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The extent of China’s soft power in South Asia


11 July 2020

Soft power in South Asia has ushered a fear of retaliation; negative impacts such as debt traps appear less threatening to these countries than turning into China’s enemy.

For over two hundred years we have lived in a world where the very notion of being modern was synonymous with being western. The rise of increasingly powerful non-Western countries like China, demarcating their spheres of influence in South Asia, has invited pluralistic forms of being modern. China’s soft power model has triggered this new era of ‘contested modernity.’ The humiliation and defeat China experienced at the hands of foreign and past imperial powers in the 19th century fostered a nationalistic spirit amongst its people. Having secured a far-reaching economic impact implicates a transition of their political and cultural influence from a grossly neglected one, to one of prominence. Continental in landscape and mentality, China is characterised as a ‘civilisation-state’ with differing imperative and values. For approximately five decades, South Asia has been a perfect space for China to expand their sphere of influence; superseding both Indian and American influence in the region.

Continental in landscape and mentality, China is characterised as a ‘civilisation-state’ with differing imperative and values.

America’s departure from the South Asian sphere of influence coupled with India’s lagging economic impression has allowed China’s soft power success to grow the way it has. Chinese soft power diplomacy delivers the perfect blend of imbibing their “ancient wisdom,” Confucian institutions, cultural ethos, and their elaborate scheme involving investments and economic aid that sell the Chinese brand particularly gaining traction in South Asia, all in a commitment to maintaining a peaceful world. Assessing whether China’s soft power diplomacy in South Asia will continue to deepen its distinctive appeal and showcase geopolitical and geoeconomic dividends for them, involves deciphering the merits and inconsistencies of their brand.

Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has emerged as the most crucial instrument in China’s soft power diplomacy in South Asia. It is an extensive programme that aims to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks to enhance regional integration, unimpeded trade and financial integration, stimulating economic growth. It models the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, reviving its past glory in a novel way. Research shows that BRI increases trade flows among member countries by up to 4.1%. De Soyre finds that BRI will promote GDP for BRI countries between 2.6% and 3.9%. India, however, has rejected this ambitious programme. Over the years, Beijing and New Delhi have been fraught with conflict, a consequence of a strategic rivalry rooted in geopolitical issues that include the Sino-India border dispute. China’s BRI programme resurrects the same fears. While this heightens friction between the two regional powers, Beijing might use its diplomatic edge to negatively influence South Asian relations with India.

America’s departure from the South Asian sphere of influence coupled with India’s lagging economic impression has allowed China’s soft power success to grow the way it has.

India’s former biggest trading partner, Bangladesh, has found a new global partner in China. In the most recent exchange between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, it was established that the economic development of Bangladesh will be bolstered through BRI funding. They share the opinion that the BRI establishes a model of international cooperation for all the participants and proffers new opportunities for regional connectivity. Beijing may seek to leverage BRI development of Payra, a power hub, to obtain port access in the future. Bhutan is looking at potentially partnering with China to diversify their economy. However, reports suggest that they are likely to skip out the upcoming BRI forum as they did in 2017, despite Chinese attempts to press for their attendance. Bhutan’s diplomatic relations are currently favouring India, however, Chinese soft power in the region is steadily intensifying. Sri Lanka has passed over its geostrategically positioned port Hambantota in the Indian Ocean to China after the latter paid down their BRI debt. China seems to be adamant about furthering these geostrategic moves at the same time making Sri Lanka feel secure.

China’s soft power investments have attained success extending beyond BRI measures. For instance, Sri Lanka requires technical assistance to contain the spread of the coronavirus and a model to follow; China seems to offer both. A concessionary loan of $500 million to propel its efforts to combat the pandemic in Sri Lanka has been granted. Ambassador Hu Wei earlier presented Sri Lankan Minister of Health Pavithra Wanniarachchi a document that details lessons learned in China’s handling of Covid-19. In early April, the Chinese government and companies that are involved in major projects in Sri Lanka donated several masks, PPE, and test kits. America’s absence and India’s inaction here have magnified China’s goodwill.

China’s soft power investments have attained success extending beyond BRI measures.

China’s strategic commitments include the CPEC with Islamabad to leverage Chinese capital, production capacity, and build a “mechanism for sustainable economic growth.” In return, Beijing gains a connection to the Arabian Sea, a trade route to the vital Malacca Strait. Plans with Bangladesh to construct a parallel pipeline connecting Kunming and Chittagong are underway. This is also a strategic backup point in the event of the US and India acting as adversaries of China and blocking the choke-points of Malacca and the Indian Ocean region. China can use the island as a hub for balancing resource management. China’s actions might instigate India to seek closer bonds with the US and other cordordant democracies such as Australia and Japan, making up the Quad.

What has garnered China’s success over other major powers is that they located bilateral investment in cooperative frameworks. Unlike the politically scattered civilisations of Europe, the Middle East, and India, China has managed to establish political homogeneity over the majority of its territory. Western institutions often impose conditionalities and purport to interfere with the varied government systems of South Asia. Given a choice between market democracy freedoms and market authoritarianism (high growth, stability, improved living standards, and limits on expression), a great majority in the developing world and middle-sized, non-Western powers prefer the authoritarian model.

Unlike the politically scattered civilisations of Europe, the Middle East, and India, China has managed to establish political homogeneity over the majority of its territory.

In terms of cultural exchange success, it seeks to spread the true image of the Chinese culture for a better understanding, and also to escort different cultures under the bracket of a common initiative that augments cultural interaction and mutual reciprocity. Chinese embassy in Nepal reach out to think-tanks and the media, endorsing the positive impression that Nepalis have of their northern neighbour. Chinese and Bangladeshi governments have exchange programmes in education and professional sectors. There are several Confucius centres in Dhaka. China is projecting a concern about the terrorism issue. There exist state-level meetups to counter-terrorism. In 2018, Bangladesh Home Minister Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan and the Chinese Public Security Minister discussed terrorism and counter-terrorism. In Myanmar, China has moved from endorsing ethnic armed groups to playing a more proactive role in the peace process. It seems that Beijing now assesses that peace and stability in South Asia are more conducive to its economic interests than trying to build an advantageous position by prolonging instability.

Despite the infrastructural void that Chinese investments fill, western analysts deem the practice a version of debt-diplomacy — hence when the indebted economies fail to service their loans, they are said to be pressured to support China’s geostrategic interests. Most of South Asia either did not take serious note of this earlier and are already in too deep now, or believe that they are gaining greater advantages imbibing this bilateral diplomacy. Soft power in South Asia has ushered a fear of retaliation; negative impacts such as debt traps appear less threatening to these countries than turning into China’s enemy.

Most of South Asia either did not take serious note of this earlier and are already in too deep now, or believe that they are gaining greater advantages imbibing this bilateral diplomacy.

The recent border skirmish between India and China pledges that China has no inhibition about exercising hard power when dealing with India to arrive at their desired nationalistic goals. By concealing nationalist intentions and replacing it with notions of benignity, Chinese leaders appear inexorable to give an ambiguous message to the international community.

India possesses a greater homogeneity with most of South Asia but due to the influence exerted by China’s BRI and other assorted economic initiatives, New Delhi falls short. China’s redefinition of soft power is helping them gain tangible economic benefits and gain traction by marketing a unique version of soft power, going beyond its American interpretation, this one being more appealing to a more pluralistic South Asia.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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