Brand Image and Soft Power of India and China

Ambassador (retd.) Kishan S Rana, Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies.

In the past 25 years new concepts have entered the lexicon of international affairs. In 1990, Joseph Nye gave us the notion of soft power (SP), the ability of a country to attract others, to attain its goals through inducement and gentle persuasion, rather than exertion of hard power.[1] We also learnt to think of countries as brands (CB), possessed of images akin to commercial brands; such attributes had earlier sometimes been seen as national stereotypes. The difference now was that we realized that like all brands, country images could be marketed, enhanced and manipulated. At the same time, public diplomacy (PD) emerged as a new activity, or rather as an old wine in a new bottle, describing effort by governments to reach out to publics, foreign and to an extent also one’s own people, to influence their perceptions on international issues. We realized that image and country marketing affected inflows of foreign tourists, and the way foreign businessmen viewed one’s country as a destination for business and investments. This gave salience to these new forms of public communication.

The three concepts, PD, CB, and SP are interlinked, with mutual overlap; each also exhibits its own differences. One way of looking at these is to treat the latter two (CB and SP) as outcomes, i.e. the result of a series of attributes and actions. Both of these also involve perceptions, that is to say, can be gauged only through the eyes of others, i.e. the way we are seen, in subjective fashion. In contrast, PD is a process, a set of methods and actions, through which the other two can be enhanced to one’s own advantage. That leads directly to the question: how far can image and soft power be manipulated? How much of these are the result of elements that have evolved gradually over long time, and are therefore not capable of alteration, except at a slow pace. Simon Arnholt, one of the gurus of country brands has written that some 90% of image is inherent or fixed at any point in time, and cannot rapidly be altered through actions by the country concerned.

Against this background, how are India and China placed in terms of their country image and soft power? Let us examine the situation in terms of some key elements.

Strategic objectives: China devotes high-level attention to image and soft power projection; President Hu Jintao has spoken of their importance. He has presented the concept of a ‘China Dream’—evoking historical memory of past greatness as the objective to which all Chinese ought to aspire. We can expect that the country works to a master plan guides the actions undertaken by different Chinese agencies in pursuit of this national strategy. Nothing comparable exists in India, by way of a declared national policy or unified implementation mechanism. Official statements on image projection consist of exhortations, bereft of an overarching strategy. For instance, the Tourism Ministry has framed very well the ‘Incredible India’ rubric, as the centerpiece of its marketing effort. That catchy slogan has helped push annual foreign tourist arrivals to record figures of about 7.5 million, representing year-on-year growth of about 7%.[2] But this is a solo effort. The different agencies that might help build image and soft power, and should play the role of stakeholders, work separately; nothing resembling a ‘public diplomacy board’ (as in France and the UK), or a ‘brand board’ (as in Kenya) exists. Department of Industrial Promotion and Policy also acts on its own, and economic promotion is not addressed jointly with other activities. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), and the diplomatic system, does not play the role of a coordinator.

Resources and actions: Chinese actions for the accretion of external influence are backed with huge investments, probably larger than deployed by any other country, including the US. For instance, the 500+ Confucius Centers (CC), and a slightly smaller number of Confucius classrooms, each implanted in foreign universities and other local partner institutions, around the world since 2004, cost an estimated $8 to 10 billion.[3] The no less ambitious global Chinese TV network, now with production centers at nearly a dozen foreign locations, including Europe and the US, providing free uplinks in English in all the continents perhaps involves an expenditure of an estimated $4 or 5 billion.[4] Of course it does not come anywhere near BBC or any of the other global news channel in its impact, but owing its non-commercial nature, it has no revenue stream. India has nothing like these resources. The PD Division of the Indian MEA functions on a budget of barely $6 million, but it has a significant presence on Facebook, Youtube and other global social media platforms, which China eschews on political grounds. Some Indian data from 2013: 100 official accounts with one million followers; YouTube channels with 12 million minute views; a smartphone app with more than a 100,000 downloads, a unique app that integrates missions outputs and MEA on a single platform (as guide to the nearest Indian passport office); an India Africa digital platforms links young Indians and Africans, with 200,000 followers. India now runs some 40 cultural centers abroad of the traditional type (standalone entities, unlike Confucius Institutes, tied to Indian embassies).[5] One limitation has been that because they are strapped for operational funds, they tend to focus on the diaspora, and seem inhibited in working for wider local connections.

Education diplomacy: The business of international affairs is all about connections, especially building long-term relations. Receiving foreign students, and working out collaboration arrangements among education institutions is a major contributor, and is a major part of PD.[6] When the Indian Council for Cultural Relations was created in 1951, looking after foreign students was a key part of its remit, but over the years, attention paid to attracting foreign students to India has declined, to a point where this is no longer a clear responsibility of any official agency. At present, around 30,000 foreign students are studying in India; the only institutions that make a strong effort to attract foreign students are the private universities. Compare this with the situation elsewhere. A report by the US-based Institute of International Education gave these foreign student figures in the major destination countries: the US, 819,000; the UK, 488,000; China, 328,000; France, 289,000; Germany, 265,000; Australia, 245,000; Canada, 214,000; and distantly in 8th position, Japan with 137,000. What is especially impressive is that in China, the number in 2001 was barely 60,000. Today it is 328,000, and the goal is to take the number to 500,000 by 2020. In comparable fashion, China also invests heavily in cultural exchanges, holding of exhibitions and in S&T cooperation, outstripping India. But in the domain of films, India seems to do a little better than China in the international reception given to its mainstream films. Each of these sectors calls for close study to make a comprehensive comparison.

Diaspora: China has directly profited from its diaspora in that they are a major contributor to inflows of FDI, much more as a proportion of total inflows than in the case of India. But India does better in the flow of foreign remittances, which hover annually at around $70 billion; China ranks second in the annual World Bank listings. But in terms of PD actions, India has done better in its outreach and mobilization of its diaspora in those countries where it is relatively easy for a diaspora to play such roles, as real connectors between the origin country and the residence country—witness the situation especially in Canada, the UK and the US. In each of these countries, the Chinese diaspora, as large and prosperous as India’s, appears quiescent when it comes to bilateral PD actions. But they do better on FDI and on technology transfer.

Foreign aid: This consists of supply of expertise and training facilities (often called ‘technical aid’), and financial aid that can consist of grants, loans, and credits, as well as investments. In terms of technical aid, both India and China provide a large volume of training facilities. China seems to offer a larger number, around 20,000 per year. Evidence suggests that the 14,000-odd training slots that India offers (Indian technical aid comes under the title ‘ITEC’ or Indian Technical Cooperation) offer more relevant training for a variety of reasons, including an easier language environment for foreign trainees.[7] The total number of Indian experts sent abroad under ITEC was very small, only 34 in 2014.[8] At the end of 2014, China has deployed some 3000 doctors and health workers in the current Ebola crisis in West Africa (Cuba has deployed about 1700). This will have long-term public impact across Africa. India is not known to have sent any medical teams for the Ebola outbreak. No reliable report on the number of foreign experts sent out by China has been located, but it is likely to run to several thousands, even if we exclude the language experts sent to the 500+ Confucius Centers.

In terms of financial aid and investments, China is much ahead of India. Its total aid in 2015 has been in the region of $100 billion, though not all that is promised is delivered. India has also stepped up its aid sizably and the current figure is in the range of $ 5 to 8 billion. ‘In 2014, China’s overseas investments, known as outward foreign direct investments (OFDI), rose 14.1 percent to $102.9 billion, while China’s inward FDI only rose 1.7 percent to $119.6 billion.’[9] A significant portion of this is directed at Africa, which helps its image on that continent. In recent years, India’s OFDI has ranged between $15 and 25 billion, but most of it is concentrated in developed countries.

Political, economic and societal image: India is a democracy practicing the rule of law. Despite the reality that it falls short of its ideals in some respects, it is open in its basic freedoms, to the point where Indians are the country’s harshest critics. It is a status quo power, perceived in Asia and the rest of the world as benign and non-threatening, even while some immediate neighbors, especially Pakistan would contest that image. China is an authoritarian state, which combines a fair degree of domestic economic freedom with political controls, strict curbs on freedom of expression and on political actions, plus harsh treatment of home dissidents. China’s irredentist, assertive claims in the South China and East China seas, advanced since 2010 ill serve its neighborhood policy. It cannot be an accident that China’s past doctrine of ‘peaceful rise’ is no longer in currency. An implicit threat in the assertion of its ‘core interests’ is now virtually part of Beijing’s international profile. This conditions its efforts at projecting soft power and its brand image. Presumably China considers the actions that run counter to its investments in SP and CB as so important that it is willing to run that risk of self-contradiction.

A novel argument is sometimes presented to show that China’s political system is a form of guided governance that is superior to democracies around the world. This is the central thesis in Daniel A Bell’s book, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy (2015).[10] For Bell, China’s governance system is a political meritocracy, which is different from meritocracies that are either bureaucratic or economic. He argues that this system has thrown up three features: at the bottom, it is mainly democratic; in the middle it is undergoing experimentation; at the top, it is a successful meritocracy, despite its defects. For Bell, this Chinese system of governance is comparable to that of Singapore. This ignores the huge differences between the two, exemplified in their levels of corruption and authoritarianism.

But there is another dimension that also enters the calculus—the foreign aid that each country delivers, and linked with this, the image that economic achievement has created among foreign publics. On the latter count, China is well ahead of India, with its unique 9 to 10% annual growth over the past 30 years, and the all-too-visible signs of its economic achievement. India, with its economic reforms that commenced some 12 years after China’s, has comparatively lagged behind, even while it has scored with an average growth rate of around 6% per annum since 1991. India’s foreign aid is about a third or a fourth of China’s, but is better delivered and focuses more closely on the recipients needs for local employment and technology transfer.

How do the indexes that measure the SP and CB of countries around the world assess China and India? Let us look at two of these.  One CB index is presented by ‘Future Brands’, a consultancy enterprise that boast of a global team of 600 people. []. A problem with this index is that while it looks at 75 countries, only 22 are accepted as ‘brands’ – China and India are not among them; Japan is ranked first, followed by Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Norway and the US, in that order. China is ranked at 28 and India at 50. The idiosyncratic nature of such listings becomes evident when we find that on the parameter of ‘heritage and culture’ India is ranked at 9, while China does not figure in the top 10 countries. But China is listed as the first of the ‘countries to watch’ in the next three years, in terms of its capacity to move forward.

Another index, which examines SP, gives a 2012 ranking of soft power, produced by the Institute of Government, in the UK. [] It ranks China at 22, with a score of 4.237 (on a scale of 1 to 10), and India at no. 36, with a score of 2.776. In respect of China it says: Indeed China’s investment in public diplomacy assets, overtures to cultural promotion, and commitment to improving higher education all contribute to its soft power. But ultimately, China’s curbs on individual freedom, heavy-handed management of the press, and an aversion to political criticism, undermine its efforts to generate soft power. This is not to say that the Chinese model is not without its merits. But China’s gains in the areas of Culture and Education have not translated to overall gains in the full index. With the exception of China’s upward movement in two of the categories above, the 2011 and 2012 tables look much the same. But China’s movement could herald the start of a new trend.’ It has no specific comment on India’s soft power.

A problem with such published assessments is that they claim to apply scientific methods, but they are in reality perception indexes, even if they use complex methods and multiple criteria. If that is the case, is it not better to use wide-based polls to assess how foreign audiences perceive different countries? Is that not a more reliable method to assess the value of a country brand or the soft power of countries?

What is then an assessment that we might consider at the end of this short examination? My conclusion: First, China devotes much larger resources to PD than India, and has a clear strategy for its CB and SP goals. But results are not commensurate with the money spent. Second, China suffers a major handicap in terms of both its domestic restrictions on freedom of expression, and refusal to allow to its citizens basic political freedoms much less any questioning of the legitimacy of its regime, or the primacy of the CCP. Further, the sharp edge of assertiveness that has emerged in its territorial claims, especially the offshore islands alarms its neighbors. All this undercuts its CB and SP. Third, India enjoys intrinsic advantages that flow from its political system. It also possesses an array of attributes do not hinge on actions by the government, such as Indian cinema. Fourth, in the developing world, India’s aid is smaller than China’s, but delivers value that in the eyes of recipients does not lag behind China. Finally, for a reliable assessments of how we might view the CB and SP of these two and other countries it is perhaps better to rely on polls that measure public perceptions, rather than assessments by experts and other elites.



[1] Joseph Nye, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, (1990)

[2] In comparison, in 2015 Thailand received 29 million foreign tourists, while China received 98 million, but if those from HK, Macao and Taiwan are excluded, foreign tourists were 19 million. However the number has been stagnant in recent years. A strong point for India is that the average length of foreign tourist stay at about 22 days, is one of the highest in the world.

[3] In the past three years, about a dozen of these CCs have run into problems with foreign universities because they are run in conformity with Chinese political dictates, and have not permitted open discourse. China’s focus has been to use them for language teaching, and indirectly produce a catchment for attracting foreign students to China. The quality of Chinese teachers sent out has also been uneven. See:

[4] It is interesting that this is at a time when Al Jazeera has recently closed down its US-based broadcasts after 3 years of trying to attract audiences in North America.

[5] Ambitious plans announced in 2013 to take the number of Indian culture centers to 50 have been put on hold owing to cutbacks in MEA’s budget.

[6] See: Kishan S Rana, ‘The Power to Attract’, Business Standard, 22 June 2014,

[7] The Annual Report of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, 2014-15 reports: ‘During 2014-15, over 8300 civilian scholarship slots were offered under the ITEC/SCAAP programme to 161 partner countries. In addition, about 3000 to 4000 foreign armed service officers come to India each year for training hosted by the Defence Ministry.

[8] Ibid.

[9] See:

[10] This book review is under publication in China Report, issue 52-2.

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