August 16, 2005
China’s extraordinary rise has been documented in many ways. Its economy has been the primary focus of attention, with the astonishing run of growth that we have witnessed over the past two decades. From a strategic point of view, there is the fact of its increasing military power, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Not very far into the future, though, we shall have to take account of its soft power. China’s strides in R&D and technology development could well emulate that of Japan and surpass it. Its cultural power will also come to be a force, as in the case of Japan — its popular culture has influenced not just East and Southeast Asia but also the rest of the world.
In intellectual life, too, we should expect that China will have an impact, sooner or later. The rise of English language studies in China will ensure that Chinese influence in the academy will grow apace. Chinese arts and letters will also have an impact. Already, mainland Chinese art, artists and writers are drawing serious attention — I would hazard more so than their Indian counterparts. Their works are finding a market in the West, and their artists are selling well in sophisticated auctions. Their films are beginning to attract critical commentary.
We in India are not paying enough attention to the steady accrual of Chinese soft power. There is a complacent view that this is an area where India is stronger and will continue to be so for a long time. India is banking on its open society, its lead in higher education, and its relative advantage in English. We are profoundly mistaken if we think that this will keep us ahead of China. Already, in an intellectual field that we thought we had a comfortable lead in, namely International Relations, we have fallen behind.
As a professor of International Relations I had, as many others in India, taken the view that we were well ahead of the rest of Asia, indeed the rest of the developing world, and certainly that we were streets ahead of China. This is no longer true and, in fact, we are steadily falling behind. The speed and scale of China’s advances are worth taking stock of. The Chinese opened their first department of International Relations in 1953, about the same time that India inaugurated the Indian School of International Studies (ISIS), which went on to be the School of International Studies in JNU. Today, China has tens of such departments. Indeed, there are so many that the association that brings them together has to carefully assess the credentials of applications for institutional membership and has to reject some. In India, by contrast, we have only four well-known International Relations departments: in JNU, Jadavpur University, Goa, and Pondicherry. We have, in addition, half a dozen institutes of strategic/defence studies. China has at least two dozen. A Chinese professor of International Relations startled me at a conference recently when he said that if a Chinese university does not have, or does not plan to have a department of International Relations, it is not taken seriously! Here, in India, we have the opposite problem: if you mention that you are interested in including a department of International Relations at a university, you are thought to be trivial!
An important sign of where a discipline is going is by looking at the numbers of journals. In India, we have four quality journals that regularly publish content on International Relations: International Studies (from JNU), Strategic Analysis (from IDSA, New Delhi), South Asian Survey (Indian Council for South Asian cooperation), and World Affairs (New Delhi). China has at least ten. These journals published 5,600 articles of which 3,400 were on international affairs, in the period 1996-2001!
Where you publish is important as well. Here, too, China has taken the lead. A cursory look at the most important journals worldwide in the field of International Relations will show that more Chinese scholars, by far, are published than Indian. When I say this, I refer to mainland Chinese and mainland Indian, not non-resident Chinese and NRI scholars. A systematic study of the journals International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, Review of International Studies, Millennium, and International Security will, I am sure, bear this out.
What you publish is also vital. In any field, theoretical inquiry plays a crucial role. It helps order the agenda of research and can knit together seemingly disparate bodies of research. Theory is not some pure, value neutral assemblage of ideas. That is precisely why it is important to do theory, to pay attention to others’ theories, and to study the process of theory formation and use. The Chinese seem to have comprehended this; we in India have not.
In China, in the period ’96-’01, 11 per cent of the articles in International Relations were theoretical. This was second only to articles dealing with area studies. I doubt very much that we in India come anywhere close in terms of published theoretical writings. Let me cite a Chinese colleague again. Students interested in the theory courses were so numerous in his university, he noted, that many applicants had to be turned away! I taught the theory course at the School of International Studies in JNU with some success for six years. While the course was fairly popular and classes were full, I wish I could say we had to turn scores of people away!
This is not the place to analyse why China has surged ahead — its emerging international role, its geopolitical situation, the interest of its political leadership in fostering higher education and policy institutes, its massive programme of translating the major works in the field of study — are just some of the reasons. It is to record that in this intellectual domain, we are falling behind by the day. Advances in Japan, Korea, and Singapore suggest that we will fall even further behind in a field that we clearly led for 50 years. It is not a question of catching up for its own sake: that would be jejune and foolish. It’s a question of whether or not the rather sorry state of International Relations in India is something we as a society can afford in a fast-globalising world in which our country will sooner or later have to play a bigger international role.
The writer is a commentator on International Relations, who is presently headmaster, The Doon School
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