Soft power as a strategic instrument was popular among the ancient Chinese. It remains popular in modern times too. According to Confucius, the great ancient Chinese philosopher, “there is good government when those who are near are made happy, and when those who are afar are attracted”.  This Chinese philosophy continues to drive China’s domestic as well as foreign policy direction in the contemporary world.

As the new leadership is taking the reins of the government, it is determined to introduce reforms that will directly impact the lives of the common Chinese people. Whether the launching of the several agricultural schemes to accelerate economic growth or the leadership’spledge to fight ‘tigers’ and ‘flies’ to remove corruption including austerity measures imposed on the ruling elite, the message is clear: ‘make the common man in China happy’. This is one aspect of Confucius’s teaching. It is the other aspect of his philosophy that pertains to foreign-policy making.

Ancient Chinese philosophy, including that of Confucius, indicates China’s ancient strategists’foreign policy preference for diplomatic manoeuvring over military confrontation in achieving state objectives. Ideas such as ‘culture winning over an enemy’ and ‘winning a battle before it is fought’ are widespread in China’s ancient literature. A famous Chinese academic, Shaohua Hu, discussing ancient China’s ‘pacifism’mentions that imperial China was reluctant to use force in its foreign relations for both moral and practical reasons. Ancient Chinese kingdoms were reluctant to expand territories by fighting wars, which is evident from the Chou kingdom (1027 BC-256 BC) which was never large but was able to retain its dynastic respect for eight hundred years—the longest span of life ever held by any dynasty. This ‘soft’ aspect of China’s foreign policy is often overlooked in the light of its aggressive foreign policy posture, another characteristic of Chinese state, highlighted by several countries including India.

Whether cultural diplomacy, economic engagement, public diplomacy or humanitarian assistance, China’s soft power tools are visible in almost every part of the world. What is interesting about China’s foreign policy pronouncement is that without compromising on its hard power—clearly visible in the on-going South China Sea dispute with its Southeast Asian neighbours— the Chinese state makes efforts to engage countries far and near. Cultural diplomacy reach in the US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand (the first world countries), economic engagement of Africa, Pacific Island countries, South and Southeast Asia (essentially developing nations), public diplomacy efforts with almost every country in the world including high-level visits and humanitarian assistance to several neighbours including Japan, indicate China’s eagerness to project a ‘benign’ image to the international community that is often concerned with its spectacular ‘reemergence’.

India’s soft power is also rooted in its history similar to China. The ancient Nalanda University which attracted students from all over the world including China is one of the oldest examples of India’s soft power. Subsequently, India’s unique recourse to ahimsa (non-violence) and the prolonged struggle for winning independence under Mahatma Gandhicontinue to impress the world. Later independent India’s idealistic foreign policy shaped by its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on the foundations of non-alignment, multilateralism and peaceful co-existenceunderscored India’s aspirations to secure global stability in an era of sharp ideological and military polarization.In recent years, India has taken several initiatives for connecting with the international community, many of which have remained largely unnoticed and hardly discussed.While academic discourse debates India’s rise, New Delhi’s increased engagement, though characterised by ‘moderation’ and ‘restraint’, is becoming increasingly pragmatic by focusing on economic and strategic interests. India’s strategic horizon has expanded into the greater Asian neighbourhood showing New Delhi’s eagerness to play a bigger role globally and regionally. Such eagerness has inspired a soft engagement strategy, less pronounced than similar Chinese strategies in scale, but more nuanced in specific thrusts and greater involvement of non-state actors. However, many feel that India’s soft power remains weaker than China’s. The Indian state is perceived a ‘weaker’ state given its inability to reduce socio-economic differences and inequalities. Matters become worse with India’s recent inability to revive economic momentum, curb corruption and improve economic governance. In terms of perceptions, these negativities about India influence the world.

In the 21st century with wars becoming more and more expensive in combination with a world that is increasingly becoming flat, soft power is emerging as a viable alternative for engagement. China has been steadfastly applying its various resources to charm globally. Its effectiveness and success, however, can only be tested over time. Winning hearts and minds is much easier said than done as China is realizing in the process of managing its rise in a benign fashion. India is yet to face this challenge as critically as China. It is likely to do once it is able to reproduce, at least partly, China’s economic and strategic success of the last three decades.