India Racing Ahead of China

India may not be able to match China’s economic growth but can benefit immensely from adopting a “soft power” approach.

As the world prepares for the second decade of the twenty-first century it is increasingly clear that the now subtle rivalry between China and India is only likely to exasperate.

China, though formally a Communist nation with a mixed market economy, has been able to achieve economic superiority compared with India which is trying to catch up by stressing its democratic politics, civil society and peaceful intentions.

The approach most suitable to India’s character and ambitions is one of “soft power,” a term coined by Harvard international relations scholar Professor Joseph Nye. Nye argued that “power is the ability to alter the behavior of others to get what you want, and there are three ways to do that: coercion (sticks), payments (carrots) and attraction (soft power). If you are able to attract others,” he explained, “you can economize on the sticks and carrots.”

In his book, The Paradox of American Power (2002), Nye took the analysis of soft power beyond the United States. Other nations too, he suggested, could acquire it. In today’s information era there are three types of countries likely to gain soft power and so succeed:

Those whose dominant cultures and ideals are closer to prevailing global norms (which now emphasize liberalism, pluralism, autonomy); those with the most access to multiple channels of communication and thus more influence over how issues are framed; and those whose credibility is enhanced by their domestic and international performance.

Though a country’s respect and prestige on the world stage is very much determined by its latent military power, it must also be supplemented with soft power. Otherwise in plain terms the former could be understood as arrogance.

Nye had a point in explaining the need of soft power in any nation’s overall impact on the world. With the United States struggling with two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the world views the superpower in negative terms. To improve that image abroad, Joseph Nye advocated the projection of soft power.

In India’s case, a soft power approach could be the trump card. To start, apart from democracy, India has the ability to be an information power. Many students from Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia are interested in studying in India at much cheaper rates. India should implement a better infrastructure of absolving them. In that regard, the passage of the Nalanda University Bill by parliament may indicate that India is preparing to unleash its soft power onto Asia and the world. This perception is reinforced by the efficient completion of the South Asian University project under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation’s header and India’s decision to open up its higher education sector to global inputs and competition.

Moreover, there aren’t many countries in the world which resent India’s growing power. This is another main factor. From Singapore to the Sudan, from Angola to Afghanistan, from Australia to Argentina countries regard India with respect, not fear. What this means is that there is no need for a any power outside Eurasia to initiate a classic balance of power with or against India. This is certainly not the case with China.

China has actually a very limited ability to boost its soft power credentials. Its foreign policy has little regard for human rights and democracy while supportive of regimes that China does business with. The islands of Fiji are a case in point. It is very much because of the security umbrella provided by China that Fiji’s military dictator is able to withhold democratic elections. India doesn’t have any such constrains.

In the short run, India may not be able to match China’s three trillion dollar currency reserve nor, indeed, its robust industrial growth, but it can project a more favorable image of itself to the world through a policy of soft power. That may well, in the long run, turn out to be much more beneficial to its economy as well as its people.

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