Wronged by Empire – The Politics of Colonialism and Foreign Policy in China and India

Wronged By Empire – Post Imperial Ideology and Foreign Policy in China and India: Manjari Chatterjee Miller 

That colonialism is a scourge is a near universal fact. The transformative historical experience has been a searing one for countries that were at the receiving end. Though some of these colonized nations have been able to economically recover and thrive, the depredation’s of the experience is not solely material. Cognitively, colonialism has done great damage to the reputation and self-confidence of nations attempting to restore their standing on the global stage. And this effect tends to linger, at times, for decades after nations are conceived; quite possibly, this blight can never be effaced. The sense of victimhood the colonized feel can function as a powerful antidote to instituting a core and robust national identity. Of all the colonised in the world today, China and India are perhaps the most notable and identifiable. For both Asian powers, experiences under colonial domination were deeply transformative. In China’s case, being under the wrath of the British and later, the Japanese, resulted in a turbulent 20th century characterized by revolution, famine, civil war and upheaval. And in India, colonial rule from the domestic mutiny in 1857 has, amongst other things, led to the severing of the subcontinent, a regional carnage and a rather messy neighbourhood where wars and conflicts have been de rigeur. Despite the commonly held notion that colonialism has had a devastating impact on both China and India, there has not been systematic intellectual work unpacking the nature and character of colonialism to gauge its purported influence.

That is until now. Manjari Chatterjee Miller’s Wronged by Empire is the first attempt to treat ‘colonialism’ as an independent variable, bringing it under the domain of intellectual inquiry to explain certain foreign policy choices made by China and India. Miller argues that colonialism amounts to a singularly ‘historical transformative experience’ that has considerable currency when unpacked and conceptualized as a ‘post-imperial ideology’ or PII that instils a sense of victimhood and entitlement especially when faced with matters of territorial integrity and status. Drawing from trauma theory, Miller posits that the experience of colonial subjugation spurs a desire for territorial maximisation and international prestige to mollify the sense of victimhood one incurs. Despite the abundance of work done on colonialism and its effects from other social science disciplines, IR has yet to integrate this particular facet as a concept worthy of intellectual scrutiny. But this claim in itself might be rather hollow since theorizing within the field has been guided by considerations of power, which these two countries did not perceptibly possess, when the realist paradigm grew ascendant. Only recent shifts in the global power matrix exemplified by the rise of these Asian rivals have necessitated scholars to grapple more concretely with the ways in which they wield power and the range of factors that inform that process.

For Miller, China and India regarded and internalised the colonial experience as a ‘collective trauma,’ that engendered an identity shift as a ‘victim.’ And this sentiment rears itself when confronting three pressing scenarios – perceived threats to sovereignty, territorial borders are under question, and when national prestige is derided. In such scenarios, colonized countries revert back to their beleaguered status as victims, decrying their current state by invoking their tumultuous past to obtain concessions to their favour. In other words, colonialism becomes a ‘consciousness’ that is deployed to right the wrong in that particular case, whatever it may be. Miller traces the presence of PII and such behaviour in three particular cases – 1962 Sino-Indian conflict, 1998 Indian Nuclear tests and 2003 Sino-Japanese tussle that erupted following Japan’s quest to seek a permanent seat at the UNSC. Taking us through each case systematically through extensive news research gathered from media during those periods, Miller goes to argue that the discourse used by both countries in each of the three instances is steeped in anti-colonial rhetoric, which was used to legitimize and validate their actions. What was common in all the cases, as Miller argues, was a strong and resolute sense of victimhood that rose out of each nation’s odious imperial legacies, signifying their subsequent appropriation.

Miller’s account and treatment of colonialism and its discontents is instrumentally valuable given that we are now amid a fluid geopolitical scenario where the foreign policy choices of both China and India will be under heavy scrutiny; thus, accounts that render alternate explanations, other than the orthodox material ones, are urgently needed. Also, moving the spatially and, at times, temporally demarcated IR realm to consider history is critically important to ward off claims that point to the purported ahistorical nature of the discipline. However, Miller’s book, despite its pluses, raises more questions than the answers it seeks to provide. Three problems emerge. First, methodologically, Miller’s approach does raise some eyebrows. The first charge is methodological. Despite the inherent rigor in her use of statistical methods to infer how historical legacies continue to dog countries that were colonized, it is largely done so at the expense of sufficient triangulation or evidence of it. The second chapter contains descriptions of the exhaustive process that Miller undertook combing through the speeches of all the countries in the UN General Assembly from 1993-2007 to discern the range of discourses and rhetoric used and whether they point to the existence of a colonial hangover. This is done by identifying key terms like subjugation, humiliation, unjust, etc which are categorized into different categories to signify their rhetorical importance. Through this process, Miller argues that there exists a ‘significant statistical difference’ in the discourses of the states that have been colonized and those that did not. But this does not robustly indicate that countries that have experienced colonisation exhibit a colonial hangover, albeit in the three areas that Miller demarcates – territory, borders and status, since it does not discern the nature and character of the colonial experience, effectively reifying it. And also, the use of UN General Assembly speeches to denote the presence of a colonial victimhood is also questionable since the forum has generally been used a platform for bombastic speeches and sensationalizing rhetoric which makes relying on them alone to indicate ‘victimhood’ rather suspect.

Second, the issue of territorial integrity is one that deserves more sophisticated treatment. Both China and India, despite their state rigid notions and understandings of sovereignty and territorial integrity have not shied from intervening militarily when situations demanded them to. Their independent histories as nation states include wars that both have willingly commenced, most notable being China’s (Deng’s) war with Vietnam in the late 1970s and India’s successful intervention of East Pakistan in 1971 that led to Bangladesh. And these cases suggest that the presence of colonial grievances and PII, which is arguably omnipresent, does not deter them from engaging in intervention themselves. If the notion of territorial integrity and borders were that sacrosanct, then would these colonial legatees not share that sentiment which should effectively preclude the option of intervention in their strategic calculus? This aspect is worthy of more thorough empirical work.

And finally, in China’s case, how does the existence of PII clash or contend with competing visions of Chinese grand strategy or the variant schools of Chinese foreign policy that exist today. As scholars like David Shambaugh suggest, the role of China in the world today is a topic is fraught with contention with several intellectual and policy factions vying for the chance to shape the thinking behind China’s foreign policy. And this is also not a recent development. In a widely lauded recent book on eminent Chinese scholars going back to the early 19th century, Orville Schell and John Delury contend that the quest for national wealth and power has been a recurring motif in mainstream intellectual debates of China’s rule in the world, most of which were directly a product of colonial ignominy. Thus, the politics of victimhood exemplified by PII would in effect clash with Fuqiang or the legalist desire to restore China back to global supremacy; it has been argued that there exist certain voices (eg. Yan Xuetong) within China that continue to extol remnants of the fuqiang ideology. It would be interesting to analyse whether and how these competing discourses intersect and also trace their influence through that.


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