When Portland, a British consultancy, and the University of Southern California recently issued their annual ranking of the top 30 nations wielding ‘soft power’ – the ability to influence the rest of the world through a combination of culture, political values and foreign policy – most of the headlines were about the rise of France under Emmanuel Macron to the top position, and the decline of the US under Donald Trump from first to third.
Britain remained second, though with a lower score after Brexit, one of the major factors heightening international uncertainty over the previous 12 months. But a much greater slump in national standing was caused by Trump, whose first six months in office saw America consciously reject any claim to world leadership. The US score would probably have been even worse, the compilers noted, if it had encompassed the American withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord, joining Syria and Nicaragua as the only other countries rejecting the treaty.
The pattern had already been set, however, by Trump’s dumping of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which included the main Pacific Rim economies apart from China. And it is China, the ‘soft power’ report points out, that is filling the vacuum. ‘Arguably the most striking and immediate effect of America turning in on itself–and central to the global rebalance underway – is the rise of China as the world’sprimary advocate for economic openness, free trade, and even combattingclimate change,’ it says. Beijing’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, it adds, is part of a strategy with the potential to transform not just Asian, but world geopolitics.
Though it is climbing up the ‘soft power’ index, China still ranks only 25th, well behind other Asian countries such as Japan (6th), Australia (8th), even New Zealand and Singapore (18th and 20th respectively, with South Korea 21st). But all these countries are having to adapt to a world where they can no longer take American support for granted, and must recognise Chinese hard power in the form of its economic muscle, as well as its aggressive stance on the South China Sea. Not only is Beijing’s influence is being felt in Asia, the report adds, it extends beyond to Africa and Latin America, as Chinese investment pours in.
One nation which prides itself on its ‘soft power’ is completely absent from the list, however – India. Even though it ranks in the world’s top ten for multiple indicators, from population to GDP, it is barely mentioned in the report. The authors acknowledge in a single aside that India has been touted as ‘a soft power juggernaut’, but say that countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Chile all perform better in public perceptions around the world.
The outcome points to a degree of inwardness and isolation, even complacency, which will not serve India well as it seeks to cope with a more volatile international situation. It is not the fault of the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, that his decisive switch to the United States has left him allied with a president as impulsive and unpredictable as Trump. But it will take a great deal more for India to wield influence commensurate with its size.
Despite all the emotions aroused by the 70th anniversary of Partition, India needs to turn its eyes from its constant rivalry with Pakistan, and look beyond South Asia, where it will always be dominant, to the wider world. That immediately brings Delhi’s decision-makers face to face with China.
In the eyes of some, Beijing is seeking to encircle India with ‘One Belt, One Road’, which envisages communications links through Pakistan. Others argue that Delhi should consider signing up to the project, not only in the interests of its own prosperity, but because its participation would be far more attractive to China than anything Pakistan could offer. Either way, India cannot avoid making choices.
And when Indians look beyond Asia to the wider world, they will find that a more open economy and the prestige of being the world’s largest democracy are not enough. Asian Affairs recently reported on a high-level gathering of Indian former diplomats, at which it was said that the Modi government needed to set out an overall strategic and military doctrine. That need is becoming urgent.