Commentary | 26 September 2016

India's edge on soft power

Originally published in The Australian.

  • Peter Cai

Originally published in The Australian.

  • Peter Cai

Executive Summary

Much ink has written in the past month about emerging Chinese soft power in Australia. It seems China’s influence has reached into many facets of Australian society from educational institutions to political parties.

Stephen Fitzgerald, Australia’s first ambassador to the People’s Republic, describes China’s charm offensive as “a soft power with a hard edge.” Apart from its wide reach, it must be noted many of China’s soft power projects have failed badly.

It is simply bewildering to think celebrating Mao’s disastrous legacy is good for Brand China. Fairfax Media’s China Daily inserts have sparked a widespread discussion about Beijing’s role in Australian media landscape including in the Chinese-language press.

Getting a prominent senator to parrot some party lines about the South China Sea has seen Sam Dastyari humiliated and demoted from the Labor frontbench. It is probable he will never be involved in national security and foreign affairs discussions ever again.

It is useful to compare how China exercises its soft power to another emerging Asian giant, India. Infosys, an Indian-headquartered, but internationally ­focused, IT consulting company’s decision to choose India over China as the global hub is a good example of how Indian soft power outshines its much larger and powerful neighbour.

During a recent trip to India, Deepak Padaki, senior vice president of Infosys and the group head of corporate strategy told me the company examined its group strategy a few years ago and it was looking for a country to build its global development hub.

The key consideration is that the country will need to have a large supply of people who can think logically and are good at maths and science. Needless to say, they have to be available at a reasonably cheap price. Only two countries fit that bill: China and India.

Padaki explains two key considerations have prompted the company to choose India over China as the global development hub: India’s legal system and ­English language. That Infosys’ multinational clients’ trust in the Indian legal system says more about the lack of trust in China’s rather than a vote of confidence in India’s universally frustrating ­system.

TS Thakur, the chief justice of Indian Supreme Court burst into tears at a recent public meeting as he pleaded for more money to support the country’s overextended court system. There are more than 22 million legal cases stuck in the judicial limbo and 6 million of them have been there for six years.

It must be sobering for the Chinese officials to know that despite Indian’s legal system’s notoriety for slowness, it is still infinitely preferable to China’s legal system dominated by the single party state in the eyes of international investors.

India’s common law-based legal system and parliamentary democracy will support the country’s long and enduring soft power. On the issue of English language, Padaki explains India simply has more English-educated science and engineering talents. “Yes, we can get them in China too, but we have to pay a premium,” he said.

The issue goes deeper than the command of English language and it is about China’s ability to integrate global talents as well as its ability to absorb international best practices. The late Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of Singapore, made this point clear.

Lee’s belief in China’s inability to attract global talent due to its language barrier has been shaped by his experience in running Singapore. When he was the prime minister, he implemented an English-first policy in Singapore, including shutting the only Chinese language university in Southeast Asia. He deliberately turned his back on the Chinese language to make Singapore an internationally competitive place so it could attract and assimilate talent from other societies in the world. Lee believed it next to impossible to engineer a similar cultural change in China, a country with a long and proud history.

However, the Chinese soft power does have one strong redeeming feature, which is its perceived ability to get things done and especially in relation to building infrastructure.

One of Mumbai’s leading financiers said half-jokingly that a Chinese-style authoritarian government should just run India for ten years to sort out its infrastructure bottleneck.

Professor Murali Sastry, CEO of Indian Institute of Technology Bombay-Monash Research Academy, also points out Beijing is happy to spend big money to bring home some of the world’s best Chinese scientists. Sastry ­laments that India cannot do the same because of the country’s more egalitarian culture in the higher education system prevents that from happening.

“We just have to live with it”, he said. “Our system is slower but it is more sustainable.” Indeed, China’s authoritarian system ­offers better prospects of growth during the short-to-medium term and especially during the country’s takeoff stage. But a country’s long-term prospects and soft power appeal still rely on sound institutions such as a good legal system and legislatures that are representative of people’s will.

In this regard, India, although its economy is only one fifth of China’s, wields more soft power than its mighty neighbour.


Peter Cai is a research fellow at The Lowy Institute and he recently travelled to India as a guest of the Australian High Commission