“Civilization-States of China and India: Reshaping the World Order” by Ravi Dutt Bajpai

flags India China

There is much about the way international relations is framed—from the so-called rules-based order to the nation-state itself—that has its origins in the Western history, philosophy and experience. It stands to reason that the traditional view might not map very well onto two non-Western countries an order of magnitude larger than almost any other in the original dataset. In his new book Civilization-States of China and India, Ravi Dutt Bajpai posits that India and China are something other than “nation states”. He instead says they are “civilization states”, a concept which


treats the notion of civilization as an explanatory variable to understand international relations; by defining concepts such as identity, civilization, civilizational identity and civilization-state as discursive practices, it presents a different set of constituents, interconnections and power relations to study international relations.


This idea does not originate with him; Bajpai’s purpose is to look at the Sino-Indian relationship from within this framework.

The Sino-Indian relationship seems to occupy more space in Indian consciousness than China’s.

Civilization-States of China and India: Reshaping the World Order, Ravi Dutt Bajpai (Bloomsbury, January 2024)
Civilization-States of China and India: Reshaping the World Order, Ravi Dutt Bajpai (Bloomsbury, January 2024)

There is an increasing amount of Indian scholarship on the Sino-Indian relationship, one which—as Bajpai’s points out—seems to occupy more space in Indian consciousness than it does in China’s:


There is a broad consensus that while most Indian strategists consider China their principal security threat, India ranks much lower in China’s strategic priorities.


Although much of this ground has been gone over before by such commentators as Vijay Gokhale, Bajpai’s attempt to look at both countries through a single lens provides a useful analytical framework. The book is at its most approachable when it steps away from theory and recounts actual events and public statements. Bajpai notes, for example, that the often negative view of Indians expressed by Chinese can be traced, at least in part, to the fact that the British “deployed Indians to serve as policemen causing resentment among the local Chinese.”


The massive corruption, extortion and exploitation by the Indian police officers added to greater resentment in the common Chinese population. This animosity towards the Indians found expression in popular Chinese writings, labelling Indians as villainous and contemptible. In popular discourses, Europeans were not the only ‘other’, but the Indians, too, were seen as the ‘other’.

The idea that India and China fit the bill of “civilization-states” is relatively intuitive.

Civilization-States is steeped in what is known to practitioners as “IR”, which isn’t always quite what laymen might think “international relations” consists of. IR has theory, models and paradigms, some of which are “constructivist” and others “realist” and includes discussions on topics like “identity construction”. One has to be somewhat in tune with all that to read the book in the way Bajpai presumably wishes it to be read; non-specialists (or skeptics) may wonder, on the other hand, how much actual political leaders take IR paradigms into account when they make or implement foreign policy.

Nevertheless, the idea that India and China fit the bill of “civilization-states” is relatively intuitive (perhaps too much so)—and both Chinese and Indian leaders have, as Bajpai points out, cast their countries in this light, almost since the beginning of their respective modern configurations in the late 1940s.


The self-perception of civilizational inheritance is one of the foundational and much-flaunted features of the Chinese and Indian national identity; it is de rigueur even for the geopolitical or geo-economics perspectives to acknowledge the civilizational heritage.


Yet I admit to remaining bemused as to how a civilization-state in practice acts differently than a nation-state (itself an approximation) concerned about borders, sovereignty and interests. China, as Bajpai notes, asserts strict adherence to these and gave short-shrift to Nehru’s ill-placed belief that India could assert some kind of civilizational rights in Tibet.

Bajpai gives China’s Belt and Road and Narendra Modi’s appeals to a shared Buddhist heritage as examples of a civilizational approach. But the Belt and Road can be understood on purely practical grounds; the null hypothesis would be that the appeals to history are rhetorical. Ironically, the invocation of Buddhism seems to have come apart on doctrinal grounds, as have many appeals to shared Christianity. That


the adoption of India’s proposal and the formal recognition of 21 June as the ‘International Yoga Day’ is the foremost accomplishment of Modi’s cultural diplomacy …


is perhaps an indication that “civilization” has had its limitations.


Bajpai can turn a phrase; “cartographic anxiety” (not original with him, but I hadn’t come across it before), for example, is much more eloquently meaningful than mere “border disputes”. But there are a few things that an editor should have caught. The quote from Nehru that India “cannot play a secondary part in the world” appears, in whole or in part, three times. And the book contains a curious error prior to the passage about Indian policemen:


The victory in the First Opium War emboldened the British to launch subsequent attacks, forcing China to cede its territories to the British company …


that is, the East India Company; the territories in question were however ceded directly to Britain.

India and China together comprise about one-third of the world’s population; relations between them are only likely to grow in significance and it is important to understand this relationship on its own terms, not those imported from a different time, place and situation.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.