By Mengqi Qin

China and India: Does the Largest Country Possess the Greatest Amount of Soft Power?

Apr. 18, 2016  |     |  0 comments

In the 21st century, a country’s success not only depends on the triumphs of its army, but also by how attractive its story is (Nye, 2005). From this perspective, a larger country may not necessarily generate more soft power if it emphasizes its hard power and doesn’t take advantage of its potential soft power resources. As the world’s largest countries in terms of population, China and India are similar in certain aspects that can be compared while applying the concept of soft power.

Firstly, as two of the most ancient civilizations in human history, China and India possess diverse and rich traditional cultures that can be made good use of to enhance their respective soft power. Secondly, both countries have experienced substantial progress in terms of military and economic development while at the same time they have both faced the problem of widespread poverty. Thirdly, as the world’s largest developing countries with more than one sixth of the global population, China and India still face many domestic issues such as inequality, human rights concerns, and corruption in China; and gender disparity, caste discrimination, and religious conflict in India. Last but not least, the different political systems between China, which has the world’s largest authoritarian system, and India, which is the world’s largest democracy, has led to distinct outcomes of their use of soft power.

I am going to compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of China and India to see if the world’s largest countries also possess the greatest amount of soft power.

Definition and Components of Soft Power

The importance of soft power has been paid close attention to by many countries especially in the developing world1 since Joseph Nye first put forward this concept as a contrast to hard power. Different from using coercion (“stick”) or inducements (“carrot”) as a means to get others to change their attitude, soft power uses a country’s capacity to shape the preferences of others without tangible threats or payoffs (Nye, 2004). Nye (Ibid.) basically categorized soft power into three components: a culture which is attractive to others; political values which should be complied with at home and abroad; and foreign policy which is the way to gain legitimacy and moral authority.

Then the question is who or what is the best agency to project soft power (Heng, 2010)? Is the soft power projected by the people, civil society, or the private sector better than that projected by government? These questions will be discussed in the next two sections. When applying soft power to other countries apart from the US, Hymans (2009) points out that Nye too simply assumes that attractiveness produces soft power, as attractiveness can also produce soft vulnerability that attracts hostile attention. While China has substantially rich cultural resources which can be seen as attractive, it may not necessarily produce the same amount of soft power to some extent due to a lack of balance between affective and normative soft power, such as political institutions and ideology. For India on the other hand, soft vulnerability (Ibid.) can be relevant as it was once a colony precisely because of its attractiveness in terms of its natural mineral resources and agricultural surpluses. As soft power is generated from values expressed in culture, internal practices and policies, and relations with other countries (Nye, 2004), I will further discuss these aspects to see how China and India in the context of their respective political discourses can pursue the projection of soft power.

Definition and discourse of soft power in China and India

Classical realists agree that power is an indispensable element for a country’s security and survival as an independent entity (Purushothaman, 2010). In the post-Cold War era, soft power has often been discussed for the salient reason that it helps a country to attract others with less expenditure as compared with hard power. Though Nye offered a strong theoretical framework of soft power, it still has some limitations when comparing and analyzing the soft power of China and India since both countries are newly rising developing countries which have experienced considerably different development models in contrast to the US, the country to which the concept of soft power was originally applied to. Based on the above analysis of Nye’s theory of soft power, this section will examine in detail how both countries define soft power and which parts they focus on.

China and India hold a different degree of adherence to Nye’s theory. From the perspective of the home country, soft power has been used with the purpose of getting the admiration and support of other countries. Yet, from the perspective of the target audience, soft power projection can be regarded as cooperation which assists in solving international issues such as climate change or trade that exacerbate current tensions over bilateral or multilateral competition (Heng, 2010).

Not until the beginning of the 21st century was China’s soft power seen to have emerged in international relations as well as becoming a topic for discussion in media, policy and academic circles (Zheng & Zhang, 2012). Chinese scholars’ understanding of soft power is wider than that defined by Nye which covers both foreign policy and domestic policy. As the concept of soft power was originally and strongly applied to the US, China discusses it in a different way, focusing on aspects like its traditional culture, economic model, national cohesion, social justice, political reform, anti-corruption campaign, and moral level (Ibid.).

Theory and Application of Soft Power

China’s rapid growth especially in the economic sphere can be seen as an inducement, while its rising military power is often regarded as coercive or a “threat” to the world. Hard power, therefore, is no longer the only power that enhances a country’s discourse in international relations. Soft power, a less expensive and more efficient alternative (Wang, 1993), was first put forward in China by Wang Huning, and focuses on culture as its main source (Ibid.). On the other hand, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru also realized the importance of enhancing soft power to create a strong India based on the progress of its economic and military development.

Chinese and Indian governments’ strategy on projecting soft power

In recent years, China has mainly focused on foreign policy and international behavior characterized as multilateralism, economic diplomacy, and the good neighbor policy, and has sought to project the influence of the Chinese model on other developing countries (Zheng & Zhang, 2012). Some of China’s smaller neighbors already see it as a developed country and hope to benefit from its economy. It implies that the Chinese government has been the major agency in projecting soft power even though Nye argues that if the government intervenes too much, its efforts will be viewed more like propaganda and will repel rather than attract its target audiences (Kang, 2008).

As culture (Glaser and Murphy, 2009), especially the traditional Chinese culture, has been put at the core of Chinese efforts to develop soft power, the most popular Chinese initiative we can see across the world are the Confucius Institutes (Goldkorn, 2013). It is doubtless that the Chinese government’s promotion of Chinese culture through large activities such as the Expo, Olympics, and Asia Games has helped increase its soft power around the world and enhanced the understanding of China by foreign people (Purushothaman, 2010).

India’s government has also attempted to project soft power through enhancing multilateral economic, political and military cooperation. Until very recently the Indian government did not have a doctrine or well-coordinated policy like in China where its top leaders like Hu Jintao have spoken of soft power, but its civil society, including its NGOs and media, have also played an important role in attracting foreign countries and foreign citizens. In the next two sections, I will compare China and India in two different soft power contexts: affective soft power which refers to cultural attraction, and normative soft power which links to proactive policy.

Affective soft power

As two of the most ancient civilizations in the world, both China (Pocha, 2003) and India (Malone, 2011) have long and splendid histories and possess rich cultural and civilizational wealth which have been seen as the most important elements of their soft power. India was the origin of Buddhism and the land where the Buddha gained enlightenment and preached. The sutras travelled from India to China and other Asian countries through Buddhist monks and scholars who studied in India and conveyed the ideas back to their home countries (Purushothaman, 2010). While Purushothaman (Ibid.) enumerated that large diasporas, popular films, music, art, cuisine, and historical and cultural connections with other countries contribute to India’s soft power, Mohan (2003) argued that the biggest asset of India’s soft power was its diaspora.

Similar to India, China also attracted the attention of other countries initially through its transmission of religious messages and Taoism which emphasize filial piety, love, and respect. It is believed by most scholars that China’s ancient history and traditional culture are valuable resources that are not only attractive to East Asian neighboring countries who share the common Confucian values, but also the wider international community (Glaser and Murphy, 2009). Besides, the Chinese diaspora, which has more than 50 million people, is also a significant agency to project China’s soft power.2

From the perspective of pop culture, India seems to have an edge over China in terms of its Bollywood movies, English teaching, and IT hubs. The continued threat of the Taliban, al-Qaida, and other such groups on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border makes security a major concern and has increased regional tensions in the South Asian region. In a much quoted reference, US diplomats are believed to have suggested according to a Wikileaks cable that India could send Bollywood stars to Afghanistan in the post 9/11 period to help stabilize the country and bring attention to social issues in Afghanistan (Burke, 2010). Though the idea eventually didn’t come to reality (Ibid.), it reveals that India has played a significant role in maintaining regional security by using its attraction of culture, especially the influence of Bollywood. Today India’s cable TV and satellite networks can be seen in 80-odd countries and its entertainment with subtitles in local languages is becoming popular.

Purushothaman (2010) argues that India has the soft power that is not only attractive in Southeast Asian countries due to their shared heritage and civilization, but also has no border disputes with most of them compared with other countries especially China. Given that fewer territorial disputes can result in a higher power of attraction for other countries, I agree that soft power cannot be treated in isolation, without taking into consideration other elements. On the other hand, China once had a history of invasion or domination in East and Southeast Asia (Lee, 2010). Often, the perception of an erosion or loss of national interest can outweigh the attraction of soft power.

China’s historical linkages with Southeast Asian countries, including maritime trade, cultural exchange, and immigration from China to South East Asia, have created many affective soft power assets in the countries of South East Asia, such as Chinese culture and languages. In addition, China seems to have more advantages than India in terms of sports performance in international competition (see Figure 1), its economic development model and high government spending on projecting its traditional culture and spiritual values; for example, hundreds of Confucius Institutes have been set up all over the world (Goldkorn, 2013).

Beijing’s large expenditure on enhancing its soft power may be seen as helping it overcome the inconsistency of its culture and narratives with its domestic realities; for example, when the successful 2008 Olympics and Shanghai Expo were followed by a domestic crackdown on human rights activists and the jailing of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (Overdorf, 2012). Soft power does not necessarily depend on hard power since extra hard power may undercut soft power. In Soviet times, for example, though the Soviet Union enjoyed economic and military resources, its invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia undercut much of its attractiveness to the world (Nye, 2004).

Figure 1. Number of Medals Won by China and India in Summer Olympic Games

Source: Computed from

Normative soft power

Some analysts simply regard soft power as culture by equating soft power behavior with cultural resources (Nye, 2004). While China and India’s affective soft power relies much on their traditional culture (though India also has stronger pop culture compared with China), their normative soft power consists of their foreign policy and political values, which can bring them more positive attitudes from their target audiences through improvements in their credibility, interdependence, and cooperation.

a. Foreign policy

With its vital strategic geographic location and similar political culture with other powerful countries such as the US and countries in Europe, India has actively participated in multilateral economic communication and cooperation with Western countries and developing countries. India’s geographical location and size makes it a likely counterbalance to China and this makes countries like the US seek better relations with India. Because of its democratic system, India is more acceptable to other countries compared with China that operates an authoritarian regime which also exists in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, and North Korea. At the same time there was a long period when US and Indian relations were not good due to India’s proximity to the former Soviet Union. Relations improved after India shed its socialist economic thinking in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Similar with China’s non-aligned foreign policy following the publication of Zhou Enlai’s Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, India’s foreign policy is basically a continuation of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) by its current Prime Minister Modi (Ramachandran, 2014), in consideration of maintaining its national security and international status as a great power in international society based on moral values from the time of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (Purushothaman, 2010).

b. Political values

The liberal democratic regime as a dominant political regime in the world gives India an advantage over China in their competition for global attractiveness and influence (Hymans, 2009). What makes the world feel less threatened by India than China are its vibrant democracy, free media, dynamic civil society, and impressive struggle for human rights (Malone, 2011), which constitute the dominant ideology in international politics today. In contrast, China is still less attractive than India in terms of affinity and credibility given its authoritarian political system with one party rule. What’s more, under such a political environment, all the media, publications, information flow, and public speeches have been limited to supporting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After gaining independence from the British government, India’s implementation of democracy has not only improved domestic political and social stability, but has also increased its prestige in international society. As a democratic country, India has more or less free and fair elections (Overdorf, 2012), and its independent judiciary and dynamic media also increase the legitimacy of the Indian government at home and abroad.

Even though India shares a democratic political system with most of the big countries in the world, which can increase its international discourse, it still has some limitations that hinder its projection of normative soft power, including the continued influence of its discriminatory caste system, gender issues (see Figure 2), poverty, and religious conflicts. One fifth of its population still lives under the poverty line, while one third of its citizens are illiterate (Lee, 2010). While China’s unique political values has little similarity with the mainstream of the world, its emphasis on improving people’s livelihood and well-being and decision on economic transformation and consolidation as proposed in the 13th Five-year Plan (Qin, 2015), at least convey a positive political value at home or abroad. Besides, China’s political values plus its successful economic development could be a model for political elites in other authoritarian states. The successful effort to pull millions of people out of poverty in the decades after the 1980s has gained the approval of other countries. For example, it may be attractive for an African authoritarian leader to emulate China’s model of opening up and reforming economically while the same time remaining politically autocratic (Keck, 2013).

Figure 2. Female-to-Male Labor Force Participation Ratio

Source: International Labor Organization.

Further Discussion

So do the largest countries necessarily generate more soft power? “Hard power without soft power stirs up resentments and enmities; soft power without hard power is a confession of weakness” (Tharoor, 2009). It is inappropriate to think of soft power alone without considering the influence of hard power on soft power and the discourse of the country in international relations when we consider whether the largest country possesses the greatest amount of soft power.

Both China and India have more than a billion people in their populations, and both also have big and small conflicts and issues with minority groups, which to some extent reveal that their rich soft power assets can be both a challenge and an opportunity for them. India’s federal political system offers the country democracy and decentralized power-sharing, but this can also mean that it is hard to coordinate among the many different interest groups. There is often a situation when the political party in power at the center has to share power with smaller regional parties. In China however, the authoritarian political system centralizes most of the power, which is at odds with the world’s dominant democratic institutions, making it less attractive to the world. But centralized power is better for controlling and coordinating China’s thriving and vibrant soft power assets compared to India.

Although China has paid much more attention than before to increasing the attractiveness of its soft power to the world, it lacks the thick skin needed to accept criticism from abroad as a normal part of its political discourse (Wright, 2009), making its unique attractions harder to be accepted universally, as compared with India which has a democratic, free, and liberal political and social environment. Domestically, facing a pluralistic culture and varied ethnic groups, a non-democratic government’s policies have made it inevitable that millions of minority group members are being oppressed for the purpose of social stability. In addition, with the absence of sound rules of law being applied and corruption issues unresolved essentially, Beijing still has much to reform in order to convey a positive image and use its affective soft power to the fullest effect. But when we see the comparison of hard power (see Figure 3), China obviously performs a little better than India. This indicates that Beijing could have leveraged its military power and economic power in a less coercive and induced way to generate more soft power than India.

Figure 3. Military Expenditure and GDP Per Capita of China and India (1989-2014)

Source: Generated from World Bank Data.


China and India, being the largest countries in the Asia Pacific region, share many common elements including their long histories, rich and pluralistic cultural assets, large populations, newly rising economic development, and similar domestic social issues and foreign policy. But due to their different political values, their projections of soft power have been treated differently by other countries. Both countries’ affective soft power, especially their cultures, are highly recognized in Asian countries and other western countries. With regard to normative soft power, India enjoys more support and credibility from its target countries. In the short and middle-long term, India may have an edge over China on the effectiveness of its soft power. When we take other hard power assets into consideration, China seems to have the potential to project greater soft power.


1. Compared with developed countries, most developing countries lack the ability to change others’ preferences and pursue what they want through economic inducements or military coercion.

2. An interview with the previous India Ambassador Sun Yuxi by Huanqiu Nework.

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