The slow shift of power from the West to the East, the onset of the nuclear era, the modern race for military superiority and the increasing international tensions especially in Southern Asia have rendered Soft Power as the most important tool for the functioning of diplomacy in this era of changing perceptions. Soft power is a growing alternative strategy for this otherwise politically volatile neighbourhood.
According to Joseph Nye, the Harvard academic who coined this concept, soft power is the ability to get others to want, or accept, what you want. It essentially deals with the image, public relations and ephemeral popularity of a country per se. Apart from cultural superiority this concept includes commercial inter-play as a part of its design.
If the French came up with the Alliance Française to capture the attention of the global community, China has now started the Confucius Institutes as effective healthy rivals. The traditional Asian recluse now has centres that look at imparting to the world the niceties of their culture and allow foreign nationals an opportunity to learn and enjoy Chinese martial arts, language, calligraphy, food, music and dance. What is commendable is that although the intention of the ROC was to start with a modest 100 institutes the figures stand close to 500 today. An excellent example of Soft power, a major feature of these institutes lies in the fact that the stakes are equally divided between Chinese Government which shares part burden of the financial burden with the countries where the institutes are set up. This is taking it a step further than the British Council and the Alliance Française which generally set shop independently in other countries. To quote Don Starr, the “continued success of soft power initiatives in China will be three-fold: the open-mindedness of the young, the longevity of the outreach and communication through shared language.”
Reciprocal altruism is showcased by these countries in their diplomatic affairs. According to Denise Zheng, Beijing frequently hosts leaders of smaller countries, especially from Africa and South Asia and they are often flattered by Beijing’s hospitality. Today, diplomats from China are amiable and skilled at engaging local communities.
The second important player in South Asia currently exploiting its Soft power is India. Enclosed on all sides by hostile neighbours it becomes quintessential for this Southern giant to develop a skilled strategy to develop its diplomatic needs. Bollywood primarily has achieved significant success in playing the role of a window to the world in India. Although India may not have its own language institute (And you cannot blame them, there are 28 recognised languages in the country!) it has more to offer its Western visitors than any other Asian power on the continent. Indian Philosophy, literature both English and regional literature, art and architecture has been a reason for attracting its foreign visitors. This is only an initiation of what could fructify into furthering India’s international relations.
The chemistry showcased by both India and China highlights the fact that the era of military coercion is quickly being replaced by an era of cultural compatibility. We are now moving towards a world that promotes similarities rather than highlight the differences. . Given that both countries house almost a quarter of the planet, multilateral alignments are proving to be efficient resources of economic and social stability.
Last but not least however is the downside of the under- use of this strategy with the immediate neighbours on the continent. The Dalai Lama once remarked, ‘We have been all the way to the moon and back but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbour.’ The same is true with both China and India. Although these countries have been able to cohort a South – South nexus with countries from far away Africa, both countries must first make peace within themselves,
Soft Power can only be the means to success for both these countries when they display the willingness to resolve problems closer home. To modify Jefferson’s quote, “We must hope that our wisdom will grow with our (Soft) power, and teach us, that the less we use our (Hard-Military) power the greater will be our international comity.”