Academic Webinar: Why Nations Rise: China, India, and the Narratives of Great Powers

Wednesday, April 6, 2022
Getty Images

Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Academic and Higher Education Webinars and Asia Program

Manjari Chatterjee Miller, CFR’s senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, leads a conversation on why nations rise: China, India, and the narratives of great powers.

FASKIANOS: Welcome to today’s sessions of the Winter/Spring 2022 CFR Academic Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR.

Today’s discussion is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We are delighted to have Manjari Chatterjee Miller with us to talk about why nations rise. Dr. Miller is CFR’s senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia. She’s currently on leave from Boston University where she is a tenured associate professor of international relations at Boston University’s (BU) Frederick Pardee School of Global Studies. Dr. Miller is also a research associate in the Contemporary South Asian Studies Program at Oxford University’s School of Global and Area Studies, and she’s been a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and several other universities. Dr. Miller is the author of several books, including her most recent one, which is what we’ll be focused on today, Why Nations Rise: Narratives and The Path to Great Power. And it’s a fantastic cover.

I love that, Dr. Miller. So thank you for being with us and thank you. Love having you at CFR. I thought we could begin by you talking about some of the strands, the arguments from your book on what constitutes a rising power and why different countries rise and what the narrative is around that.

MILLER: Yeah. Thank you so much, Irina. It is an honor to do this, and since I’m on leave from BU, it’s lovely to be talking to academics and students again.

So let me just—you know, I’m going to answer your question by going back a little in time, which is that, you know, when I wrote my first book, I was really looking at China and India and why they had these very similar responses to how they saw the world and their foreign policy, and so they often saw themselves as victims of colonialism, and they would essentially take the position that they were being victimized by other countries when it came to certain issues. And doing that—when I finished this book, I would give talks on the book and people would say, but they’re rising powers, these countries are rising powers, so why do they talk about being victims when clearly they vanquished colonialism? And that was a really interesting question, right? So that was just a very interesting question. And I thought that’s true. You know, these countries are rising powers; when do countries forget?

So I began looking at Chinese news, and Chinese newspapers were full of these stories about what it meant for China to rise and how it was going to be a great power and what it should do and how should it respond to the United States? And then I looked at Indian newspapers and I didn’t see much of that. I saw a lot of ideas on foreign policy but not really so much on India rising. So I thought, wow, this is really unusual. Is it normal for countries to be also calling themselves rising powers when other countries are, or is it not?

So I went back to India and I did some interviews at really high levels of government and what I found really surprised me because it turned out that Indian officials were very uncomfortable with the idea of India as a rising power, they were not quite sure how to handle it, and they weren’t strategizing in a long-term way about what it meant for India to rise. And I thought, wow, that’s really weird. If we talk about rising powers so much, which we do because international relations is our specialty and we talk about rising powers a lot, as an important category of actors, what does it mean if one country talks about its rise and strategizes and another doesn’t? Is this normal?

And so I started going back in time and I thought, OK, let me look at the one other country which is a rising power and that was the United States, and wow, I found the United States talked about its rise and then I found that Meiji Japan talked about its rise, but then you had other countries that had opportunities to, you know—where they were increasing their military and economic power but didn’t talk about their rise. India was one of them, but so was Cold War Japan, so was the Netherlands in the late nineteenth century, which was a very, very rich country. And so that’s really the crux of the book is that, we talk about rising powers, whether it’s us in the policy community or in the academic community—we talk about rising powers as this one category of actors, right, but that all rising powers are not created the same; there are different kinds of rising powers, and some of them behave exactly as we expect them to do, so they rise to become great powers, but then other rising powers seem stymied.

And so what I argue in the book is that whether a country rises to become a great power or not is definitely dependent on its economic and military power, of course; you need that. But it is also dependent on what I call idea advocacy or, rather, the stories that these countries either tell or do not tell about their rise. And so the book really looks at two kinds of rising powers: one is active rising powers. So they rise to become great powers, they get military and economic power, but they also do what I call globalize their authority. So they basically start behaving as we would expect great powers to behave. And what’s really interesting here is that what—how we would expect great powers to behave is not always the same, so in the nineteenth century, what we expected a great power to do is different from what we expect a great power to do today. So these active rising powers in the beginning of their rise, what they are is they’re very accommodational of these great-power narratives, so that means they say, OK, hey, this is how a great power behaves, this is how we should behave, and so we’re going to try and behave like them. And this is actually counterintuitive to how we normally think about rising powers because we think about them as revisionist, but active rising powers in the beginning are accommodational.

And then you have this other kind of rising powers that are reticent rising powers, and reticent rising powers don’t do that. So they don’t have these narratives. They have military and economic power, they have opportunities, often to take advantage of that military and economic power, but they don’t try and behave like the great power of the day; they don’t try and get recognition of the fact that they’re rising. They also lack narratives about becoming a great power. And so, I think the two big takeaways that I have is that when we talk about rising power, it’s a process, so you become a rising power through this whole process that involves this material power, but then it also involves these narratives about becoming a great power. And the reason this is really important is because coming back to this China-India story, what I argue is that if you look at this idea advocacy that India is lacking and China has, what we find is that this can explain the differences in behavior between them, so they’re not the same as rising powers.

And this difference existed—I mean, of course, today we can say, look, China is just so much, you know, has just so much more in terms of military capability and economic power than India does and that would be correct. But in fact, we can see this even in the 1990s, right, so a period when their material power was comparable, we see that they developed very, very different narratives, so China had these narratives about becoming a great power, even at that time, and India did not. And so what we can really argue is that when we want to manage a rising power, these active rising powers that are the powers that we need to manage, we need to manage them when they’re active, not when they suddenly become revisionist. And on the other hand, reticent rising powers like India often don’t meet expectations, so because they have narratives that are not about becoming like the great power of the day, they have much more limited engagement with the international order and they can end up frustrating their allies and partners.

And so in the book I essentially look at these six cases, right, so I look at three cases of active rising powers and three cases of reticent rising powers, and what I find is that across time and across culture and across regime type, you had these very particular kinds of beliefs about becoming a great power that the United States had, Meiji Japan had, 1990s China had, but then when you look at the Netherlands in the late nineteenth century or you look at Cold War Japan or you look at India in the 1990s, all periods for these countries, when they had some amount of military and economic power and the opportunity to take advantage of them, they didn’t have these narratives; they had very different kinds of narratives. And the way they behaved was significantly different from how these active rising powers behave. And so that’s really the basis of the book, is these six cases and the idea that we need to stop talking about rising powers as this one category of actors.

And I’ll leave you with just one note. So, one of the things that we often talk about as rising powers is BRICS, right, so Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, and people rarely realize that BRICS was something that was just made up; it was made up in 2005 by an analyst at Goldman Sachs who clumped these countries together based on the fact that they were emerging-markets economies, but then if you look at what each of these countries have or don’t have, the picture is much more muddied. I mean, Brazil does not have nuclear weapons. Can you be a rising power without nuclear weapons? Can you become a great power without nuclear weapons? Russia—you know, especially with the Ukraine crisis—are we really thinking of Russia as an emerging country or is it a declining country, right? South Africa is a country that in the past has seen its life expectancy drop. Is that a rising power? So we use the term very loosely and we clump countries together and we need to understand that there’s variation in between.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. That was a great overview.

And let’s turn to all of you now for your questions and comments. You know how to do this.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

So we already have a couple written questions and I’m going to see—first hand, raised hand is from Ahmya Cheatham.

Q: Yes. First and foremost I would just like to say that thank you so much for introducing this panel. I am an international studies major with an emphasis on foreign language, and I just really wanted to emphasize on the key point that you pointed out between the different kinds of powers and there isn’t much taught historically, at least throughout the Western world or the United States where I’m from, about what you called reticent powers, which are people who—they had the military prowess or they had the opportunity to move in a more imperialist kind of way for power but didn’t necessarily choose so.

So I wanted to ask, why do you think those type of high powers aren’t as recognized or taught about in Western culture?

FASKIANOS: And Ahmya, what university are you with, college or university?

Q: University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you.

MILLER: I have a fondness for Wisconsin. My husband’s from Madison, Wisconsin, so go Badgers. Yeah, so I’m heading—that’s a great question. So your question is, why is it that the Western world has not recognized these categories of rising powers and I think it has as a lot to do with—well, first of all, in international relations theory in general—I mean, this is changing, but in the past, essentially, theorists focused on countries that had enough military or economic power to matter and what mattered was set by the West, right? So that’s, obviously, one way in which you are clearly narrowing down right away which countries matter and which countries don’t and that excluded a lot of Asia and Africa.

But I think there’s another way it matters which is that, if you look at the literature in rising powers, in academic theory—and as somebody in policy, I will say that IR theory is really important because it helps you understand policy better, OK, so do not dismiss it. But in academic theory, in IR theory, there’s an entire body of work that’s called power transition theory, OK, and power transition theory is about essentially—well, it’s kind of set our expectations about why we fear rising powers. So what does power transition theory say? It says that there is a cycle in world politics, there’s a recurring cycle, so you have a great power who’s the status quo power, and then eventually there is always a challenger, and that challenger is a challenger because this country is dissatisfied with how goods are distributed in the international system, right, and because they’re dissatisfied, they eventually challenge the status quo power for control of the international system so they can access those goods.

Now, you see here—so when they challenge the status quo—how a war occurs, and so therefore you have this recurring cycle of conflict. And so that’s why rising powers are considered such an important category in international relations because they have the power to affect war and peace. But then there’s the other part of it, which is—and this is where my work comes in because when you are talking about a challenger’s dissatisfaction with the distribution of goods, you’re not really talking about how goods are actually distributed, right? You’re really talking about their belief about how goods are distributed. And so, narratives, which come very strongly from what a country believes or does not believe about its role, then derives from those beliefs. If you ignore their perception, then you’re ignoring a fundamental characteristic that should be intrinsic to rising powers, but we don’t look at that. But power transition theory kind of has set our bar for how and why we think of rising powers, which is that they’re always challengers, they always have military and economic power that matters, and they’re always going to challenge the status quo. And I think everything else in rising powers has flown from power transition theory.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you.

Terron Adlam has a raised hand, also wrote the question, but why don’t you just ask it yourself and give your affiliation?

Q: Hi there. My name is Terron Adlam. I’m from Delaware State University.

My question is, knowing how the olden times old powers are based on military and economic, knowing today’s global society, do you think we have a new definition of global powers?

MILLER: OK, so I think you actually have a two-part question here, right, so one part is, is the military and economic power the only thing that matters, and the second part is, do societal factors matter?

So let me take the first one. So military and economic power do always matter, OK? I emphasize the importance of ideas and narratives in my book but I would in no way say that military and economic power does not matter for a country to become a great power. That would be nonsensical, right? What I’m saying is it is necessary but it’s not sufficient, and that’s where this book comes in because it helps you plug the gap and say, well, what else do you need, because clearly military and economic power, by themselves, cannot propel a country towards rising-power status. So that’s the first part of it.

The second part of it is about societal—what matters societally? And I think this is really interesting because this gets to the heart of how we think about great powers, and how we think about great powers is very different depending on the era that we’re in, right? So what matters societally is different depending on the era that we are in. So let’s look at the late nineteenth world. So the late nineteenth century world—what did it mean if you were going to be this great power and this great country? What did it mean if you wanted to become like that? And what it really meant was owning colonies. It meant not just being a great power but being a colonial great power. So in order to be a great power and to be like, let’s say, Great Britain, you actually had to own colonies; you had to have sway over the lives and deaths of millions of citizens who you did not accept as equal citizens of your empire, right? That’s what it meant to be a great power. So when you went out and gained territory, you weren’t just gaining territory, you were gaining territory specifically for the purpose of what economists have called extractive colonialism, where you’re extracting resources from the territory and then sending them back to the mother country.

So when you look at the United States and Meiji Japan rise in this time, they engage in expansionism. That we know, right? But what’s really interesting is that it’s a very particular kind of expansionism. It’s colonial expansionism. So all of the narratives that exist in Meiji Japan and in the United States, they’re different in subtle ways, but in many ways they’re similar, that they recognize that the path to great power is through colonies. So the question the United States has, well, should we acquire colonies, should we become a great power and acquire colonial great power? That’s what they debate because the notion of great power is dependent on colonies. Now, if you fast forward to the 1990s, that’s not what great power is anymore. I mean, nobody would—no country—even Russia does not say that we are out to colonize and this is our colony and it’s perfectly OK to do that. That is not what being a great power means. Being a great power means controlling, directing, and shaping the process of globalization, particularly through international institutions.

So the narratives of great power in the 1990s in India and China are not about becoming colonial great powers. So it’s not about saying we’re going to go out and acquire colonies, we’re going to be like Meiji Japan and show how we’re administering the colonies in really benevolent, beautiful ways, and how we’re extracting resources efficiently. That would not be OK. That would not be socially acceptable. What they say is we’re going to enter international institutions—particularly China says this, is that the path to great power lies through international institutions. And you can kind of, even in the 1990s, see the seeds of BRI in this, because that it is what BRI is; it’s really about using institutions and the rules that were laid down after World War II by the United States and the liberal international order to see how China could actually end up controlling and impacting and eventually shaping those rules. So that’s what great power is. So it is absolutely societal, because how we think of great power changes depending on the era that we’re in.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Pamela Waldron-Moore, who is the chair of the political science department and professor at Xavier University of Louisiana: Is there a perception among states of internal global efficacy versus external global political efficacy, where internal efficacy reflects how India, for example, perceives itself versus how the globe was perceived to view the state’s rise, and in this case example of China?

MILLER: I’m sorry, Irina. I’m not sure I follow that question. Does she define political efficacy?

FASKIANOS: She did not.

But Pamela, do you want to unmute and give your definition?

There we go. Pamela, great. You just have to unmute yourself. There we go.

Q: OK. Yes.

What I was referring to is the fact that internal efficacy is usually how you perceive yourself as a state and your rise, your power, your movement, versus the external efficacy where you understand who you are by the perceptions externally of others. So if the world sees you as a rising state, they will promote you and you start to think of yourself, perhaps in the case of India, as oh, yes, we are rising because we’ve done all these—we’ve established all of these links, these blocs. But if you are simply looking at yourself and saying, well, we’re not, we don’t have military might, we don’t have X, Y, and Z, therefore we cannot see ourselves as efficacious, we can’t call ourselves a rising state. So it’s a question about perception. Is the perception of China, where everybody thinks, OK, you’re moving fast and you’re promoting yourself, different from the perception of India which, in the context of Asia and the Commonwealth and so forth, still see themselves as lesser than a rising state. I hope that is a little clearer.

MILLER: Yes. It is. So that’s actually really interesting because—I mean, there’s certainly a difference, but here’s the thing is that China’s what you call internal efficacy aligns with external efficacy, so in that both China and external perceptions, China’s external perceptions of China are aligned in the 1990s about China as a rising power, right? There’s no dichotomy there. In India there’s a dichotomy. So there’s also external perceptions of India as a rising power, as evidenced by news media or reference or—I look at, like, different kinds of newspapers that refer to these countries. But the internal efficacy doesn’t keep pace with the external efficacy.

Now, actually—and I haven’t heard that term before so thank you for bringing it to my attention; that’s a really interesting way to put it—the question is why. I think the question is why is it that in China it’s different and in India it’s different? And this—and I think that, to be honest, like, there could be a whole volume on this, which is this question of where do narratives come from, and why is it that some countries develop this narrative, this internal perception of themselves that is concurrent with the external perception of themselves, but other countries don’t?

And you know—so when I was looking at—so, I mean, this book—six cases and huge and so I wasn’t going to look at narratives as—and you’re a political science professor so I’m just going to say it as a dependent variable; there was not the dependent variable. It was not what I was examining. I was examining it more as a cause. But if you did—I mean, I talk about this in the conclusion. It was interesting how many people had different ideas about where these narratives come from and why they were different in China and India. I mean, Indians and Chinese had different perceptions of this as well. Some of it was really institutional, about how the institutions were constructed and which institutions mattered when it came to foreign policy, and so therefore, Chinese institutions were set up in a way to be more diffused to these narratives, whereas Indian institutions were not.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to the raised hand, Teresita Schaffer.

Q: Thank you. And thank you for this really interesting introduction to your work.

I am retired Foreign Service and I teach at Georgetown, of course on diplomacy. I spent much of my Foreign Service career working on India so that’s where my examples come from. But you have a situation where India at independence saw itself as, to use the vernacular, punching above its actual weight, and it conducted its diplomacy, to a large extent, on that basis. It built up its military for the needs that it perceived already. And it was the economy which was the most out of step with this impending great-power status, and not until the Indian economy started growing fast did you see people in the so-called chattering classes talking about India as coming close to realizing the greatness of its five-thousand-year-old civilization. Do other countries that you studied display similar disconnects between the different elements of the things that make you more readily seen as a great power, or is the disconnect itself something that matters to this transition?

MILLER: So, first of all, Ambassador, thank you for attending the talk. I’m honored. So let me restate your question. So you’re asking, is it about civilizational greatness, that India had this perception that it needed to punch above its weight after independence and so that’s why it began investing in its military and, eventually, of course, it did economic reforms. And so are you asking whether this notion of civilizational greatness is necessary? Could you clarify?

Q: Not really, because—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—I’m asking whether it matters to your idea of rising powers but whether the different elements of—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—with one another or not.

FASKIANOS: I don’t know if that was just for me that was garbled. For some reason, your audio is now on the fritz, so we did not hear that at all. It was a bit garbled.

Q: I could try again, briefly.

FASKIANOS: There we go. Perfect. Go ahead.

MILLER: And if it gets garbled again, perhaps you could put it in the chat because it sounded like a really interesting question.

Q: There were reasons why India pushed the civilizational narrative. It fit in so beautifully with the way Nehru thought, and he was the foreign policy. But the economic and the military elements that you agreed were necessary elements were out of sync. The military element had to get built up earlier, largely because India’s independent years started with a war. The economic was always viewed as a liability, until the point where India’s economy started growing a whole lot faster in the 1990s. Question: Does the fact that the different elements are out of sync, does that figure in the way you think about the different kinds of rising powers?

MILLER: Yes, it does because—and I’ll tell you why. So—and I’m going to be—I’m going to state this very carefully. So in India’s case—so there are a couple of different elements in what you’re saying. So India has this idea of civilizational greatness even in the 1990s, so it’s not that the idea of civilizational greatness went away, right? I mean, you see that even today in Prime Minister Modi’s speeches or his talk with his harkening back to—I mean, of course, he talks about it as a Hindu civilization, but in the 1990s that wasn’t what the talk was, although it was coming up. It was still about India as just a great civilization with secular nationalism being the predominant idea.

So it wasn’t about civilizational greatness. That never went away. This was about India’s status changing, so it was specifically about being a rising power, which is that a country that is changing its status, not one that has always been a great power and has civilizational greatness to hark back upon, but rather its status was changing vis-a-vis the great power of the day, which is the United States.

So that consciousness existed in China because China also had ideas of civilizational greatness but that wasn’t the only thing that China was talking about in the 1990s. It was really talking about well, how do we take this—we are becoming a rising power and we are rising in the international system, our military and economic power is changing vis-a-vis other countries, particularly the status quo power; how, then, do we respond to that? And that response was lacking in India, although the notion of civilizational greatness did not go away.

And the question I think you’re particularly asking is what happens if you have narratives about being great, and you don’t have the military power and you don’t have the economic power? And that is a really interesting case because there was one case that historians told me about and I nod to it in my conclusion, and I don’t explore it so I definitely do not want to go into it, and state with authority that this is the case. But Weimar Germany—I learned from a lot of historians that Weimar Germany was a country that lacked the military and economic power but had these narratives, that—of changing status, had these narratives that it was going to become great again. And because it did, these narratives actually propelled a lot of military and economic reforms that may not have otherwise resulted, and I’m saying that very carefully because I nod to this in my conclusion, but that is my understanding of the literature that I’ve read. So if that is true, if that is true that you can have narratives of great power but not have the military and economic power to back that up, do the narratives then propel you to aggressively acquire that military and economic power? And I think that’s a really interesting and open question about whether that’s the case.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Natalie Holley, who is an undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. How has social media shaped these two categories of rising powers? What have been the advantages and consequences of social media use as countries construct their narratives?

MILLER: Wow. (Laughs.)

FASKIANOS: Good question.

MILLER: That’s a really—yeah, that’s a really hard question to answer. So I will say that in the 1990s—I’m old enough to remember—there was no social media. (Laughs.) It did not exist in the 1990s so it certainly did not affect the narratives then. Would it affect the narratives now? So this is actually a bigger question and it’s interesting because we talk about information and disinformation a lot, but to my knowledge, and this is—I actually have colleagues at Boston University who are working on this. The question is, to what extent does that disinformation then result in behavior. It’s one thing to have disinformation and fake news, and we know that that exists in abundant ways. But then to actually show the link that when you get that disinformation, that in turn leads to a behavioral change among people who consume it, as opposed to just talking about it, that has not—that link has not been clearly shown yet, and people are working on it.

So the colleague whom I was referencing is actually in the computer science department at Boston University and that’s part of his research—does that change behavior? So that’s the question you’re asking is if you have social media and you see these narratives reflected and re-reflected in social media, does that then change behavior? And that’s a—in some ways that’s a chicken and egg situation.

So let’s take the narratives of Hindu nationalism that exist today in India or wolf warrior diplomacy that exists in China. Is that amplified on social media by Indian officials and Chinese officials? Absolutely. Hugely. And then it’s picked up. So does that then intensify and then lead to behavioral change in what the government does? That’s not always so clear, right? Even when it comes to wolf warrior diplomacy, I think it’s Huang at Seton Hall University, I think, has a book that’s going to come out soon which is really interesting because it shows how a lot of this is about, when Chinese officials talk about wolf warrior diplomacy or take these narratives up, it’s not so much about changing China’s behavior as posturing to the Chinese leadership that that is what you’re doing. It’s posturing to the Chinese leadership and saying we are doing what Xi Jinping wants us to do and we’re reflecting all of these narratives. Does that then lead to a behavioral shift? That’s not as clear.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. We have several questions in the chat. Let’s go to Maya Chadda with the raised hand.

You need to unmute yourself, Maya. There we go.

Q: OK, I just want to say it was wonderful introduction, very thought-provoking.

A number of questions that Ambassador Schaffer—asked one of the—the key question I wanted to ask. The only thing I wanted to sort of comment/question on that I’d like to hear from you about is this gap we talked about, the gap between self-perception of the country, China or India, and its material basis, what it has achieved in terms of economic and political stability. There is an intervening factor there and that goes back to their historical experience in terms of the immediate issues, so while India and China were at a similar stage and saw themselves as victims of colonialism, they processed under colonialism very differently. In case of China, the Opium Wars, the unequal treaties, the Japanese invasion, everything that the civil war, rise of—it was a very, totally different experience of the country, which I think acts as an intervening factor. It sort of explains just how it sees itself as a great civilization and what it must do. You mentioned—you sort of remarked that China is much more pragmatic, India is much more ideological in building images—pragmatic in the sense what it should do internally in order to get there, to become a great power, while India sort of talks a lot and there is a greater gap between material power and image.

So the question is this: Doesn’t India’s historical experience of independence, the perceptions, the narratives, as you call it, it built—I like to call it stories about themselves—they build. And China—doesn’t that explain to a large extent the way in which they process the world today?

MILLER: OK, so first of all, I did not say that China was pragmatic and India was ideological. I want to be crystal clear about that. I said that China had narratives and India did not. The deduction from that is not that China is pragmatic about it. It has these narratives about becoming a great power, or it did in the 1990s. Is it about—did they have very different experiences of colonialism? Yes and no. So they do have very different experiences of colonialism. India had two hundred years of extractive colonialism under the British Empire, so the Raj, and China had what’s been called piecemeal colonialism. So you had the colonial—the Opium Wars but then you had the colonialism by Japan. And so what was interesting to me in my first book was that both the countries treated colonialism the same way. So they responded to colonialism as historical trauma, and they teach it as historical trauma.

So in China it is taught as one hundred years of national humiliation. And then you have two hundred years of British colonialism, and this is really important to remember. And even though, in China’s case, not only is—does China say that it was colonized for a hundred years, but China accepts the Qing, for example, which is not a Han dynasty, it’s a Manchu dynasty, not as colonizers, as some historians have dubbed them, but as Chinese. So you have those contradictions.

So the point is that they treat it the same way. They perceive colonialism the same way. Now, the reason this is—and this is particularly also evocative because I remember when I was doing the research for my first book, I came across these diplomatic negotiations between Zhou Enlai and Jawaharlal Nehru, which were the last negotiations in 1960 before the border war of 1962, and there’s this really interesting conversation—these are like verbatim negotiations, transcripts of these negotiations, and what’s really interesting in them is that there’s this squabble between the Indian and Chinese delegates about who has been colonized more. So, Zhou Enlai says, no, no, you don’t understand, we’ve been colonized, and I think it was Morarji Desai says, no, no, not as much as us; we have been colonized more. And so this idea of who’s been colonized more in factual life doesn’t matter so much as how they treat them. So no, I don’t think that the absence or presence of narratives has to do with piecemeal colonialism in China and two hundred years of solidified colonial rule in India.

What I do think it may have to do with is with institutions and I can—I mean, I want to be mindful of time, but I can talk a little bit about this very briefly. So it’s really interesting because in India, what you find is in the foreign policy decision-making establishment, as you see ideas percolate in the establishment, that establishment is very, very—what’s the word I’m trying to use?—it’s very strong bulwark against ideas from outside. So there’s a resistance to ideas from outside.

So think tanks, for example, don’t operate in the same way in India as they did in China in the 1990s and early 2000s. Everything is a little bit different now, now that Xi Jinping has taken over and the censorship and the authoritarianism have increased. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, in China you did not have independent opinions but you had a lot of autonomy among these think tanks. You had a lot of ideas that used to come up, ground up and affect how foreign policy officials thought about issues, and so it was really interesting because you’d see a back and forth in China between government and university think tanks and senior foreign policy officials that simply did not exist in India. And it exists in the U.S. today and it’s somewhat—somewhat; I’m saying this very carefully—somewhat exists in China today because there’s just so much more censorship.

But let’s say you had something like, Xi Jinping coming to the United States and saying, OK, we’re going to talk about a new type of great-power relations. Well, before his visit, think tanks would be asked to convene a conference on new type of great-power relations and they would sit around and talk about what that meant, what it could mean, how could it be framed, and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would come and they would sit and attend these conferences. They wouldn't say a word, they would just take notes. Now, how those ideas actually made their way up to President Xi and then impacted his speeches or his foreign policy initiatives, I can’t tell you. Nobody can. I mean, if I did, I’d be a billionaire. I wouldn’t—(laughs)—be sitting here. But the fact is that there was that give and take.

That give and take does not exist in India—did not exist in India and does not exist in India even today. So that kind of diffusion of ideas is different. Now, I’m not saying that that’s exactly why those narratives exist in China and that’s why they did not exist in India, but it gives you an idea of how institutions are very different, right, and institutions do matter when it comes to percolating ideas up and institutions do matter when it comes to impacting and institutionalizing and ensuring that narratives continue. So that could be a difference.

So no, I don’t think it’s a difference in colonialism, and yes, I do think it can be an institutional difference.


So Kazi Sazid has written a question but also has a raised hand, so why don’t you just ask it and if you could limit it to one question, that would be great. That way I don’t have to choose when you get to more questions.

Q: OK, so I’ll say my first question is—I’m a student at Hunter College.

So my question is, the Cold War demonstrated the dangers of two military hegemonic powers establishing a duopoly over global politics, which is the U.S. and the Soviet Union. How does the rise of India and China and let’s add Nigeria as rising regional and global powers be seen as a positive thing to help balance the power structure by not allowing a single or two countries to completely control the global political rhetoric? Sorry if that’s a loaded question.

MILLER: That is a loaded question. (Laughs.) That’s a very loaded question. I am not in the business of assigning value judgments to, just a country is a rising power per se. I will tell you that if you take India’s perspective, India sees a multipolar world as better than a bipolar world. And so when it comes, even today, to the United States and Russia and China, what India wants is multipolarity. It does not want this bipolarity like the Cold War where it’s forced to choose between one or the other. And of course it didn’t; it was non-aligned. So are rising powers a positive or negative thing? So that depends really on who you read. If you look at power transition theorists, they would say no because a rising a power is always a challenger; it inevitably leads to war.

Now, what I show in my book is that of course you don’t always have challenging rising powers; you have different kinds of rising powers. So the question is—the question that you’re really asking is that is revisionism a bad thing? It can be, right? I mean, World War II was an indication that revisionism was a bad thing. And so if you talk to China today and the Chinese, even they would say that revisionism is a bad thing and they would say that we’re not trying to revise the international system, we’re playing by the rules. And when the United States talks about a rule-based order, Chinese officials would say, but wait, we were sticking by the rules-based order and you changed the rules on us. That would be their take. So revisionism is a very, very loaded word, and so traditionally, yes, rising powers have been seen as challengers, but as I show, not all rising powers are the same.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Brian Chao who’s at the U.S. Naval War College. What are the differences, if any, in narratives and behaviors between rising powers that simply see themselves as returning to their rightful place among the great powers—example, China—a status they perhaps feel they never should have lost, and second, rising powers that may not have histories to draw upon and for whom great-power status is really something unprecedented?

MILLER: I don’t think rising powers see themselves as returning to their rightful place. China does, but that’s not how Meiji Japan thought of itself. It wasn’t about reattaining civilizational greatness. It was really about becoming a great power, and in Meiji Japan it was very much about becoming a great power like the Western great powers. That is what the narratives were. They were about becoming a colonial great power and showing the Western powers that Japan could administer its colonies just as efficiently, just as extractively, and just as well as them, and so Meiji Japan was very careful to abide by the laws and rules of the international order, and the narratives were not at all about civilizational greatness. And so—and again, the example here, again, is of India, which does have narratives about civilizational greatness but didn’t have narratives about becoming—or didn’t have narratives about rising-power status. So the two are not always the same. There’s a subtle difference between them. But just because China also happens to have civilizational greatness narratives alongside its rising-power-status narratives doesn’t mean that the two can be conflated.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to take the next written question from Isis Roopnarine from Howard University. How do you feel the global push toward environmental sustainability will affect current world powers and rising powers? Do you feel this will heavily impact India’s ability to rise, or do you feel world powers like China may be limited heavily by carbon taxes, regulations, and maybe start to decline?

MILLER: I don’t know the answer to that question. I’m just going to totally punt on that because that—that’s about environmental sustainability and whether that has long-term economic effects on countries. I assume it does, but a lot of it will depend on how much the—how countries buy into it. So I’m going to punt on that question.

FASKIANOS: So we’ll have to do a call or a webinar specifically focused on environmental concerns.

MILLER: Which is a really important one, by the way, and we should.

FASKIANOS: Absolutely. Absolutely. I am surprised to see that nobody’s asked—so I’m going to take the moderator prerogative just to ask you to talk a little bit about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and vis-a-vis China and India and their response and how you feel that they are playing and thinking about their narrative, vis-a-vis their response to that conflict?

MILLER: Yeah, so on the surface of it, it seems similar because they’re both trying not to take a position and they’re being careful about it, but it’s also very—it’s also different. So in India’s case, India is really worried about the Ukraine crisis because India worries that it has this historical relationship with Russia and if it is publicly seen to condemn Russia with whom it has historical relationship, with whom it has had a very long defense relationship, with almost 70 percent of its military hardware today being Russian, it will drive Russia into the arms of China, which is India’s number one enemy, so it is very clear about who its number one enemy is and it is China, and so India definitely does not want to publicly take a position that would essentially push Russia closer to China. At the same time, India also wants a multipolar world so it wants Russia and China and—well, particularly Russia—to be a factor in countering the rise of China and in balancing China and the United States. At the same time, India has a very deep strategic partnership with the United States and the relationship with the United States is not the same as it was twenty years ago so India also is very careful that it does not want to push the United States away from it, because this relationship has now broadened to include many, many sectors. So that’s where you see India’s position, where it’s playing a very careful game; it hasn’t come out and condemned Russia, but, at the same time, it has talked about—it’s talked about humanitarian supplies to Ukraine, it has talked about the importance of there being a cease to the violence in Ukraine without actually coming out and taking a strong position on its side.

Now, in China’s case, it’s gone back and forth. It’s very interesting because—particularly I was struck by Ambassador Qin Gang’s op-ed in the Washington Post recently, which kind of laid out China’s clearly approved position on Russia. And so, in the West we think that—we’ve particularly seen these newspaper reports of China perhaps helping Russia, perhaps giving military supplies, will it help Russia evade sanctions, but what was really interesting to me in Ambassador Qin Gang’s op-ed was the dilemma that it posed in those pages, and I’ll tell you what I mean. So China in that op-ed, Ambassador Qin clearly says Ukraine is a sovereign state. Now that statement I have not seen from any Indian official. I have not actually seen any Indian official say Ukraine is a sovereign state. I have not seen that statement. It was there in Ambassador Qin’s statement that Ukraine is a sovereign state. Then he said—and China does not support violation of sovereignty. And then he said, Ukraine is not like Taiwan because Taiwan is an internal affair, which means that Ukraine is not an internal affair, which is what Russia has been saying. So you kind of see this dilemma here that China poses where China has a relationship with Europe; China—(laughs)—a great relationship with Ukraine, right, and so what it sees is Russia jeopardizing all of that, and yet it cannot come out and condemn Russia very strongly either because it has this, the rapprochement that’s been happening with Russia, and of course, the statement that President Putin and Xi Jinping laid out. So you see the countries with dilemmas in both respects, and even though the surface they look the same, the dilemmas are different.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I want to raise Ray Bromley’s question, the University of Albany at SUNY: Would it be fair to say that India’s reticence is based on a strong South Asian and British Commonwealth focus and an obsession with Pakistan? In other words, the Indian news media and educational system don’t give enough attention to the world as a whole and to global issues; it focuses on reporting and discussing relations with Pakistan, so if you could comment on that.

MILLER: Yes, and I have one quote that I’m going to give you that a very senior Indian Foreign Service official once said to me, which I think is exactly emblematic of India’s relationship. This person said Pakistan is just an enemy; China is the adversary. And the reason—this is really important—is because India is not obsessed with Pakistan. India’s obsessed with China, like really obsessed with China. And so India’s focus is all about China. I mean, there’s a huge power imbalance now with Pakistan, even with Pakistan with nukes. So what India’s most worried about is a two-front war. If you have a war with Pakistan on the border and then a war with China on the border, and so what India would like is to do something that would forestall that, and that’s really important. And so for India the focus is very much on China, and if you think that India’s focus is on China, as a rising power that’s going to become a great power, you would think that then the narratives would follow from that about India’s status and how to manage China and India’s own changing status, but they don’t.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the last question from Mojúbàolú Olúfúnké Okome.

Q: Thank you very much.

I’m just wondering about how you rank these two rising powers. So which one has the most capabilities in terms of the military and economic power? And then, the tendency to be reticent and to swagger and be confidently stating that you are a rising power and you are challenging the hegemon—can this be attributed to cultural differences in terms of how one is supposed to move around in the world? OK, so where I come from it’s like if your hand is not on the hilt of the sword, you don’t challenge the people who killed your father. So if you’re not really, really sure that you’re going to win, you shouldn’t start swaggering all over the place. So is that sort of influencing the dynamics of what’s going on?

MILLER: I have not heard that quote before. That’s such an interesting proverb. Thank you for sharing that.

So I would say no—(laughs)—because the narrative’s about rising-power status and not about challenging international order. I think that’s the point that I make very clearly in the book, which is that active rising powers, which are the countries that do have these narratives about rising-power status are countries that are essentially talking about how they will become a great power just like the great power that exists then. So far from being challenging, these are accommodational narratives. Now, that does not mean that these countries will not challenge later, but that’s not what the narratives are, so it’s hard to then argue that they stem from military and economic power. But also what’s interesting is that particularly to forestall this, I looked at India and China in the 1990s, which is a time when their military and economic power are very comparable, which is really not the case today. Now, if I were to say, can you compare them militarily? No, you cannot; you cannot them militarily or economically. But you could in the 1990s. And so if it were true that these narratives derive from the sword, as you put it, then they should have derived in both cases, and they didn’t. You had narratives, the presence of narratives in China but the absence of these narratives in India.

And I should be very clear: It’s not that India doesn’t have foreign policy narratives. There’s plenty of narratives on foreign policy. It was really these ideas about becoming a great power, about being a rising power, about responding to this changing status and these expectations that the globe seemed to have of both countries at the time.

FASKIANOS: We are almost at the end of time and I just wonder, having looked back as you’ve done this research, do you want to project—or you may not want to do this—of where you see China and India’s power spheres developing over the next decade?

MILLER: (Laughs.) Wow. I don’t want to project. I will say—I will say this: I think in China’s case what happens domestically will be really important. I think domestic politics is something—I think there are two things about China that we tend to ignore in the United States. I think one is we tend to ignore the domestic politics of the Chinese Communist Party, which I think is crucially important for how China’s power’s going to play out in the next few decades. The other thing that we tend to ignore is we tend to ignore the fact that even in China, even with censorship, even with Xi Jinping being the most powerful Chinese president since Mao Zedong, you have a plethora of different interests and ideas in China and that doesn’t make its way out of China. We tend to think of China as like this one single actor and it’s not one single actor. There are different interests, there are different competing interests, there are different competing narratives, there are different competing ideas, and how all of those play out I think will be very, very important.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. With that, Manjari Miller, thank you very much for being with us. We really appreciate it. And I apologize for not getting to everybody’s questions and comments but we had a very rich discussion and we’ll have to have you back.

We have put a link to Dr. Miller’s book in the chat. We will be sending out the audio, video, and transcript link after the fact, but I do commend her book to all of you. And our last Academic Webinar of the semester will be on Wednesday, April 13, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Anne Richard, who is a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, will talk about refugees and global migration. Very timely given the flows we are seeing from Ukraine as that war is happening. So I hope you all will join us for that. In the meantime, please follow us at @ CFR_academic. Visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues. So thank you all again.

Thank you, Manjari.

MILLER: Thank you so much, Irina. This was really fun. Really great questions, very stimulating discussion.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Have a great day, everybody.


Top Stories on CFR

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.


After the rise of Chinese power during the 2010s and failed U.S. policies in the Indo-Pacific, the United States should renew the Pivot to Asia and place the region at the center of its grand strategy.*


Far-right advances in the European Parliament elections have destabilized politics in France, a longstanding pillar of the European Union, and highlighted fault lines in the bloc.