China-India relations

Soft power needed to further improve Sino-Indian ties

  • Both governments realise the importance of people-to-people contact and there has been a conscious effort to boost trade, investment and tourism
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2018, 9:54pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 December, 2018, 11:27pm

The high number of top-level meetings between Chinese and Indian officials is a sure sign that relations are back on track after last year’s tense border stand-off. President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met for the fourth time this year on the sidelines of the recent Group of 20 summit in Argentina. Just 18 months ago, the nations’ militaries were eyeing one another across contested territory near Bhutan, and on Tuesday, they resumed joint exercises in Sichuan province. It is a remarkable turnaround, but economic ties and grass-roots exchanges of people remain noticeably low despite the neighbours having the world’s two biggest populations. Soft power is one way of building trust and cooperation between rivals and hope lies in the popularity among Chinese of Bollywood films.

China has had a love affair with Indian films since the early 1970s, but fluctuating relations and restrictions on foreign films have meant only a trickle have been released to audiences. The limits are to protect the local industry, but there has been a resurgence in interest in movies from India, largely due to the popularity of Aamir Khan, an actor, producer, and director. He is perhaps the best-known Indian among Chinese, having had a string of box-office successes starting with 3 Idiots in 2011, and continuing with Dhoom 3, PK, Dangal, a blockbuster that sparked Indian film fever in 2016 and won praise from Xi, and Secret Superstar. Those movies and other Bollywood offerings that have pulled in cinema-goers are applauded for their down-to-earth values and social messages about pressing issues for both nations, including rural poverty, education, gender discrimination and sexual abuse.

Why Indian films are so popular in China: similar problems

China and India are vexed by complex strategic and economic issues and Bollywood blockbusters will not resolve them. A huge trade deficit and investment are hugely lopsided in China’s favour and Delhi views Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative” suspiciously and refuses to join. Similarly, there are marked disparities in numbers of tourists and university students, with Indians eager to go to China, but the reverse not being true. More than 800,000 Indian tourists and 18,000 students went to China last year, but only 225,000 Chinese visitors and little more than 100 students to India, their biggest concerns being safety, cleanliness and food.

The nations’ contested border and a war in 1962 colour relations. But while negotiations take place, both governments realise the importance of people-to-people contact and there has been a conscious effort to boost trade, investment and tourism. Numbers are coming from a low base, but are annually growing. China and India share cultural and social values and soft power through movies has an important role in helping improve relations.