I recently read an article about executives of German companies in India who were detained and questioned during World War II by authorities of the then British Government in India. These executives, although worried and harassed about working in what had then become enemy territory, played an important role in building bridges and rebuilding bonds of trust and friendship after the end of hostilities.
This example of values-oriented investment led me to wonder about the role of trans-national investment as a foreign policy asset. When there is inbound Foreign Direct Investment, it creates a situation which compels significant interaction between peoples from many different countries. Offices have to opened, factories have to be built, approvals from local Government authorities have to be taken, staff has to be hired, management teams built, legal contracts drawn up, and so on. The depth and level of interaction is tremendous, and often of a permanent nature.
Investments of this nature open great avenues for cultural exploration, learning, assimilation and building strong cross-border ties, while at the same time creating an inherent incentive for shared prosperity. If the host country grows and creates a fertile, peaceful environment for business, the investment does well. Which then sets an example for further investment and a virtuous cycle ensues.
These relationships, incentives and cultural understanding can and do go a long way in preventing conflict and dispelling irrational, angry notions that develop in the public mind when ties are strained.
When India and China tussled over the Doklam plateau last year, I would get worried when reading the shrill headlines every day about an impending larger conflict, and somewhat exaggerated op-eds in newspapers about monstrous conspiracy theories. But a quick conversation with some friends working at Chinese multinational company offices in India would give me a much sounder idea about the mood in China, and the signals coming to them from their headquarters. Most of the Chinese were as anxious as I to get the conflict resolved, get back to their business, and rejoin the cultural traditions in their new temporary homeland that they had grown to love. There was a basic affinity they felt towards India, that they would eventually carry back to China with them.
It is these sentiments, feelings, influence over hearts and minds around the world that constitute the ‘soft power’ of any nation. It is this intangible goodwill that can help construct friends and allies in the unlikeliest of places that ultimately gives prestige, respect and influence to a nation and its people.
With increasing globalization and economic growth, large companies operating across multiple countries with multicultural staff is now a commonplace occurrence. As the Indian economy and its business houses continue to grow, there will be more companies venturing overseas with significant investments. In the reverse direction, India has also been among the top Foreign Direct Investment destinations for the past few years, competing closely with China and the USA.
Each of us should do all we can to promote and appreciate this trend.