‘Wronged by Empire: Post-Imperial Ideology and Foreign Policy in India and China’

Manjari Miller, Wronged by Empire: Post-Imperial Ideology and Foreign Policy in India and China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013)

As Asia emerges at the center of international politics, China and India, each with a history of both glory as a cradle of civilization and humiliation as a colony or “semi-colony,” are perceived as on a journey back to their days as a center of civilization with the material capabilities to match. History is increasingly on the minds of their leaders and academic commentators as well. It is also on the minds of many of their neighbors, whose size and material power are of less consequence, but who have territorial disputes grounded in history with China or Japan.

Sino-Japanese relations keep spiraling downwards, as both sides strive to put it in a one-sided historical context. Meanwhile, as Daniel Twining pointed out in an Open Forum article and is continuing to discuss in Topics of the Month, Japan is trying to strengthen its relationship with India, which is seen as the next China, strengthening its economic partnership and also adding a security partnership. The BJP, calling for hidutva (a Hindu nationalist ideology), has come to power with aspirations to jumpstart the economy, but its leader, Narendra Modi, is reportedly in favor of forging closer relations with Japan and taking a firm stance on border disputes with China. International relations in the region cannot be understood only in terms of traditional theories. Asian countries are continuously emphasizing sovereignty, history, and apology. The review article is about a theoretical framework on ex-colonial countries with emphasis on foreign policy decision making, taking India and China as examples.

Manjari Miller’s argument is in line with Deepa Ollapally’s January Special Forum article, in its consciousness of what Deepa calls an “underbalancing” tendency in India’s foreign policy, not traditional balancing or bandwagoning, which is attributed to “strategic autonomy.” From Miller’s point of view, such a tendency is a natural outcome in colonized countries, not just confined to India. The experience of colonialism is seen as traumatizing these countries, causing a national identity shift that puts their right to self-determination in the forefront in policymaking. Miller’s work shows how and in what conditions such an identity shift affects policymaking. The collective trauma of colonization makes a country emphasize victimhood in the international community, and affects decision making, especially when “sovereignty is threatened, non-negotiable borders are at stake, or prestige is on the line.”

A strength of the book is its theoretical framework treating colonialism as an independent variable in analyzing the behavior of colonized countries. Miller argues that colonialization is a “collective trauma,” similar to the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima, or 9/11, which disrupts the social order. It transforms the society as a result of “oppression, humiliation, and violence,” leaving behind a “collective memory” to be carried into subsequent generations by certain voices, not limited to the direct victims. India and China offer a telling example. The social order was disrupted through economic exploitation, institutionalized discrimination, and violence, such as is the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in India and the Nanajing Massacre in China. These become part of the collective memory to be transmitted to the next generations by nationalists through the media and textbooks. As a result, the author argues, “the right to self-determination” became the primary value, which is linked to a national self-definition of victimhood. The author refers to this as part of “post-imperial ideology, or PII.”

According to PII, the most important goal for the colonized countries is to be acknowledged as a victim by the international community and to identify “others” as the victimizers. This breeds two other primary goals of maximizing “lost” status and territory. Miller argues that the countries often sacrifice security to achieve these goals. For instance, India refused to accept a permanent seat in the UN Security Council in the 1950s. Arguing that traditional theories cannot explain such decisions, Miller reiterates the significance of PII, analyzing the public discourse of ex-colonies through the UN General Assembly debates in 1993-2007 and finding a statistically significant difference in word usage stemming from a “strong sense of victimization” in the colonized countries. This kind of scholarship resonates in other states with memories of colonial victimization, e.g., South Korea.

In South Korea a history of oppression, humiliation, and violence, suffered as Japan’s colony, has been transmitted to current generations. The importance of history education along with organized efforts to remember the history in a particular manner deemed to be correct always is present in discussions of the Korea-Japan relationship. For example, today there remain only a few sex slaves, direct victims of colonialism; so many insist that aggressive efforts are required not to forget them and the broader historical memories they represent. Japanese colonial rule is often compared with the Holocaust in Korean media, drawing the following lessons, 1) how the Holocaust has been internationally acknowledged as the worst atrocity; 2) how the record has been successfully transmitted over generations; and 3) how the victimizer has been compensating for its wrongs. Thus, Japan’s colonial rule is regarded as a “collective trauma,” and the collective memory is being transmitted. Japan’s insistence on a territorial dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima, while not acknowledged in South Korea, is a symbol that serves to rekindle historical memories. Sensitivity over this issue is so great that in 2013, as the issue rose to the forefront, Japan’s favorability rating dropped even lower than that of North Korea. Even when South Korea’s alliance with US could be damaged, it kept refusing Japan’s proposal for a summit. There were voices separating history from security, both domestically and internationally, however, they were not reflected in foreign policy decisions. PII can be a useful tool, but, as Miller argues, PII needs more case studies for generalizations.

Miller chose India and China because of their different colonial experience and economic and political system. Also, chose three foreign policy decisions before and after their economic reforms, when each was more clearly recognized as a major power. Miller argues that PII exists when the actor is or is not a major power and that this aspect of India and China’s current foreign policy is not driven by a nationalist movement based on increasing material power. The 1960 Sino-Indian border negotiations, India’s 1998 nuclear test, and China’s opposition to Japan’s UN Security Council bid in 2004-2005 are analyzed in the book.

Miller points out various limitations in traditional theories through analyzing public discourse and the letters exchanged between leaders to see how reality was recognized. It is noteworthy that Miller utilized India and China’s own media contents in their language. Basically, Miller questions points the traditional theories failed to explain and finds the answers in PII.

First, on the 1960 Sino-Indian border negotiations, Miller argues that traditional explanations are missing a rationale for the three decisions: 1) India’s forward policy, 2) China’s trade-off suggestion between disputed territory in eastern and western areas or the McMahon line and Aksai Chin, and 3) China’s unilateral cease-fire in the 1962 war. Analyzing letters exchanged between the leaders, Miller sheds light on how victimhood drove negotiations to failure. Before the negotiation, India and China excessively competed for leadership among Third World countries. Emphasizing victimhood, they tried to regain lost status and it turned their bilateral relationship to hostility. India became extremely sensitive to any possible territorial loss after its partition, which is seen as a result of the British “divide and rule” policy. Thus, additional territorial loss was not an option for India to stop the forward policy even when many precisely acknowledged its inferior military capability. It seems irrational for China, with superior military power, to have suggested a trade-off and unilateral withdrawal of the military. Citing PII, Miller argues that China was trying to regain “lost” territory, which is Aksai Chin. Miller argues that both borders were drawn against China’s will, China regarded Aksai Chin as an undisputable “part” of its history, but acknowledged the dispute over the McMahon line. Thus, it was not a compromise for China, Miller argues. Unlike China, India regarded both territories as “part” of its history and did not take the way out despite its military inferiority. The unilateral cease-fire is also explained in the context of victimhood. It was important for China not to be recognized as a victimizer but as a victim, as PII predicts. In that context, China’s ceasefire was not an irrational choice, but a successful one. The excessive emphasis of both on victimhood stopped them from discussing any practical resolution to the dispute and dismantled the brotherhood they shared after decolonization.

Another decision affected by PII was India’s nuclear test in 1998. Miller argues that PII can provide answers to two critical questions, which traditional theories failed to explain: 1) the sudden pursuit of nuclear weapons status; and 2) the timing of this in 1998. Comparing media contents of 1974 and 1995-1998, Miller shows that there was a change in India’s perception of the world. Unlike 1974, when India had its first nuclear tests and emphasized its peaceful nature afterwards, India focused on “nuclear apartheid” in the 1990s. The unequal nature of the nuclear order embodied in the NPT and CTBT came to the surface domestically. Against such institutionalized discrimination, India changes its perception of its role from a moral leader through continuous denuclearization efforts to a rising power equipped with requisite material and nuclear power. The timing of the nuclear test was the result of resentment over the indefinite extension without revision of the NPT in 1995 and the adoption of the CTBT by the UN General Assembly in 1996, Miller argues. In addition, BJP came to power in 1998, intent on pursuing more shakti, or strength, and raising more consciousness of this kind of discrimination. Victimhood in the face of an inequitable world nuclear order affected India rather than security concerns, prestige, or domestic politics. Otherwise, Miller argues, that nuclear test would have been much sooner, e.g., right after China’s nuclear test.

If PII were so critical to India, this does not explain why other victim countries did not conduct a test. Apparently, institutionalized discrimination was not recognized only in India. There were other countries which were able to and wanted to develop the weapons given their economic and technological capabilities. What accounts for such differences among ex-colonies other than their capability should be studied through additional comparisons.

PII influences Chinese foreign policy decisions even after it has been recognized as a political and economic powerhouse, we are told. Miller looks into Japan’s Security Council bid in 2004-2005, explaining: 1) the intensity of anti-Japan sentiment; and 2) China’s policy toward other UN Security Council aspirants in the context of PII. For China, Japan has been the victimizer through colonization and its historical perceptions. It is seen as an “irresponsible and underserving country.” However, the permanent seat would mean in international society Japan would be accepted as “a responsible and benevolent power,” which would undercut the case for China’s victimhood. As it was about victimhood, not security or war crimes, Miller argues that China did not oppose other aspirants, such as India and Germany. India is a rising power, which has border disputes with China, and Germany committed war crimes. China supported Germany’s bid for being a responsible member of the international community.

Here, security concerns seem to me to be overlooked. Though India was a rising power and bordered China, India’s material capability is much less than that of Japan and China. If India was a more threatening power, China would more likely have opposed it. Also, Miller argues that China prioritized victimhood over economic security by sanctioning anti-Japan protests domestically. However, as well known, economic investment in China is not something that can be withdrawn immediately. Such an action would have an adverse impact on the Chinese economy, but the adverse impact would be bigger for Japan. Such considerations affected views of negotiating leverage in bilateral relations rather than the pursuit of victimhood.

The emphasis on victimhood and the related goal of maximizing status can be seen today also. Both China and India are stressing not only the need for development but their responsibility to other developing countries and the world. China reiterates its “peaceful” rise. Wang Yi wrote an article, “Peaceful Development and the Chinese Dream of National Rejuvenation.”1 Against accusations of a “China threat,” Wang shows how committed Beijing is this concept, citing how the principle of peaceful development was written into the 17th and 18th National Party Congresses and the Constitution. Also, against accusations of China’s “mercantilism” or “neocolonialism” in Africa, he argues that China is pursuing the common good, enabling the independent and sustainable development of developing countries. India’s Nonalignment 2.0 prioritized its economic development the most, however, it argued that such power should be backed by the idea of creating a “new and alternative universality.” Such claims show that they are arguing that they are not a victimizer though they are emerging as new powers.

While history and territorial issues are dominating the current regional tension in East Asia, this book gives useful insight on why it is important to look beyond security arguments or realist theories. To assure that PII does, indeed, drive policy decisions at the expense of security, minor countries need to be analyzed.


The concept of PII is more compelling due to great resemblance in the logic of thinking in India, China, and South Korea. It is a meaningful approach to making the history issue subject to systematic analysis. It does not see a lower priority for security or economic priorities as something irrational or unpredictable. There are many things remaining to be questioned. One question is how India’s relationship with Japan can be seen in light of the PII. Why is Japan not regarded as a victimizer by India, similar to the United States? Given that Delhi does not want to be a victimizer even today, the India-Japan close relationship is not intuitively understood in the context of PII. There has been much written recently about Japan’s optimism on how national identity and even views of the 1940s, draw it and India closer. Some of this has been cited in Country Report: Japan. As Modi took office, this relationship is expected to improve. Miller argues in another article that India’s foreign policy is more about continuity, and the leader or the ruling party’s influence is not that substantial.2 Thus, Miller expects the PII to prevail in the coming years too.