How Does China Leverage Soft Power in South Asia?

The capacity of major or emerging powers to exert influence over other nations is no longer exclusively reliant on hard power. In the 21st century, soft power has emerged as a critical tool in international relations. Modern power dynamics encompass more than mere military strength. While hard power stems from military and economic capabilities, soft power involves the ability to persuade others to adopt one’s values and objectives concerning global order and security. The notion of soft power was first articulated by Nye (2017).

In the post-Cold War era, China has emerged as one of the major global powers, positioning itself as a competitor to the United States. South Asia, being a neighboring region to China, is a critical area for exercising and demonstrating influence. In this region, China holds an advantage over the United States. China’s strategic endeavor to extend its influence in South Asia is closely associated with the implementation of soft power. The resurgence and revitalization of China in this region are not attributed to military tactics but rather to a long-term commitment to cultural inclusivity.

Therefore, this article aims to explore China’s soft power strategies in South Asia. Three core strategies that China employs as soft power tools in the South Asian region include cultural diplomacy, educational initiatives, and economic engagement through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The first tool in China’s soft power strategy in South Asia is cultural diplomacy, as China takes pride in its diverse and ancient cultural heritage. When a nation celebrates a culture that promotes shared values and interests, it fosters appealing and obligational relationships, thereby enhancing the likelihood of achieving desired goals. China employs various approaches to cultural soft power, such as promoting its arts, entertainment (including movies and music), and cuisine. Additionally, China motivates individuals to learn the Chinese language and encourages academic studies in China. The Confucius Institute plays a significant role in disseminating Chinese culture and language. For example, there are 17 Confucius Institutes in smaller South Asian nations alone.

Another pivotal instrument of China’s soft power is education. Higher education serves as a crucial platform for propagating Chinese culture, language, and civilizational values, not only within the South Asian region but also on a global scale. China’s higher education system is recognized globally, with some of its universities ranking among the top in the world. In terms of research paper publications, China has surpassed the United States. Following an Ivy League model, China has established elite institutions known as C9 League universities.

 Several schools in Nepal have integrated mandatory Chinese-language courses, with the Chinese government covering teachers’ salaries. Additionally, China attracts foreign students by offering fully funded and partial scholarships at both the government and local levels. 

China is implementing the geo-intellect model in Pakistan and Sri Lanka as part of its expanding educational and research endeavors, catalyzed by the Belt and Road Initiative. The China Scholarship Council (CSC) has established a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC), aimed at identifying approximately 1,000 college teachers or scientific researchers to pursue doctoral studies at Chinese higher education institutions. Furthermore, 55 Bangladeshi students secured the Chinese Government Scholarship for the 2023-2024 academic year , and an estimated 20,000-25,000 Indian students are currently studying in China.

The next approach for soft power is economic engagement of China, and its ambitious project The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) exemplifies China’s strategic economic engagement, which surged significantly following the global financial crisis of 2008. China’s emphasis on fostering a stable regional environment aligns with its ambition for sustained economic growth. Engaging economically with South Asia serves multiple objectives, particularly as several underdeveloped regions in Western China share proximities with South Asian nations. For instance, Xinjiang shares borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, while Tibet borders Nepal, Bhutan, and the northeastern part of India. The imperative to develop its western regions propels China to forge stronger economic ties with neighboring South Asian countries.

Under the framework of the Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA), China has removed tariff barriers on 84 types of commodities imported from Bangladesh, including key exports such as jute and textiles. The landlocked Yunnan province of China seeks economic cooperation with Bangladesh to gain access to the Bay of Bengal. China has become a major investor in Bangladesh, particularly in sectors such as textiles, power generation, and construction, with investments made under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Chinese officials, leaders, journalists, and academics frequently visit Nepal as part of their public diplomacy initiatives. Additionally, China is actively involved in developing rail networks, hospitals, polytechnic institutes, and communication infrastructure within Nepal. In 2011, both nations signed the Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation, and simultaneously, the China-Nepal Youth Exchange Mechanism was officially inaugurated.

The free trade agreement (FTA) between Pakistan and China, initially signed in 2006, paved the way for significant Chinese investments in Pakistan. For example, China Mobile invested US$1.7 billion, reportedly generating 41,700 employment opportunities. Moreover, approximately 10,000 Chinese personnel are currently involved in various business ventures across Pakistan. A pivotal initiative under this relationship is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), valued at $62 billion. Pakistan’s English-language press actively promotes China’s goodwill, emphasizing its cultural contributions, diplomatic support, and investments. This approach aligns with China’s evolving stance on India-Pakistan disputes, increasingly favoring Pakistan to curb Indian influence in Asia rather than maintaining neutrality.

By the late 2000s, China had become Sri Lanka’s top donor, providing consistent annual aid of over $1 billion since 2008, without imposing conditions tied to internal governance reforms. This robust economic relationship witnessed significant Chinese investments in various mega projects, including the Hambantota Port. By 2011, China had become the largest source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Sri Lanka, surpassing Japan, and had emerged as the principal provider of development assistance.

China and Afghanistan have shared a longstanding historical relationship, maintaining ties from ancient times to the present. During critical junctures like the Soviet and US invasions in Afghanistan, China remained remarkably supportive of Afghanistan. Post the US withdrawal and a devastating earthquake in Afghanistan, China extended substantial humanitarian aid, offering $7.5 million in assistance. Expressing gratitude, the Taliban acknowledged Chinese officials’ support in a press conference during this period. In a significant move, China appointed Zhao Xing as its Ambassador in Afghanistan in September 2023, the first appointment after the Taliban’s 2021 victory, although without formal recognition of the Taliban government, signaling China’s interest in deepening relations. China’s recent $10 billion agreement with the Taliban, securing access to lithium deposits, aims to create 120,000 employment opportunities and support infrastructure development. Moreover, in May 2023, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan agreed to extend the CPEC as part of the BRI into Afghanistan, an expansion plan initially proposed in 2017, illustrating ongoing efforts to integrate Afghanistan into regional economic initiatives.

China’s approach to leveraging soft power in South Asia is multifaceted and strategic, aiming to create long-term influence through cultural, educational, and economic initiatives. Through cultural diplomacy, China promotes its rich heritage and language, creating deeper connections with South Asian countries and fostering mutual understanding. Educational initiatives further amplify this influence by enabling the exchange of knowledge and ideas, while providing opportunities for academic growth and collaboration. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as a cornerstone of China’s economic engagement, underscores its commitment to regional development and stability, helping to build infrastructure and economic ties that benefit both China and its South Asian partners. 

These strategies highlight China’s understanding that power in the 21st century extends beyond military might, necessitating a blend of cultural allure, academic cooperation, and economic interdependence to achieve global prominence. As China continues to grow its presence in South Asia, these soft power tactics will likely play a crucial role in shaping the geopolitical landscape, influencing regional dynamics, and fostering sustainable partnerships.

[Image credit: Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Bangladesh]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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