Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

China’s realism versus India’s mythology

Indian movies such as 'Airlift' and 'Baahubali 2' simply do not match up to China's ability to leverage soft power to serve their geopolitical interests

The India-China impasse at Doklam, whatever the outcome, is likely to have several long-term geopolitical implications for bilateral, regional, plurilateral, and global governance relations. It is quite possible that Doklam will become the graveyard of pan-Asian solidarity and the birthplace of unbridled rivalry between the two most significant rising powers; disrupt any prospects of furthering regional economic cooperation; lead to the demise of the painstakingly crafted BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping; and end the concept of classic nuclear dyad relationships (given China’s concerns vis-à-vis the US and India’s consideration of both China and Pakistan’s arsenal). In short, post-Doklam will revive the arcane 19th century balance of power groupings (albeit with nuclear weapons), lead to greater global disorder, and highlight the inability of the two Asian powers to create an alternative ideological narrative for a more cooperative and benign global order.

To be fair, despite being the two biggest economies half a millennium ago, neither India nor China were really global actors. Global order was established by European private actors and then states in formation first as explorers, then as traders, and finally as rulers and colonizers. It was always going to be a long shot for either democratic India or communist China (both concepts developed in the West) to challenge or create alternative norms to the dominant discourse in the brief period of their existence as independent nations.

Unsurprising then India came up with the anodyne Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and China with the even more improbable “peaceful rise" concepts. Neither was borne out by their manifestations. In India’s case the most potent instrument of its soft power—Bollywood films with their depiction of dysfunctional families, which avoided damnation only through divine intervention—did very little to advance India’s strategic interests. At best it provided fleeting escape for viewers from Marrakesh to Moscow from the drudgery of their lives. Similarly, while China propounded the idea of “peaceful rise", it was a mere interlude for unhindered economic growth while Beijing developed its sinews of power.

Having acquired substantial military edge over all its immediate neighbours (including India) and the ability to check even the US in areas of vital strategic interest to it, China has simply abandoned the “peaceful rise" mantra and embraced the approach of traditional Western powers. In addition to displaying its hard power, Beijing has magnanimously offered membership of the One Belt, One Road (Obor) network as a sop to countries willing to accept its regional dominance. In fact, the outcome of Doklam will also determine the future of Obor, especially if China is seen to be gaining the upper hand.

Simultaneously, China has deliberately focused its soft power to serve its geopolitical interests. Perhaps the best example of this is the worldwide success of the Chinese blockbuster film Wolf Warriors 2, which is among the top 10 highest grossers of all times and in the exclusive $500 million club. Wolf Warriors 2 also serves to underline China’s role as the new protector of the world in turmoil.

Set in South Africa, the film, a sequel to Wolf Warriors, revolves around a conflict in an unnamed country when a Chinese warship arrives there to evacuate only Chinese nationals. Upon learning that several other medical aid workers are trapped by local rebels and arms dealers, the key protagonist—a former renegade Chinese special forces soldier—volunteers to rescue them single-handedly. The hero not only rescues the workers but also the African daughter of a Chinese doctor who had found the vaccine for a deadly disease before he was killed by the rebels. Apart from the post-colonial symbolism of China to the rescue of Africans in crisis, the film conveniently waxes over the fact that the arms dealers were probably supplied weapons by China.

Significantly, these films are not only funded by the state but also supported by the military. For instance, in the name of realism, Wolf Warriors, which is set in China, used five live missiles, each worth over $100,000, featured front-line military aircraft and fired off more than 30,000 rounds, while the main battle scene featured 32 active tanks. This is probably more hardware than used by an average Indian military exercise.

In contrast, only one recent Indian film comes close to depicting India’s role in the world: Airlift, which focused on the successful evacuation of 170,000 Indians from Kuwait in 1990 following the Iraqi invasion. However, even this film fails to project India’s interests. Unlike Wolf Warriors 2, it highlights the Indian departure from the region rather than engagement as well as the disunity among the various agencies. In fact, so peeved was officialdom by Airlift that it issued a statement criticizing factual inaccuracies. Of course, it begs the question why the official narrative of the Kuwait and other subsequent evacuations have not been publicized.

There is, perhaps, only one other Indian film that comes anywhere close to getting global attention for the Indian narrative: Baahubali 2. However, this historical fiction, which did well commercially, simply does not match up to the Chinese ability to leverage soft power to promote their global reach.

Whatever the consequences of Doklam, a key lesson for India should be to effectively leverage its soft power in addition to its hard power when dealing with China. Getting the narrative right domestically would be the first crucial step.

W.P.S. Sidhu is visiting professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and associate fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

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