India-Vietnam relations are not recent; the two countries have a long historical past dating back to the millennia, the relevance of which has never been lost in the evolution process of the modern times. The current narrative of the bilateral ties — in which economic and security dimensions dominate and have assumed greater relevance in view of the geopolitical changes in Asia — is suitably complemented by the friendly historical past. This soft power component is equally important and it is appropriate that both India and Vietnam are engaged in honing this synergy.
The Centre for Indian Studies (CIS) at the Ho Chi Minh Academy of Politics, Hanoi, has taken the lead to create a new awareness on the value of soft power. With this in view, a team from the CIS visited India in August to interact with scholars from major think tanks. To take the study further, an international scientific conference is being hosted by the CIS later this month in Hanoi wherein scholars of both countries would debate in-depth on how the benefits of this important tool of diplomacy can be honed further.
SIGNIFICANCE OF SOFT POWER
What is the significance of soft power? Though the role of soft power has remained relevant in the past as also in the present, it was Joseph Nye who gave a theoretical explanation to this important dimension. According to him, soft power refers to a county’s ability to obtain the outcomes it wants not through coercion or rewards but through its attractiveness, especially the attractiveness of its culture, political values, and policies. This concept underlies the philosophy of the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu’s adage: “It is best to win without fighting.”
There could be multiple interpretations and its meaning could be different in the context and situation where it is used and explained. The European explanation need not necessarily be the same in the Asian context, though the broad contour of what soft power is remains the same. One Asian explanation of soft power is offered by the Japanese diplomat and former President of the Japan Foundation, Kazuo Ogoura. He notices confusion over the concept of soft power and feels that it is somewhat distorted, misused, and, in extreme cases, abused. According to him, soft power lowers the costs, or what systems theory calls transaction costs, of accomplishing policy objectives and therefore is not just about the promotion of “soft content” industries. According to him, because soft power looks attractive, there is a tendency to term anything “attractive” as soft power. Ogoura says, however, that attractiveness enriches life but attractiveness on its own is not soft power. Therefore, the argument goes like this: Attractiveness can be a source of soft power, but whether it can become soft power depends on the policy objective itself and the methods used to achieve the objective. So, the issue could be complex.
The above argument can be further explained in the context of, for example, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF). The term ‘SDF’ immediately conjures the feeling that it is all about hard power. But depending on how and why the SDF are mobilised, and in what context, they can also be the source of soft power. Another example could be the visits of Japanese politicians, including past Prime Ministers, to Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japan’s war dead (including a number of men convicted as class-A war criminals after World War II), which is criticised both within and outside Japan (China and South Korea). But for conservatives, Yasukuni is soft power. However, majority public opinion could swing to endorse such a view, especially in the wake of geopolitical changes in Japan’s neighbourhood, such as threats from North Korea and China’s assertiveness in territorial issues. If such a change occurs, Yasukuni may cease even to be a source of soft power. So, the explanation of what and how soft power can be defined depends on the context and situation it is applied in. Nye’s definition of soft power, based solely on America’s national interest, may not have universal acceptance.
The truism is it is difficult to measure and evaluate the efficacy of soft power. However, though it is difficult to quantify soft power, its concept is significant precisely because the dynamics of international politics are articulated in terms of power. But such an explanation is more problematic than assumed.
INDIA’S SOFT POWER STRENGTH
India’s soft power potential has remained huge since ancient times. Never in the past has India used hard power in its quest to reach out to the people of other countries, despite the fact that it was a victim of foreign invasions for centuries. Even before the Muslims invaded India in the 12th century and established their rule, India resisted only with non-violent means, while at the same time, embracing the positive influences of the Muslim culture. The same also was the case with the British rulers. India was colonised but finally all the foreigners who invaded India had to go back. India’s strength, embedded in its rich culture of tolerance and peaceful co-existence, could never be undermined. India epitomises its uniqueness in its diversity of culture, language, religion, caste, creed, and customs and so on.
Buddhism travelled to foreign shores and found universal appeal in many countries of East and Southeast Asia. Indian merchants who went on voyage took along with them Buddhist monks who spread their teachings. The Indian community contributed to the local economy and easily got assimilated with the local community. The Hindu relics found in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia are a testimony of India’s cultural efflorescence that remains intact even in the present times.
With such a rich history of spreading its soft power, there never was the need for using hard power as an option for the country to achieve the desired result. In modern times, the use of soft power has assumed an institutional framework and is now more structured with the participation of the public and private sectors.
In modern times, India’s soft power asset has little to do with the Government as other important dimensions have emerged. While the Government initiatives to promote the country’s soft power are relevant, other tools such as Bollywood, TV shows and the exportable products of India’s popular culture are equally important in making India a cultural superpower. Here, the difference is that the Government initiatives to promote soft power are aimed at meeting political ends. Nevertheless, the ultimate result is the same and there is no conflict of application. What the Government initiatives, such as cultural agreements or role played by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, do is to prioritise the aims on a global scale in a structured way as opposed to the invisible cultural exports, such as roles played by Bollywood and TV dramas/serials.
Other instruments of the Government-initiated cultural exports take the form of showcasing historical narrative based on mythology, such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and other historical stories, which are depicted in various forms, such as drama, theatre, and song. The case of a musical play based on Ramayana in Manila during the East Asian Summit held in November 2017, enthralling leaders at the ASEAN opening ceremony, is an example. The play reflected India’s cultural linkages with the Philippines and several member countries of the 10-member powerful bloc. The musical performance based on the epic
Ramayana drew a loud applause from several world leaders and delegates.
The Cambodian leadership at the summit suggested that the ASEAN troupes should be invited for their own rendition of the Ramayana at the India-ASEAN Special Commemorative Summit on January 25, 2018, marking the 25th anniversary of India’s ties with the bloc. It is for the first time that India invited leaders of 10 South-East Asian countries to attend the Republic Day celebrations. India accepted the proposal and shall welcome groups from all 10 ASEAN countries for a performance based on Ramayana,as it will reflect India’s civilisational links with the ASEAN nations. This kind of soft power tool in international diplomacy helps in deepening bonding among nations.
VIETNAM’S SOFT POWER
As with India’s case, soft power can also be defined by Vietnam’s rich civilisation and cultural heritage. Both India and Vietnam have benefitted immensely from their respective cultures historically and used the soft power tool successfully as an important element to achieve their ultimate objectives. Most of the soft power application remained unknown in the absence of technology. The information revolution of the present times has disseminated the benefits of this important element of diplomacy.
Besides being a strategic partner of India, the cultural links with Vietnam are quite deep. Both India and Vietnam are engaged in honing synergies through cultural exchanges and export of cultural products, which have helped promote better understanding of their shared heritage and histories. Integration amongst the two societies ought to develop side by side with politico-security and economic cooperation. In this overarching narrative of cultural fusion, the history of cultural interactions between India and Vietnam is enmeshed in the broader context of Southeast Asia’s socio-cultural rubric.
One can see the evidence of earliest history between India and Southeast Asia, dating back to the 1st century AD excavations in some of the Southeast Asian nations. The famed temples of Cambodia, like Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, have strong Indian imprints. Other countries of the region, such as Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Indonesia and others, came under India’s cultural influence, whose relevance remains intact in human relations till today. Thailand’s Dvaravati of the 7th century AD demonstrates the influence of Indian culture, including Buddhist, Vaishnavite, and Shaivite traditions. But what stands out with regard to Vietnam is the Kingdom of Cham in the south of the country, where the influence of Indian culture is demonstrated by the famous area of My Son housing a complex of temples dedicated to Lord Shiva.
Such cultural influences from each were complemented by robust and dynamic trade between India and the region. These date back to the Gupta dynasty when trade flourished from the 4th to the 6th century AD, linking Kedah on the Malay Peninsula and sea links with the coasts of Vietnam and Thailand.
There are also inscriptions reflecting Indian linguistic influence on the kingdoms of Southeast Asia, such as in Vietnam and Indonesia. There is an equally strong influence of Sanskrit through inscriptions dating back to the 6th century AD, the oldest evidence of which can be seen in Java, dating back to the 5th century AD.
Even India’s ancient literary script Sanskrit finds resonance in many Southeast Asian countries. For example, Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia spoken in Malaysia and Indonesia respectively have roots in Sanskrit as the word ‘Bahasa’ itself is Sanskrit. The word ‘Bharat’, the native name for India, signifies ‘West’ (barat) in Bahasa and is indicative of their historical perception of India. The frontiers of India’s border have massively expanded with Bollywood’s deep penetration across continents and one cannot miss the footprint of Hindi cinema in Southeast Asia.
With such a rich historical tradition, India and Vietnam are now honing synergy in the cultural domain through a series of initiatives, such as exchange programmes for artists, academics, journalists, farmers, Parliamentarians and others. These programmes facilitate movement of people from both countries to experience first-hand the two beautiful syncretic cultures.
The establishment of the Nalanda University — once a world-renowned knowledge hub where scholars from around the world, including Southeast Asia and India, exchanged knowledge and ideas — is a typical display of soft power whose relevance is overarching throughout the region. India has offered scholarships to students from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam to study there.
The contribution of Indian settlers since the 18th and 19th centuries in many Southeast Asian countries has been immense. Whether large or small, the Indian community maintains a low profile and works with full sincerity in their adoptive countries. Though small in number in Vietnam, estimated to be around only 1,500, the Indian settlers are vibrant, law-abiding, well-educated, and prosperous. They retain strong family, cultural, and business ties with India, and are, therefore, our country’s bridge to Vietnam.
*The writer is the ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Reitaku University, Japan. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect either that of the ICCR or the Government of India. E-mail: email@example.com