers and its television/radio broadcasts. It also exports more of its “cultural services” (defined as “services aimed at satisfying cultural interests or needs”). China does better on several other indicators. For instance, India has only nine brands in the list of the top 500 global brands whereas China lists 73. On the number of UNESCO World Heritage sites, India has 37 while China has 53. If very tall skyscrapers are a measure of prestige, then China has 156 in its main financial centre, India has only 44. Respect for the Indian passport also lags. Chinese citizens can travel visa-free to 74 countries while Indians can only do so to 60.
In terms of information flows, in 2016–17, India hosted a mere 24,000 Asian students in tertiary education institutions whereas China hosted 2,25,000. As for tourist arrivals, in 2017 India clocked 5 million arrivals from Asia whereas China clocked 41 million and ranked first among 25 Asian countries. On total tourist arrivals from all over the world, India received 17 million, while China received 63 million.
Finally, in 2017 the two were not ranked that far apart in political influence. The governance effectiveness index shows India scoring in the top 43 per cent countries worldwide and ranked 12th and China scoring in the top 32 per cent and ranked 10th. If influence rests on “political stability and absence of violence/terrorism”, India ranked 21st, with 79 per cent of countries worldwide doing better, and China ranked 15th with 63 per cent doing better.
The comparison between India and China on soft power is mixed — China surpasses India far more than the other way round, though the difference in some cases is not large. However, numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Having lived for a decade in Southeast Asia, my sense is that the “whole story” is even worse for India than the numbers reveal. In no conversation about international affairs, regional geopolitics, global and Asian economy and technology, and even contemporary culture (art, music, literature, fashion) is China absent. The same cannot be said for India. You can’t have soft power if you’re not even in the conversation. When India is in the conversation, confidence in its regional ambitions, economic, military, and diplomatic capabilities, and cultural and political fit with Southeast Asia are thought to be low — as clearly documented in the State of Southeast Asia Survey Reports issued annually by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Except for South Asia, this is the case all over the world. China evokes awe; India evokes silence, a polite shake of the head, or exasperation. Classical India may stand head-to-head with classical China in the regard it garners, but contemporary India has been left a distance behind. Until we recognise that, we can’t do much about it.
This column first appeared in the print edition on June 23, 2021 under the title ‘Losing the soft touch’. The writer is the author of India Versus China: Why They Are Not Friends (Juggernaut Books)