Geopolitics

Is there a Role of Soft Power in Bilateral Relations?
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Issue Vol. 39.1, Jan-Mar 2024 | Date : 10 May , 2024

If one enjoys the delectable ‘Yuan YuangHuo Guo’ (Chinese half spicy half not spicy Hot Pot) with a swig of Kweichow Moutai, does it mean that the person is all ‘gaga’ over Xi Jinping? Most middle-class Indians going for a family outing would prefer to treat themselves to a Chinese fare (which has been suitably refined for the Indian palate). Can it be then concluded that most Indians have a soft corner for China? Do Indians like Chinese music or their cinema? Surely not because it is too squeaky and their cinema does not have a universal appeal. On the contrary while the Indian music produced by Bollywood and its dances, which are a hotchpotch of Salsa, Hip-hop and western street dances, are immensely popular with the Chinese youth and middle-aged population. However, Indian cuisine hardly finds favour in Mainland China. Chinese don’t find India a favourable tourist destination while Indians tourists visit China in fairly large droves. In India securing a seat in the general category in a government medical college is near impossible and private medical colleges and institutions are whoopingly expensive, Indian students do land up in China for a medical degree. But Chinese coming to India for studies can probably be counted on the digits on the two hands. There are hardly any Indians who would want to migrate to China to settle down permanently in the present time. Notably, there were some Indians taken to China as soldiers by the British to fight the Opium Wars and quell the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions. Also, some were taken as policemen and watchmen too. However, the Chinese migrated to India relatively consistently under British colonial rule, with immigration continuing through the turn of the century and during World War I, largely due to political upheavals in China. Interestingly, the first Chinese immigrant, Tong Ah Chew (Atchew, according to British records), arrived in Calcutta (now Kolkata) with loads of tea in 1778 CE and set up a sugar mill near the city. As an eastern port, Kolkata was the closest entry into India from China and East Asia, so this became India’s only Chinese community settlement. Post the 1962 India-China War there was state reprisal against this community that forced many to migrate to safer places out of India, as a result the numbers of the Chinese settlers in Kolkata reduced drastically – barely 2000 left in China Town of Kolkata.

A similar exercise can be undertaken to gauge the equation with regard to India-Pakistan bi-lateral relations. Despite the insidious and malevolent dismemberment of the Indian sub-continent by the departing British, the people on either side of the border continue to have a common language, music, poetry, and folklore. Pakistani Television serials have always been popular with the Punjabi community of India, similarly, Pakistani people are equally fond of Bollywood films and Indian movie stars have a substantial fan following there. Indian and Pakistani troops serving in UN Peacekeeping operations missions abroad have very cordial relationship at all levels. Indian visitors to Pakistan have always mentioned of the warm hospitality they had received on their visit there. The Pakistani Traders who bring their wares to the Trade Fairs in India also experience the same warm hospitality. However, the Pakistani establishment and the religious clergy have a different take on the issue of bilateral relations. An incident during the Partition times is significantly illustrative. Two families, one Hindu and one Muslim living in Lahore were very close to each other. The heads of the families worked together and had a close interaction on a daily basis. The Hindu family had no intention of migrating and the Muslim family too heartily supported their decision. However, one day after the Friday afternoon prayers in the local Mosque, the Muslim head of the family sternly advised his Hindu friend to leave soonest to India. On seeking the reason, his Muslim friend informed him that during the afternoon prayers session the Maulvi had ordered the menfolk to prove their loyalty to their faith by personally killing their dearest Hindu friend. The Muslim told him that since he was his best friend, he could not do this and so he should leave soonest – he implored “Mela Ram tu mera sabton aziz dost hai tu chale ja” (“Mela Ram you are my dearest friend I implore you to please go.” Mela Ram Sharma was the head of the Hindu family). That Hindu family migrated leaving behind everything that they had built up over the generations that they had been there. The leverage of religion to divide will always be an impediment between these two nations in having closer relations.

On the contrary while the Indian music produced by Bollywood and its dances, which are a hotchpotch of Salsa, Hip-hop and western street dances, are immensely popular with the Chinese youth and middle-aged population. However, Indian cuisine hardly finds favour in Mainland China.

Therefore, the question arises that even if people of two countries have no animosity towards each other, tourism is thriving between the two and that there is substantial ongoing trade between them too; while there is just some modicum of cultural and educational exchange between them, does it automatically translate into these countries having cordial bi-lateral relations? Even with every attributable aspect of Soft Power, as enunciated by Joseph Nye, being in place, can two nations forgo their basic foundational ideology or political ideology in order to pursue beneficial bilateral relations? In the case of India-Pakistan and India-China bi-lateral relations, it appears to be remote.

The stumbling block in the relations between India-China and India-Pakistan are the territorial disputes. Territorial issues are existential matters for a nation. Territorial claims cannot be resolved by compromising. Any government in power will be ousted immediately if it does so. Therefore, it will remain a thorn in the flesh of these nations for generations. It will need more than diplomacy and statesmanship to be solved amicably.

With regard to China, it is its irredentist aggressive expansionist overbearing attitude claiming large chunks of Indian territory that was never ever part of China. As regards Pakistan, with surreptitious hugger-mugger involvement of Britain in the Indo-Pak war of 1947, Pakistan occupied a portion of J&K. When, in good faith, India took the matter to the UN seeking it to declare Pakistan as the aggressor and get it to vacate the occupied territories, the US and Britain clandestinely connived to get the UNSC to declare the whole of J&K as disputed territory!! With this as the ground reality what should be the power equations, separately, between India and these two countries to secure any peaceful resolution?

The realists view the nation-states as the key actors in the international system and calculations about power lie at the core of how states perceive the world around them. In lay terms power is about getting your way about. Since politicians and leaders are ‘lay persons’, it is easily comprehended by them and elaborate or sophisticated definitions don’t matter much. That notwithstanding, the theories in this regard can be looked at.

Hans Morgenthau famously proclaimed that international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power and ‘whatever the ultimate aims of international politics, power is always the immediate aim’. According to him, the ‘ubiquity of the struggle for power in all social relations on all levels of social organization’ made the arena of international politics a necessity of power politics. Therefore, relations between nations rests on ‘power’ in which there is a hierarchy. Each nation strives to climb higher in this hierarchy. Be it hard, soft or smart power, as theorized by Joseph Nye. Scholars and analysts differ considerably in their definitions of ‘power’. However, to put in simple terms; hard power is basically about ‘suasion (exercise influence by other means) or dissuasion and as also deterrence; while soft power is about attraction; and smart power may be seen as a ‘carrot and stick’ approach.

…in the international system and calculations about power lie at the core of how states perceive the world around them. In lay terms power is about getting your way about. Since politicians and leaders are ‘lay persons’, it is easily comprehended by them and elaborate or sophisticated definitions don’t matter much.

There are two approaches on power as a factor in international relations (IR) – elements of power approach and relational power approach. Realists define it in terms of resources while others define it in a relational manner as the ability to exercise influence over the other actors. In the national power approach, all the resources that a state possess are considered; the size of the armed forces, gross national product, size of the territory, working population and so on. Morgenthau further listed factors like geography, natural resources, industrial capacity and even defence budgets. In the current scenario, R&D, availability of cutting edge defence technology and robust indigenous defence manufacturing industries will be imperatives. Edward H. Carr argued that military power was the most important form of power in international politics as it serves both the means and the end itself.

Hard power pertains to reaching a nations goals through coercive actions or threats and backed by targeted psychological operations and even subverting communities and ethnic groups. Soft power, on the other hand rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others, without use of force, coercion or violence but through intangible assets such as culture, individual freedom, work culture, political ideology, institutions and domestic and foreign policies that are seen as legitimate or having moral authority. Overall making it an attractive destination for self-development, sense of security and freedom from restrictive legal impositions.

However, the ability to convert sources, that is, ‘the capability to convert potential power, as measured by resources, to realised power, as measured by effecting a changed behaviour of the adversary’ is what will be the measure of success in international politics. Politicians, leaders and even the foreign service bureaucrats are not security analysts or strategic studies scholars, thus, for them power is related to tangible assets – hard power and such resources. Diplomacy needs to be backed by hard power and military diplomacy is a subtle way to project the power of the military.

Numerous issues hinder fruitarian of soft power; its appropriate recognition and deployment, conceptual ambiguity, inadequate institutional support and its ability to sustain. Does the country’s diplomatic corps project the nations soft power, or is it the free movement of people which plays a major role? In the era of unrestricted social media, the scope of interaction is enhanced exponentially. But the down-side is that it has become easier to sabotage the process by AI generated fakes causing incalculable damage.

Numerous issues hinder fruitarian of soft power; its appropriate recognition and deployment, conceptual ambiguity, inadequate institutional support and its ability to sustain. Does the country’s diplomatic corps project the nations soft power, or is it the free movement of people which plays a major role?

In the modern era of hybrid wars, the spectrum of war is becoming wider encompassing the dimensions of asymmetric war, space war and cyber war, et al, the elements of power are also proportionately growing and may be more akin to the Chinese concept of ‘Comprehensive National Power’.

Having considered the foregoing, India’s soft power seems to have a very limited role in the construct of the mosaic of its relations with China and Pakistan. As a corollary, India needs to continue to build the elements of power to include indigenous defence R&D, cutting edge defence and dual technologies, defence industry, modernisation of the security forces, infrastructure in the border regions, offensive and defensive cyber operations capability. There is a need to change the mind-set from being overly defensive to assertive and ready for a preemptive offensive, if threatened. India’s political class, military leaders and bureaucrats must comprehend the concept of ‘strategic borders’ which will be beyond the territorial borders. War, if it needs to be fought, should be fought on the adversary’s territory not own territory. India is at the cusp of this change, let it not be undermined for lack of political WILL.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen (Dr) JS Bajwa

is Editor Indian Defence Review and former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command and Director General Infantry.  He has authored two books Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and  Modernisation of the Chinese PLA

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3 thoughts on “Is there a Role of Soft Power in Bilateral Relations?

  1. Very well brought out ,we need to see through the global thought process and formulate what’s in our interest as is being clearly advocated by our EAM MR JAISHANKAR

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