As China and India continue to escalate their separate efforts in exerting influence around South Asia by funding tangible infrastructure--roads, ports, dams, and even an airport in Nepal--the two potential superpowers also are using a "softer" approach to shape perceptions: Buddhism. Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka are three key states in the region that all have deep cultural ties to Buddhism and thus are being courted by various "carrots" from both India and China. Some of these carrots include displays of ancient Buddhist relics, funding religious sites, and the sponsorships of international Buddhist conferences.
Not surprisingly one of these Buddhist conferences, India's Global Buddhist Congregation, became a thorny issue for Beijing in 2011. The reason? The congregation ended up casting the Dalai Lama as Buddhism's global leader, in a sense solidifying India's agency over the Buddhist tradition while indirectly criticizing China's policies on Tibet.
Beijing's response: they actually delayed a scheduled meeting with Indian officials on Sino-Indian border negotiations. This is just one example of how soft power is in no way confined to abstract intangibles such as culture.
Niall Ferguson wrote an interesting piece on power back in 2003 where he states, "But the trouble with soft power is that it's, well, soft." Unfortunately this is true only when soft power is regulated exclusively to the realm of cultural and commercial goods, such as Michael Jackson and Big Macs. Today, soft power can directly and indirectly influence things once considered the domain of hard power, such as regional containment--one only has to look at China's "strategic encirclement" of improving relations (whether it's through direct foreign investment or Confucius Institutes) with most of India's neighbors to see this.