Dr Parama Sinha Palit – Analysing China’s Soft Power Strategy

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Analysing China’s Soft Power Strategy and Comparative Indian Initiatives by Dr Parama Sinha Palit, Author, Published by SAGE          

Analysing China’s Soft Power Strategy and Comparative Indian Initiatives by Dr Parama Sinha Palit, Author, Published by SAGEWhile soft power has gained considerable currency in the global discussion on international and strategic relations, including in India, it continues to be treated somewhat contemptuously, particularly by hardcore realists. Many scholars across the world are not only skeptical about its conceptual application to the wider strategic and foreign policy discourse but raise questions on its efficacy in securing strategic benefits by countries. Further, there is also a very limited literature on soft power from a non-Western and largely Asian perspective in marked contrast to the copious Western academic discourse on the subject. Analysing China’s Soft Power Strategy and Comparative Indian Initiatives is an important effort in addressing this deficiency. 

The book, while pursuing a constructivist approach, analyses China’s soft power strategy from the vantage point of its vigorous employment by a rising power in modern times. The perspective is contextually extended to a comparative study of similar strategies by India. The conceptual framework employed is the exhaustive construct of soft power, including economic engagement, given the strong resonance of the notion with China’s external engagement policies that include cultural diplomacy (CD), public diplomacy (PD), economic aid, education and the use of the media. Beijing’s continuous effort to explore new methods for image-building are striking. While these initiatives are part of China’s extensive state-led campaign for ‘charming hearts and minds’, the book discusses ancient Chinese thoughts and philosophies that establish the presence of soft power in China’s statecraft from centuries.

The book also investigates the evolving soft power discourse in India, which is becoming increasingly visible. As India matures as a power and deals with new challenges and experiences, new imperatives are beginning to influence its external engagement policy. Greater economic engagement is essential for expanding India’s geo-strategic influence and strategic ambitions. This requires a supportive external environment, particularly in the neighbourhood, highlighting the importance of pursuing soft power that contributes to benign perceptions. While contemporary dynamics have compelled India to employ soft power tools, its history has also supported the current emphasis on soft power.

Another important aspect the book discusses is the evolving India-China relationship given the predominantly hostile perceptions of China in India’s strategic community. The Sino-Indian relationship is rarely visualized in an objective fashion given the paranoia surrounding China in most segments of the Western and Indian media. Given the paranoia, China would arguably be the last country to embark on a ‘charm offensive’. Not only has it done so, as the book points out, soft power and cooperation do play important roles in contemporary China-India relations that while propelled by realpolitik, nonetheless continue to expand.

China’s deployment of soft power has not been bereft of focus on hard power though. This aspect is time and again contextually highlighted in the book. China’s belligerence is becoming more and more noticeable. Its repeated warnings to the US against “challenging international order” and “making trouble in South China Sea”, project a “new confident China” following its rise and assumption of greater power in the international order. Even otherwise, China’s large use of soft power has been accompanied by significant demonstrations of its military might on several occasions and in presence of major global leaders, such as the celebrations for marking the 70th anniversary of victory over Japan in the Second World War in 2015. The “hard” posture is even being communicated for domestic consumption as was evident during the Chinese New Year celebration in China in 2016 that was notable for conveying distinct political messages. The CCTVs New Year Gala (abbreviated in Chinese as Chunwan) was conspicuous for its heavily ideological overtone and glorification of the nation’s military might. Such demonstration, along with military preparedness in the South China Sea, underscore a confidant China ready to charm the world, but on its own terms, without compromising on sovereignty or core national interests that are important for the Chinese people and crucial for the long-term survival and sustenance of the Communist Party of China.

The book is divided into 3 parts and has 11 chapters each discussing the quantitative and qualitative aspects of employment of soft power tools. 

Chapter I discusses at length the notion of soft power as expounded by various theorists and scholars. Rooted in neoliberal and constructivist visions of power, soft power, as the Chapter examines, has different facets like culture and PD that have emerged as its major tools. These tools have been increasingly employed by China to communicate with the rest of the world and for consolidating national stability and economic progress.

Chapter 2 discusses the historical context and background of China’s soft power and the extension of the relevance in the present context. It charts Beijing’s evolution of soft power from the Hundred Schools of Thought to the contemporary emphasis on soft power as a state policy.

Chapter 3 examines Beijing’s policy towards South Asia reflecting the priorities of its Western Development Strategy (WDS) as well as the continuation of its ‘good neighbourly’ policy. Beijing’s soft power initiatives in South Asia seek to maintain a stable, peaceful and prosperous neighbourhood, while integrating China more closely with the region. Though CD in South Asia has been low-key compared to other regions, education collaboration and economic engagement are distinctly prominent.

The consequences of China’s rise in Southeast Asia have been a subject of profuse debate amongst scholars of international and strategic studies. Chapter 4 examines this aspect while discussing Beijing’s current engagement of the region, which is predominantly driven by China’s desire for new sources of natural resources and markets, along with its aspiration to become a maritime power. The economic engagement of Southeast Asia has been critical in enhancing its soft power in the recipient country while securing strategic-economic objectives like improving cross-border connectivity and accessing resources.

Chapter 5 discusses China’s varied engagement in the Northeast Asia, Oceania and South Pacific region (excluding Southeast Asia). The region is experiencing a blend of various engagement initiatives — cultural, education and economic engagement depending on their country-specific strategic importance. However, the regional dynamics remain complicated influencing China’s overall ‘soft’ image and perceptions of China.

Chapter 6 focuses on China’s evolving ties with Africa and Europe. China is steadily increasing its cultural and economic presence in both the regions. While media collaboration, healthcare and economic cooperation are rather distinct in Africa, cultural initiatives, high-level visits and education seem dominant in China-EU relationship. Indeed, both continents are likely to strengthen their long-term associations with China through various spheres of cooperation.

China’s great power ambitions make it imperative for it to engage the Americas — the US, Canada and Latin America. Chapter 7 examines China’s outreach strategies for the countries in the region. The strategy underscores cooperation driven largely by economic factors. However, Beijing’s employment of soft power through cultural exchanges with Latin America for instance has assumed a distinct characteristic. In the meantime high-level visits and education cooperation are gradually picking up with all the three countries. However, as the book points out, the complexity of the US-China relations also impacts the nature of China’s soft power strategy.

Chapter 8 covers China’s soft power in Central Asia, Russia, Mongolia and the Middle East. It underlines the strategic and economic importance of the region, while noting that Beijing’s application of soft power tools like culture, education and economics are determined by countries and circumstances. Thus, while culture and education are essential for Russia and Central Asia, economic engagement is vital for the Middle East.

India’s attempt to harness its soft power capital as a foreign policy tool has been discussed in details in Chapter 9. With India’s foreign policy becoming increasingly pragmatic, its strategic horizon has expanded, inspiring maturing of a soft engagement strategy, less pronounced than similar Chinese strategies in scale, but more nuanced in specific thrusts. The Chapter examines these soft power tools—both state driven and non-state private initiatives— for aspiring an ‘enabling external environment’—an imperative for India as much as it is for China.

Chapter 10 examines the broader vision of neighbourhood engagement pertaining to the mutual interfaces between China and India. While both countries have been resorting to soft engagement with the rest of the world, such engagement is not exclusive of each other and has been rising in recent years. While Buddhism and economics has connected the two since ancient times, other soft power measures are also becoming visible. The roles of the leaderships in both countries have been critical in resurrecting the ‘trust deficit’ to a large extent.

The final Chapter reviews China’s global soft power strategy with its distinct nuances while emphasizing that Beijing has not relied on soft power alone for engaging the world. It has been efficiently using both soft and hard power (smart power) for achieving its objectives. This has, however, had implications for its image. While observing that Beijing and New Delhi’s approaches to soft power are distinct from each other, the Chapter identifies some key structural features from both such as scale, pace, state involvement, political systems, institutions and realpolitik that define their communication with the rest of the world and the concomitant effectiveness thereof.


Parama Sinha Palit is a scholar of international relations, specializing in the study of soft power, cultural and public diplomacy and Chinese and Indian foreign policies. Currently based in Singapore, she is a research associate with the China in Comparative Perspective Network (CCPN) Global—a UK-based global academic society. Parama had earlier worked for the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the United Services Institution (USI), India. She finished her PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India, and is currently engaged in research projects pertaining to national image-building and strategic aspects of national soft power strategies. Her works have been published in several academic journals and leading newspapers; furthermore, she has delivered lectures at various universities in the UK, Australia, China, New Zealand and India.

SAGE India: https://in.sagepub.com/en-in/sas/analysing-chinas-soft-power-strategy-and-comparative-indian-initiatives/book258228#description
SAGE US: https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/analysing-chinas-soft-power-strategy-and-comparative-indian-initiatives/book258228#description
SAGE UK: https://uk.sagepub.com/en-gb/eur/analysing-chinas-soft-power-strategy-and-comparative-indian-initiatives/book258228#description

© Dr Parama Sinha Palit

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