When the Communist Party of China met for a leadership reshuffle last week, President Xi Jingping not only expected to confirm his position for the next five years, but to also win a broad mandate for his policies, reasserting China’s power in Asia. One of the key tools he has used is soft power to position China as a responsible global power. Soft power, a term coined by Harvard University scholar Joseph Nye in 1990, describes the influence a nation exerts through its culture and values.
The Chinese government has been investing significantly in boosting its appeal abroad, establishing cultural study centres and promoting Chinese culture and values. More than 135 million Chinese travelled outside China in 2016, and, spending close to $261 billion on foreign travel, were among the largest spenders in the world. However, only about 3 lakh of these visited India, comprising less than 4% of India’s total foreign tourists.
India’s trade deficit with China exceeds $51 billion. Tourism is a key peg around which bilateral and commercial relations between the two can be built.
India offers immense potential for tourism, with a rich variety of historical and cultural sites. These need to be identified, developed with proper infrastructural facilities and marketed to Chinese tourists. We need to create experiential itineraries, especially for culturally rich locations — for instance, a Buddhist circuit targeted at the 400 million Buddhists in China, or yoga retreats for enthusiasts (there are more than 2 lakh yoga teachers in China; less than 1,500 of these are from India).
Tourism-friendly infrastructure needs to be developed in terms of accessibility, network connectivity, hospitality and lodging, water, hygiene and sanitation, restaurants, forex conversion, ATMs and ‘selfie spots’.
Tourist apps need to be created with all necessary information in Chinese and provided at entry airports.
These should contain information like helpline numbers for consulates, police and medical emergencies, maps, information on restaurants, tourist spots and shopping areas. Student exchange programmes at school and college levels between India and China will allow the youth to get culturally immersed at an early age; with Chinese parents as focused on learning for their children as Indian parents tend to be, such exchanges should work well. We also need to invest in a pool of language translators, whose services can be availed of professionally through a digital platform.
On June 21, to celebrate the UN International Yoga Day, thousands of Chinese gathered to participate in events across China, held at locations from the Great Wall to public parks, making these celebrations second only to India in size.
The last time an Indian influenced scores of Chinese to balance on one foot was 1,600 years ago, when Bodhidharma, the South Indian ‘barbarian’, crossed the distant mountains and the mighty Yangtze, and established one of the most famous styles of Chinese martial arts existing today — Shaolin Kung Fu.
While there are limited records of Bodhidharma’s adventures, the proliferation of India’s better-known export to China, Buddhism, resulted in significant documentation of the cultural and commercial influence India has had over China and its neighbours over the centuries. India must learn from its own history, and from China, and leverage the opportunity presented by India’s 20 million annual outbound travellers to engage in people-to-people connect. Indians spent close to $28 billion abroad, as per an estimate by the UN World Tourism Organization last year, with a record spending of $13.6 billion in the U.S. alone. This spending potential, channelised towards countries of strategic importance — China, Japan, Myanmar and Nepal — represents a tremendous lever of soft power for India.
The flow of tourists will not only significantly help these nations achieve economic goals, the exchange of people will also establish a cultural proximity that will deepen bilateral relations.
A concentrated effort must be made to drive tourism towards identified strategic-partner countries, leveraging the spending power of Indian tourists, through bilateral agreements for visa-on-arrival programmes, enhanced network and air connectivity, incentives for Indian hotel chains, awareness creation among tour operators, and communications campaigns.
The recent Doklam standoff showed that India and China cannot afford another military conflict, and that it is preferable to exercise soft power for influence. Tourism has the potential to be a key lever in promoting our strategic interests and enhancing bilateral relations.
(Dr. Mukund Rajan chairs the CII Core Group on China; he and Sreelakshmi Hariharan are executives of the Tata group. Views are personal.)