A Game of Leverage: De-constructing Chinese & Indian Soft Power in the Gulf

Global interest in the Gulf is not a new phenomenon. India, since its Indus Valley Civilisation and China, since its prosperous Silk route, have been interacting with the Gulf.

Authors: Anmol Rattan Singh & Tejvir Bawa*

The art of creating leverage, seemingly a structural apparatus, lies in the discrete unobtrusiveness of intent. While much soft power is discours-ical, it is the productive capacity of this power that exemplifies it as a universally accepted, objective reality.[1] In conformity with this, and through an interpretative analysis,  a re-thought and reworking of soft power understanding between the Gulf nations—China—India is required to grasp a reality widely ignored.

Global interest in the Gulf is not a new phenomenon. India, since its Indus Valley Civilisation and China, since its prosperous Silk route, have been interacting with the Gulf. While India’s fate was once intertwined with the Gulf through power integration under British rule.[2] China’s engagement with the Gulf stems directly from the competitive nature of Eurasian geographical dynamics.

Of late, India is trying to intensify its engagements with the region; the proposed India-Middle-East corridor is the latest attempt at solidifying relations.[3] Meanwhile, China’s exuberance through its BRI helped the momentum of China-Gulf relations. Amidst this, the Gulf region has developed its own story; the dynamics of its relations with new rising players and the conflict tensions in the economic structures should be looked into with seriousness. The latest developments make the gulf an imperative region in the international discourse, helping us understand the constantly changing narratives.

Through a Post-Structuralist lens

Much of the post-Cold War history is ripe with representations and interpretations of an anarchic Gulf, especially since the Arab Spring. Almost all the countries have been expected to meet this standard of strategic play of perception towards the Gulf. Interpretation of threats and enemies (high politics) have driven Post-structuralist’s to assess soft power structures in the Gulf based on three realist strands – power-centrism, groupism, and egoism.[4]

Amidst this, a shared civilisational narrative pushed by India and China represents a mode of political community building and cooperation that entails a wider willingness to ‘low politics’ and multi-alignment strategies vis-a-vis the Gulf.[5] While much of the Chinese association with the Gulf is multilateral—emphasising dialogue and shared benefits [6], India, on the other hand, as part of its extended neighbourhood policy [7], seems to be balancing between the West and the Gulf owing to its energy dependency and diaspora concerns.

Chinese Story – Partnership without Alliance

In the intricate fabric of international affairs, China’s foray into the Gulf region epitomises a sophisticated exercise of soft power encompassing economic, social, and cultural interplays. This nuanced engagement, as evident in China’s ‘1 + 2 + 3’ strategy articulated by Xi Jinping, underscores a strategic penetration into the Gulf’s vital economic and technological sectors, prioritising energy cooperation, infrastructure, and high-tech advancements.[8] Such manoeuvres not only amplify China’s sway but subtly recalibrate regional power dynamics, rendering China an indispensable ally. This is particularly manifest in China’s investments aimed at enhancing refineries for high-sulphur content oil [9], a move that intertwines China’s economic prowess with the Gulf’s energy matrix, thereby projecting a power-alignment approach that veers from traditional narratives of state sovereignty towards a more complex interdependence.

Simultaneously, China’s engagement strategies exhibit a keen groupism by nurturing collective economic partnerships under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) umbrella with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, fostering a shared developmental ethos that aligns with China’s global visions. This collective orientation, juxtaposed with China’s egoistic pursuit of its strategic and economic interests—evidenced by its dominance in bilateral trade and the exportation of consumer goods—taps into the demographic dividend of the Gulf region’s burgeoning youth population [10]. By embedding Chinese goods and services into the daily lives of millions, China secures healthy promotion of its market expansion and cultivates a favourable image, positioning itself as a beacon of efficiency, innovation, and modernization. This multifaceted soft power strategy, leveraging low politics, not only caters to China’s interests but also envisions a shared trajectory of growth and cooperation, positioning China as a pivotal architect in the Gulf’s socio-economic future.

Furthermore, the Gulf countries’ multi-alignment strategy significantly complements China’s strategic overtures, wherein China has surpassed the United States in bilateral trade with almost all individual Gulf countries. The narrative of the Chinese political system as highly efficient while being autocratic is luring for Gulf nations that are either theocratic, monarchies or dictatorships [11]. This is perfectly summed up by Lee Morgenbesser, who terms this portrayal as a ‘Menu of Autocratic Innovation’, showcasing China’s adeptness as a model of governance that is pragmatically beneficial to its Gulf partners [12].

Indian Tale – From Security to Heritage

India’s engagement with the Gulf, underpinned historically by the rupee integration under British rule until 1966 (when the Gulf states introduced their own currencies), is primarily driven by energy cooperation (high politics).[13] It has now matured into a sophisticated canvas of strategic partnerships that are marked by technology exchanges and a shared heritage narrative (low politics) around Hindu temple symbolism.[14] It reflects a nuanced approach that goes well beyond transactional diplomacy. Notably, this includes moves towards bolstering groupism under the shadow of military security and defence cooperation, especially as part of naval exercises.[15] Subsequently, the strategic pivot under the Modi–regime marked by significant technology transfer, business-first diplomacy, and the formation of I2U2 grouping with the US, Israel, and the UAE highlights India’s new strategy in the geopolitical arena.[16]  The ability to navigate complex alliances and leverage both multilevel and bilateral lines showcases India’s diplomatic agility and belief in multiple discours-ical associations.

Furthermore, the relationship between the Gulf and India showcases a non-prescriptive, non-judgmental, and non-intrusive approach towards the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). India has challenged the concept of what we term as ‘popular resolution pressure’ and has maintained a visibly friendly stance towards Israel, unlike China, thereby balancing its ties with both Israel and Arab states.[17] This dynamic can be linked to the ongoing free trade agreement negotiations with the GCC, alongside significant business-friendly investments by Gulf states in key sectors of the Indian economy, such as renewable energy and agriculture.[18] Most recently, the integration of instant payment platforms—UPI (India) and AANI (UAE) [19]—illustrates how the structuralist assumption of power-centrism no longer serves as a primary determinant; instead, it has been relegated to the background to accommodate alternative interests in regional economic integration.


Post-structuralists argue that the universal truth is that change is a constant and consistent force of nature that can not be negotiated with or evaded. The Gulf region and its changing dynamics are evidence backing this claim. The initial developments and cultural battles caused the United States to intervene and invade for varying causes in the early 2000s. Geography and long distances no longer play a ceremonial role in international relations, precisely when India and China are concerned. However, the present circumstances have been created through globalism, trade and foreign policies. Economic leverage creates a gap in domestic systems, which have historically been open to negotiations and changes in cultural rhetoric. Given their rising position in the global order, India and China’s contemporary encounters and engagements should not astonish geographers or sociologists. As countries determined to play a crucial role in the international arena, India as ‘Vishwa Mitra’ (friend to the world) [20] and China as an ‘Economic Messiah’ (saviour)’, the perimeters of international relations and regional dynamics will continue to be redefined and redrawn. 

*Tejvir Bawa is a Research Candidate pursuing a Master of Research degree from Western Sydney University, Graduate Research School. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Delhi. He is an Author for the New Sentinel and the Magazine Editor for the Institute for a Greater Europe, youth-led think tanks. Most of his works are oriented towards geopolitics, geoeconomics and international relations.


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Anmol Rattan Singh
Anmol Rattan Singh
Anmol Rattan Singh is an Assistant Professor at Sri Guru Gobind Singh College, Chandigarh. He is a Public Policy PhD Research Candidate at Panjab University, Chandigarh, and the founding director of PANJ Foundation, a public policy think-tank in India working on policy research around sustainability metrics. His works are oriented towards — Geo-economics, Foreign policy, and Energy politics.