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The India-China border. Photo by Jeevan Singla.

Manjari Chatterjee Miller is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. She specializes in the foreign policy and security issues of South and East Asia, particularly focusing on the policies of rising powers, such as India and China.

The China-India relationship is one of the keys to international security, the future of Asia, and the well-being of nearly 3 billion people, and recent border tensions between the two powers perpetuate the potential for conflict. But while these small border clashes continue, the two countries have also built a system of cooperation to manage their conflict and larger rivalry. We spoke with Professor Miller to learn more about the China-India relationship, the opportunities to manage conflict, and the steps forward. To learn more, join us for the launch of her latest book, the Routledge Handbook of China-India Relations, on Thursday, September 3. 

Manjari Chatterjee Miller, Associate Professor of International Relations at Boston University.
Your latest book, the Routledge Handbook of China-India Relations, was published earlier this year and assembles experts from more than seven nations for 35 chapters on China-India issues. When starting out with the idea for this book, what were you looking to learn? What are some of the topics the book covers that you are most excited about?

There were three things that were really important to me: I knew I wanted a plethora of voices from all over the world (that is, not just United States-based experts), I wanted a range of issues for us to cover (beyond the border conflict, which is always the primary issue between the two countries), and I wanted gender diversity (a colleague told me that, given how few people actually have the expertise to work on both China and India, we would not be able to find more than five women to contribute — happily, he was utterly wrong!). I was fortunate to work with fabulous co-editors (Kanti Bajpai and Selina Ho) who wanted the same things I did, and we pulled it off.  

I think all of the topics in the book are really exciting because they cover such a wide range of academic and policy issues, but there are some that I personally learned from — such as the chapter by Rudolf Wagner (who tragically passed away before publication and who is one of the two China-India experts to whom the book is dedicated – the other being Rod MacFarquhar who was on our advisory board) on pre-1939 Chinese views of India, and the chapter by Julie Klinger on Indo-Chinese outer space cooperation.

In developing this book, what have you uncovered about the China-India relationship? How deep does their relationship go, and what are the sources of their conflicts and cooperation?

I think one of the key contributions of the book is to emphasize that, while border issues are important, the India-China relationship desperately needs to grow beyond it. And that cooperation often occurs not just in known issue areas (bilateral trade) but also in less talked-about but no less important spaces (such as outer space and immersive culture).

The other important contribution is that it is key to bring in interdisciplinary, geographically diverse voices to understand the relationship more holistically. By this I mean that most often, the talk about Sino-Indian relations is framed through an Indian, Chinese, or US-national point of view, which is of course important but also has the sometimes undesirable side effect of bringing in nationalistic agendas. Stepping back from that is key to understanding the relationship more objectively.

What are the ways that India and China can manage their recurring border conflicts and rivalry, especially with the recent occurrences? What steps should they take to deescalate tensions and increase cooperation?

Ah, that’s a million-dollar question, isn’t it? I don’t have one single answer for you, but as an academic I can tell you at least one thing that I truly believe is important: there is a serious lack of deep academic research and understanding in each country of the other. I recently wrote a piece for the East Asia Forum which alludes to this. But like I said, this is the academic in me who thinks that deep research is incredibly important, because it gives us data-driven information — not ideological polemics. 

Your last book, Wronged by Empire: Post-Imperial Ideology and Foreign Policy in India and China, explored the history of colonialism and how it continues to affect the foreign policies of both India and China to this day. What would you say is the most significant way that the legacy of colonialism has impacted India’s foreign policy? 

That book was written seven years ago and was based on my dissertation (in the Government department where my advisor was Iain Johnston, one of the finest academics and people I’ve been privileged to know!). I think at that time I had seen not just India but also China often take the position in specific issues (when old colonial territories and borders were at stake, for example) in international affairs that they were being unfairly treated and victimized.

What puzzled me was that they had vanquished colonialism, so to speak, and they were the victors in a post-colonial world, yet they continue to act and speak as if they were victims. When the book came out and I was giving talks and the one question I got all the time was: when do these countries forget? It’s a good question, because historical memory tends to be sticky.

I would say that while both countries continue to declare themselves the victim sometimes, perhaps their increasing wealth and military power will eventually make it difficult to take this position.

Where do you think India will fall in the global order in the next 10-15 years? Do you think it will move toward becoming a world power, and if so, what are the key factors that will propel it forward?

I’m glad you asked that — I have a new book coming out with Oxford University Press in January 2021 called Why Nations Rise: Narratives and the Path to Great Power. In that book, I look at not just China and India, but also the United States, the Netherlands, Meiji Japan in the late 19th century, and Cold War Japan to understand how countries become great powers. And I argue that in addition to military and economic power, the narratives (or the lack of) of these countries about becoming a great power are just as important. So, stay tuned!

To learn more about the complexities of the China-India relationship and foreign policies, join us for the launch and discussion of Professor Miller’s book, the Routledge Handbook of China-India Relations, on September 3, 2020.


 All opinions expressed by our interview subjects are their own and do not reflect the views of the Mittal Institute and its staff.