Comparative Analysis of India and China’s Soft Power Diplomacy

 By Aishi Mitra


China, with its military might and strong economic presence, is considered one of the most influential states on today’s world stage by many experts. India, on the other hand, with its constant growth since the 1990s, is regarded as a rising power. The rise of these two states brings a change to the existing world order which makes it essential to examine their policies and actions since they affect not just the Asian subcontinent, but the majority of the world. One method to do the same can be through the exploration of their foreign policies and diplomacy. A state’s Foreign policy and diplomacy dictate the state’s politics, power and position in the global order. This paper focuses on the power these two states hold, and how it is affected by their foreign policies. The paper does so by examining the use of soft power diplomacy by India and China, using examples of some of their policies within Asia.

Defining Soft Power

Power in diplomacy refers to the ability to influence or direct other states to act in ways that might be beneficial to one’s national interest [i]. This definition helps understand the role of diplomacy in influencing foreign policies and the nature of power in international relations. Based on this definition of power, it can be further divided into three entities, hard, soft and smart power. However, in this paper, the focus will be on soft power, which also forms a part of smart power.

American political scientist Joseph Nye discussed the need for a shift from the prevailing hard power policies in the contemporary world due to the rise of transnational actors, globalisation-driven interdependent economies, changing nature of military technology and resurgence of nationalism, among other political problems [ii] [iii]. He introduced an alternative in the form of soft power. He defined it as “the ability to get what one wants through persuasion or attraction rather than coercion” [ii]. It is based on the belief that on occasions, mutual understanding, growth and harmony makes a state’s power seem more legitimate and less threatening compared to the use of hard power, thus the state is likely to encounter less resistance against its demands or wishes [ii]. A state’s soft power usually rests on three resources- its cultural attractiveness, its political values, and its foreign policy, all of which legitimises the state as a trustworthy and capable partner [iv].

India and China’s Soft Power

Records of ancient India’s engagement with other states through trade and other forms of cultural exchange, similar to the ancient Chinese civilisation, can be presented as an early example of the long existence of soft power diplomacy in human societies. This is perhaps why the influence of Indian civilisation and culture can often be found in Southeast Asian states, while some of the other states in the region carry the influence of Chinese civilisation and culture [iv]. The ties of ancient cultural roots provide a useful tool for soft power. The cultural similarities and shared colonial experiences create a bond based on faith and understanding among the general citizens and sometimes governments as well. China realising this potential promotes the exchange of research, arts, growth in trade, business and more. India, however, has failed to strengthen their cultural ties and roots with its South-East Asian counterparts other than the Non-Alignment movement started by Nehru right after independence. Some attempts were made through the Look East and subsequently the Act East policies by Narsimha Rao and Narendra Modi respectively. But a noticeable change has been seen through the projection of India as the birthplace of Buddhism. India has used this to its advantage to build stronger ties with states in South-East and East Asia. An example of the same is the extensive restoration of the Mahabodhi temple and the rebuilding of Nalanda University. The latter was a successful project as a symbol of historical-cultural ties in Asia and saw financial contributions from Japan, China, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and several other Asian states [v].

Compared to its neighbour China, the Indian state, since its independence, has consistently made use of soft power diplomacy. Past policies show that India, since its independence, has shown more inclination towards soft power, unlike China. Even though the state shifted focus to soft power diplomacy much later, the concept rapidly rose to popularity in the mid-2000s and now acts as an integral part of Chinese foreign policy [vi]. The state wanted to use the popularity of Chinese art, culture, cuisine, architecture and history to promote Chinese cinema, literature, businesses and education, and soften its image abroad [vii]. Some of their efforts for the same can be seen through the construction of several hundred Confucius Institutes around the world to teach their language and culture, and the promotion of the Xinhua News Agency- the official state news service to counter ‘western propaganda’ [vii]. These efforts have proved to be only partially successful as they did not do much to soften their public image. Similarly, Indian culture also enjoys significant popularity around the world, which empowers the state’s soft power diplomacy. Indian cuisine, fashion, sports, classical music, classical dances, cinema, academics, books, healthcare, spirituality and more enjoy popularity globally, which positively impacts the state’s image [iv]. But the key difference here lies in the fact that the Indian cultural centres are far few in number and the popularity of Indian culture and its attributes have seen popularity naturally and through Indian immigrants rather than through a mixture of immigration and government effort. The Indian government fails to make use of the potential through state promotions.

The current administration instead has chosen to promote India’s soft power through different avenues. The administration continues to depict India’s affinity for soft power through consistent foreign state visits where the prime minister makes concentrated efforts to project India’s culture, economic growth and development. This projection of India’s soft power comes through strategic plans used to mitigate anxieties about India’s rise, improve the state’s image, attract investment and tourists, and also overcome the weaknesses in their hard power diplomacy [v]. The current administration’s key soft power resources include Buddhism, Yoga and the Indian diaspora and businesses. The state has made use of these tools to increase foreign investment and consistently improve the state’s image abroad [v]. Despite the attractiveness of India’s soft power assets, the state still falls short due to overestimation of its soft power attraction, a serious dearth of infrastructure, and domestic investment, and proper promotion of its plethora of assets [v]. This is where India seems to lag behind China, the most crucial factor being the lack of capacity and monetary resources to match China’s investment into soft power. As a state with a strong economy and the world’s largest holder of foreign exchange reserves, China’s strongest asset is its expenditure of money. Estimates suggest that China spends nearly $10 billion annually on soft power diplomacy [vii]. Their extensive expenditure on their soft power assets can be seen in the multiple new initiatives that the current administration has introduced, such as the Asia-Pacific dream, the Twenty-First-Century Maritime Silk Road, and more [vii].

While the two states start on similar footing when it comes to their existing resources of soft power, China’s investment creates a massive difference. However, India’s democratic nature presents it with a benefit over its neighbour in the East. India’s democratic values and openness makes it a more trustworthy and dependable partner. But for China, despite huge investments, the success of Chinese businesses, and the popularity of Chinese culture, the state still lags in terms of soft power diplomacy primarily due to its undemocratic nature [vi]. The excessive control of Chinese authorities, their censorship, clamping down on freedom of speech and expression, and growing human rights abuses in Xinjiang, makes their soft power diplomacy seem inconsistent with domestic realities [vii]. China hopes to solve issues such as the South China Sea dispute through soft power to become a preferred partner to Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam [viii]. But, they fail to realise that its inconsistent domestic policies and secretive nature of functioning make them a hard partner to trust and depend on in terms of security issues among others, despite having strong economic ties [vii]. Soft power cannot be bought, it needs to be earned without unnatural interference from the state. For China, this would mean “loosening restrictions at home and reducing attempts to control opinion abroad” [vii]. On the other hand, India, as the world’s largest democracy, and a representative of democratic values, gained the trust and respect of other states but, India’s poor human development indicators, increasing human rights violations, along with increasing tensions in Kashmir have become reasons of concern. This causes loss of trust from other states and therefore loss of trust in its soft power assets [v].


  1. A) India needs to invest further in its soft power resources by restoring heritage buildings and Buddhist monasteries.
  2. B) The Act East policy needs to be backed by stronger engagement with the states in South-East Asia by promoting their similar roots and tapping into their shared colonial experiences.
  3. C) The government needs to take a more active role in promoting Indian literature, research, cuisine, music, arts and cinema that have seen global popularity.
  4. D) As Robert Cooper has said before, a state cannot solely depend on soft power, which is why India needs to maintain its reputation as a strong democracy and follow democratic values at home to continue winning the support of its allies.


[i] Barnett, Michael, and Raymond Duvall (2005), Power in International Politics. International Organization, 59(1), 39–75. Available at:

[ii] Nye, Joseph S. (1990), Soft Power, Foreign Policy, 80, 153–171. Available at:

[iii]  Hackbarth, James (2008), Soft Power and Smart Power in Africa, Strategic Insights, 1-19.

[iv] Tharoor, Shashi (2011), India as a Soft Power, India International Centre Quarterly, vol. 38(3/4) 330–343. Available at:

[v] Mazumdar, Arijit (2018), India’s Soft Power Diplomacy Under the Modi Administration: Buddhism, Diaspora, and Yoga, Asian Affairs, 49(3), 468-491, Available at: DOI: 10.1080/03068374.2018.1487696

[vi] Gupta, Amit K. (2013), Soft Power of the United States, China, and India: A Comparative Analysis, Indian Journal of Asian Affairs, 26 (1/2), 37–57.Available at:

[vii] Shambaugh, David (2015), China’s Soft-Power Push: The Search for Respect, Foreign Affairs, 94(4), 99–107. Available at:

[viii] Kalimuddin, Mikail, and David A. Anderson (2018), Soft Power in China’s Security Strategy, Strategic Studies Quarterly, 12(3), 114–141. Available at: