IPCS Special Commentary

India’s Growing Soft Power in Southeast Asia: Will it Clash with China?

06 Aug, 2013    ·   4070

Abanti Bhattacharya decodes the strategic advantage of India's soft power in Southeast Asia vis-a-vis China's growing influence in the region

India has some two thousand years of association with Southeast Asia. Its Hindu influence touched all parts of Southeast Asia except few pockets of North Vietnam, Philippines, inland of Borneo and Indonesian Islands east of Bali. Hinduism was state religion of this region from 5th century to 14th century AD. Indian priestly class, the navigators and the merchants introduced Hindu Gods, culture, institutions, language, script, art and architecture to this region. Indian civilizational spread was not associated with dominance, coercion and violence. In some instance, Indians were in fact, invited to spread enlightenment in the region. 

It was thus most natural spread of India’s soft power is unparallel. Empirical evidence of this spread abounds in the form of famous temple architecture of Borobudur and Prambanan in Indonesia, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, temples and pagodas in Thailand, besides presence of Sanskrit words in Bahasha Indonesia and epic tales of Ramayana in folk literature. Given the civilizational interface, the Southeast Asian countries are termed as “civilizational neighbours”. 

The advent of Islam to the region by the 14th century AD and later the onslaught of European imperialism in the 19th century snapped the cultural linkage between India and Southeast Asia. In the post-War era, though India sought to reach out to Southeast Asia based on its historical linkages, it did not create much enthusiasm among the countries and finally under the impact of Cold War politics as well as India’s loss against the Chinese in the 1962 War, the relations soured.  

However, in the post-Cold War era under the impulse of Look East Policy when India turned towards its Southeast Asia civilizational neighbours, its historical linkages and soft power presence came very handy. India was no stranger to the region. But since the Look East Policy was essentially driven by economic imperatives, the focus on using the soft power approach to enrich cultural and civilizational linkages with the region was missing at the initial stages. In fact, critics of Look East Policy argue that India’s strategy has been more reactive than proactive thus rendering New Delhi little strategic vision towards the region. Predictably, exploiting India’s soft power to reach out to the Southeast Asian countries was not given due importance. However, with India’s own economic rise, the soft power approach gained momentum in Indian foreign policy and this could be simply explained by the overriding reality that soft power without being backed by hard power is meaningless. 

With a new confidence of economic growth, Indian government not only deemed fit to explore cultural and civilizational ties with the Southeast Asian countries, but that the Southeast Asian themselves found India more appealing in the post- 1990s decade. This evidently gave a new thrust to India’s Look East Policy. Besides the attractiveness of the Indian market and its growing economy, an added rationale for Southeast Asian countries to turn to India was the fear of China. Apparently, post the 2010 South China Sea dispute, China’s charm as a country of opportunity has seemingly lost its sheen. In fact, it has revived the memories of China threat among the Southeast Asian countries. While conspicuously Southeast Asia does not have any territorial dispute with India. 
India's Growing Soft Power in Southeast Asia
In 2007, the Government of India under Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh envisaged the India-ASEAN Students Exchange Programme to build greater understanding between the two dynamic regions. The visits have been designed to cover historical, cultural, economic and leadership aspects of India enabling the ASEAN students to learn about the Indian sub-continent. The students get the opportunity to not only experience India’s rich cultural heritage but also meet the top government leaders, officials, corporate houses, academicians and Indian students. More than just building greater connectivity such visits have reestablished the historical symbiosis of the two great civilizations. 

As part of the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit held in December 2012, two flagship events were organized: Shipping Expedition of INS Sudarshini to ASEAN countries and the ASEAN-India Car Rally. The INS Sudarshini Shipping Expedition was flagged off on 15 September 2012 from Kochi and concluded on 29th March 2013. The shipping expedition followed the ancient trade route along the monsoon winds and highlighted India’s traditional and current maritime linkages with South East Asia. It also highlighted the deep inter-linkages between the two regions in terms of trade, culture and intellectual ideas. The ASEAN-India Car Rally was held from November 26 to December 20, 2012. It kicked off from Yogyakarta, Indonesia and traversed through 8 of the 10 ASEAN nations to finally conclude in New Delhi. In 2004, the first India-ASEAN Car Rally had taken place. It was organised in eight countries covering over 8000 km, fielding 240 participants with 60 vehicles. The purpose of the Car Rally is essentially to demonstrate “India’s proximity to the ASEAN.” Alongside it is aimed at creating public awareness about the ASEAN-India partnership and promoting tourism and people-to-people linkages.
Besides on June 21, 2013, the ASEAN-India Centre (AIC) was inaugurated by the External Affairs Minister at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS).  The Centre was envisaged in the ASEAN-India Vision Statement, adopted at the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit on December 20, 2012. The establishment of the AIC is to serve as a resource centre for India and the ASEAN and carry out networking activities with various organizations and think tanks in both the regions.  

The Government of India at present is progressively focussed on ‘networking of universities’ by linking Indian higher education institutions with the ASEAN higher education system. This has resulted in collaborative research in biotechnology, information technology and biomedics as well as exchange of scholars and students in social sciences and economics. 

Apart from these initiatives, Indian Government is also promoting external cultural relations through the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). The ICCR that was instituted in 1950 has gathered great momentum with growing Indian soft power and facilitates in fostering mutual understanding and promoting cultural exchanges with countries across the world. In its website, the ICCR describes itself as “communion of cultures, a creative dialogue with other nations.” It has 20 regional offices and 35 cultural centres all over the world and 15 more are in the offing. Notably, one of the major roles of the ICCR is its scholarship programme for graduate, post-graduate and PhD students. It annually offers 2325 scholarships under 21 scholarship schemes. Of these, 50 Mekong Ganga Cooperation Scholarship scheme and 15 Ayush scholarship scheme for BIMSTEC member countries pertain to Southeast Asia. Besides, ICCR has established 93 chairs related to India and its languages in various foreign universities of which six are located in Southeast Asia in Vietnam (University of Social Sciences & Humanities), Thailand (Chulalongkorn University and Silpakorn University), Singapore (National University of Singapore), Malaysia (University of Malaya), Indonesia (Mahendradatta University and Gadja Madah University) and Cambodia (Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University).

What does it mean for China?
Soft power is difficult to measure in tangible terms. Yet the success of it could be gauged from certain indicators like tourism in the country. If top ten source countries for foreign tourist arrivals to India are considered, none of the Southeast Asian countries figure for the year 2010-2011. While tourist arrival to India shows an increasing trend in the past ten years from 23,84,364 persons in 2002 to 66,48,318 in 2012, India is ranked at 38th position in world tourist arrivals and at 9th position in Asia and the Pacific region. Being a seventh largest country in the world with rich historical tradition and vibrant multicultural society, the foreign tourist arrivals figures are pathetically meager. In comparison, in 2013, China is slated to emerge as a third largest tourist destination in the world. According to the Bloom Consulting Country Brand Ranking, trade and tourism are considered two brand indicators and in this China ranks 3rd in 2012 trade ranking and 4th in 2012 tourism ranking in the world. India is placed at 15th in trade and 23rd in tourism for the same year. India though in recent times has relatively grown more active in promoting its soft power; it is clearly trailing much behind China in all the brand indicators. 

The comparative figures of India and China suggest that India exhibits limited success in projecting its soft power capability. Former Union Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor, who is also a staunch propagator of India’s soft power, has contended that today it is not the size of the army or of the economy that matters but instead it is the country that tells the ‘better story’ qualifies as a global player. But question remains if India has been able to tell a better story. 

In fact, most analysts have suggested a general failure of India’s soft power approach. The Economist argues that India lacks strategic culture to exploit its soft power capability. It says, “One big reason is that the country lacks the culture to pursue an active security policy. Despite a rapidly rising defence budget, forecast to be the world’s fourth-largest by 2020, India’s politicians and bureaucrats show little interest in grand strategy.” Rohan Mukherjee, from Princeton University suggests that India is confused about its own identity and hence unsure of its power projection. He says, “the credibility of India’s soft power lies in the coherence of its national identity, and India has not yet resolved the many contradictions in its self-image in a manner that might lend to the successful utilization of its latent soft power resources.” Nicolas Blarel avers that “soft power cannot really exist without some initial hard power achievements. A country will only be able to realistically tell a ‘better story’ if it has material power to build its soft power on.” Again Rohan Mukherjee says that India possesses a strong soft power capability in terms of democracy but it shies away from using it and hence abandons one of the potent tools that could be an alternative to the Chinese soft power approach. 

Sifting through the critics on India’s ability to project its soft power, there seems to be less room for optimism for India’s success in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, one cannot forget that historically India was the most successful and unique exemplar of soft power approach in Southeast Asia. Indeed, its historical approach echoed Joseph Nye’s definition of soft power where he defines soft power as ‘the ability of a nation to structure a situation so that other nations develop preferences or define their interests in ways consistent with one’s nation.’ If India was successful then, it could well succeed again. 

India’s strength lies in what Rabindranath Tagore said ‘unity of diversity’, not what commonly reiterated in Indian political and academic circles- ‘unity in diversity’. More than the democratic tool which is not original to India, pluralism is the central tenet of Indian culture and civilization. India is on track by celebrating its diversity than by promoting democracy abroad. Therefore, its latest measures in public diplomacy, harping on India’s civilizational attributes and plural identity, evidently create a space for ‘others’ to coexist peacefully. In this respect, India’s nascent steps in reaching out to the Southeast Asian countries do not pose a cultural threat to its neighbours, including China. Going back to history again, one may point out that in Southeast Asia both Indian and Chinese cultures met but never clashed. This indeed distinguishes Indian soft power.