Published Twice a Month
November 14, 2018 – November 27, 2018

Centre on Asia and Globalisation
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Guest Column

The Vishwaguru, the Middle Kingdom, and the Shining City upon a Hill:
The divergences of Indian, Chinese and American exceptionalism

By Kashish Parpiani    

CIB_127_1200x800Photo by Iliyan Gochev on

In underscoring the importance of India’s upcoming elections, Amit Shah, president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP), deemed the “aim of making India a great nation and Mother India a vishwaguru (world leader)” to be at stake. Similarly, last year, speaking at the 125th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the Parliament of World’s Religions, Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted a rise in India’s standing at the world stage to be a step in the realization of India becoming the “guru of the world”. Recently, in arguing for India to reclaim its place as the leader in the realm of education and ideas, India’s Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu even penned an op-ed titled ‘Make India Vishwaguru Again’.

Such invocations of India’s rise to preeminence are not unique, as history stands replete with examples of ascendant nations presenting themselves at the centre of the international system. Instances of such solipsist views range from the Roman Empire’s self-adulating civis romanus sum to Imperial Japan’s grand strategic project of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Even the British Empire’s claim for a territorially expansive –– yet purportedly stability-infusing –– imperium of Pax Britannicamay be invoked as an example.

Beyond hard power metrics however, scholars have argued that such “ambition to power and influence, not actual capacity” lead discourses on a nation’s purpose in the world — to ultimately inform its foreign and security policy decision-making. Such a “driving vision, an outward-thrusting nature backed by strong conviction and sense of national identity and matching purpose” of one’s role in the world — as Bharat Karnad argues – also distinguishes established great powers and would-be great powers from the rest.

A standard case-study in such solipsist renderings is the United States (U.S.) owing to its outsized role well into the twenty-first century –– as the world’s preeminent economic and military superpower aided by unparalleled soft power.

The idea of American ‘exceptionalism’ — defined as “an unwavering belief in the uniqueness of the United States and a commitment to a providential mission to transform the rest of the world in the image of the United States” — has long featured in American political discourse. Bed-rocking a worldview that the U.S. is the world’s sole “indispensable nation” with a “special role to play in human history”, in the post-Cold War world, this rendering has been rigorously invoked by U.S. foreign policy elites. American legislators, commentators and academicians often invoke the imperatives of the U.S. being the indispensable nation to argue for the maintenance of U.S. global power projection consisting of nearly 800 bases around the world and security partnerships and alliances with over 60 nations. Chiefly, the belief in American exceptionalism informs U.S. foreign policy’s enduring tenet of democracy promotion and furtherance of liberal Wilsonian values around the world –– owing to the Reaganesque notion of the U.S. being the “shining city upon a hill”.

Similarly, the idea of India becoming the vishwaguru portrays India as an exemplar of liberal democratic values. Borrowing the Sanskrit phrase “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam(the world is one family), the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ‘Resolution on Foreign Policy’ released at its National Executive in 2015 pronounced all nations to have “sovereign equality”. However, it presented a distinctly elevated role for India owing to its stature as the world’s largest democracy. Deeming Prime Minister Modi’s addresses to various countries’ democratic institutions as “Bharat’s (India) unequivocal commitment to democratic values”, the resolution hailed India’s emergence as the “Pole Star – Dhruv Tara – of the democratic world."

Further, this elevated role for India as an exemplar for democracies, signifies a sense of centrality that offers a break from the past.

In deciphering the worldview that informs Indian foreign policy, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Sarandraws on ancient Indian cosmology. In his book How India Sees The World, Sarandraws on the ancient Indian conception of the cosmos as a “vast circle of seven concentric oceans separating six regions or varshas, each with its own mountains and river systems.

At the centre of which “lies the Jambudvipa” –– a four-petalled lotus island, with “our own varsha, Bharata, defined by the Southern petal.” Interestingly, Bharata or India is not accorded “centrality and superiority” under this rendering. Instead, its peripherality positions it as “only one among the lotus petals that make up our universe.

Some scholars have referenced this non-centrality to have spurred an “inward-turned New Delhi pursuing prosperity at the expense of exercising ‘power’.” Furthermore, in deciphering a “typified” Indian foreign policy of “insularity and inaction”, scholars have also attributed this non-centrality to have informed a sense of ‘Indian Exceptionalism’ — the belief in India destined to return to its due “rightful place” owing to a perceived moral authority or civilisational imperative.

In contrast, scholars point to the Chinese worldview –– wherein China is deemed to be the “center of the universe.” Similar to Indian cosmology’s Jambudvipa ordering of the system in concentric circles, the Chinese idea of Tianxia –– which translates to ‘All Under Heaven’ –– imagines an all-inclusive system of concentric circles. However, this system, at times referred to as ‘the tribute system,’ functions on a clear hierarchy with China as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ –– the perceived “civilised imperial capital at the center flowing out to embrace the various “barbaric” peoples at the periphery.

In contemporary times, the relevance of this centrality-based worldview seems apparent as China moves away from the erstwhile Deng Xiaoping doctrine of “keep our light hidden and bide our time”. As China assumed the second spot in the global economic pecking order, its foreign policy took a turn towards revisionism. From employing its economic levers to influence smaller nations, to guarding a regional sphere of influence with a massive build-up of anti-access/area-denial capabilities, China today seems to be elbowing its way to the ‘Middle Kingdom’ status.

Whereas, the centrality offered by the Dhruv Tara (Pole Star)aspiration has not only led to the shedding of “the traditional Indian reluctance to speak about its democratic values”, it has also lent focus to India’s “responsibilities” towards global governance.

For instance, the earlier referenced BJP foreign policy resolution aimed for the vishwaguru role for India — in terms of “an anchor of the global economy and as a leader in advancing peace and prosperity across the world” — by primarily fulfilling India’s “global responsibilities as the world’s most populous youth nation and largest democracy.” The relevance of this aim seems apparent with the Modi government presenting India to be “ready, as a responsible regional power and an emerging global actor” with an agenda-shaping role at multilateral institutions.

Consider the instance of the Paris Agreement. With French Prime Minister François Hollande, Prime Minister Modi announced the International Solar Alliance(ISA) to break the developed-developing nations’ impasse. Prime Minister Modi has characterized this as India’s leadership role in driving the once-insurmountable agenda of cobbling a global alliance to tackle climate change. Further, at the founding conference of the ISA in New Delhi, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj referred to India’s $27 million support towards hosting the ISA Secretariat as India’s “responsibility” in proving to the world that “economic growth and sustainable development are not mutually exclusive but reinforce each other.

Similarly, at other multilateral platforms, India has sought an agenda-shaping role. Some examples include, the push at the G20 summit in Brisbane for the inclusion of the Base Erosion and Profit Sharing (BEPS) Action Plan as part of the G-20 declaration to combat the global challenge of black money repatriation; the temporary hold-out on the Trade Facilitation Agreement for the inclusion of “slightly tighter language on the agreement not to challenge public stockholding in developing countries”; and the push for counter-terrorism cooperation at fora like the BRICS summit as a precursor to India’s broader push for the UN General Assembly to adopt the critical Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.

In summation, the Vishwaguru aspirations of the Modi government bears some interesting parallels to the centrality espoused by China’s ‘Middle Kingdom’ worldview and the liberal democratic orientation of the ‘Shining City upon a Hill’ rendering of American exceptionalism. As India heads to the polls next year, it remains to be seen if this conception of Indian aspirations constitutes a lasting shift in India’s conduct of its foreign policy or merely a temporary shift under the Modi dispensation.

Perhaps the odds favour the former as Indian foreign policy — as former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Dr. Alyssa Ayres argues – seems poised to step “forward with a problem-solving disposition” on multilateral platforms..


The author is a Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai. His research interests are US Grand Strategy, US Civil-Military Relations, and US Foreign Policy in the Indo-Pacific. His twitter handle is @KParpiani .

The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.

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The China-India Youth Dialogue 2018 was held in the Indian capital in an effort to promote the people-to-people and cultural exchanges and relations between the two countries.

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News Reports

China and India in the Region

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News Reports

Trade and Economy

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News Reports

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South Asia geopolitics: Contain China with the Quad
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By Yusuf T Unjhawala, Editor, Defence Forum India

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By reaching out to Japan and reassuring India, China can stop the Quad before it even starts
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By Jagannath Adhikari, Adjunct Research Fellow, School of Design and the Built Environment, Curtin University

Despite the purported benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative, questions have been raised about China’s motivations, and whether Beijing can afford the US$1 trillion it has committed to infrastructure projects and its partners can afford the debt they are taking on. Some fear BRI could be a Trojan horse for global domination through debt traps.

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Books and Journals

India–China Stand-off in Doklam: Aligning Realism with National Characteristics
The Round Table 107, no. 5, 2018, 613-625 

By Dalbir Ahlawat and Lindsay Hughes

Dr. Dalbir Ahlawat is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University; Lindsay Hughes is from Curtin University. 

India and China, rising almost simultaneously as major powers, share a disputed border. In the 1950s, India aspired to a joint leadership for Asia’s revival but Nehru’s idealism and Mao’s realism triggered the Sino-Indian War of 1962. It took India three decades to come to terms with Chinese political realism and initiate confidence-building measures. Nevertheless, bilateral trade interests converged while security interests diverged. Beijing adopted offensive realism while New Delhi followed defensive realism. When both confronted a 73-day military stand-off in Doklam, unexpectedly India demonstrated a miscellany of offensive realism whereas China constrained itself to defensive realism. Analysis establishes that they permeated their national characteristics while pursuing respective forms of realism. This article traces the trajectory of idealist versus realist perspectives that India has initiated to counter Chinese realism, analyses the two countries’ offensive–defensive postures during the Doklam stand-off, and examines the specific national characteristics that both countries brought to realism.


Compiled and sent to you by Centre on Asia and Globalisation and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

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