Melly Hu and Kyle W. Johnson
Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our first annual writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.
Now, we are pleased to present one of the essays selected for honorable mention, from Melly Hu and Kyle W. Johnson of King’s College London.
For any state, the intricacies of its grand strategy impact its place in the global order. For those states that have the potential to become one of the world’s next superpowers, this strategy is the blueprint to achieve global dominance. While the United States is currently considered the world’s hegemonic power, several other states possess the potential to be superpowers in the making, such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the so-called BRIC countries). Assuming these great powers desire to better their positions, their respective strategies may either propel them into a leading international role or act as a hindrance to their ascent. The examples of China and India, in particular, serve as interesting cases to explore due to their potential to become superpowers as well as their vastly different approaches in world affairs. Ascension toward superpower stature is entirely possible for either country in the future, but this path is not well paved. It is simply not enough to pursue an insular, strength-maximizing policy. International legitimacy and reputation are important aspects to consider when measuring power. The strategies employed by states to amass power, therefore, are subject to the perception of other global actors if they aspire to the status of a superpower.
This article will address the strategies pursued by China and India to achieve dominance in the global order. First, to establish what it means to be a superpower and how to achieve this status, we will introduce the framework by which superpowers are measured and the importance of international legitimization. We will then discuss why China and India represent compelling case studies as countries gaining prominence in the global order. Taking into account recent developments, the major strategies of each state will be analyzed with regard to global reception and whether these strategies help or hinder the rise to dominance. Finally, this article will conclude that in order to gain the status of a superpower, a country’s strategy must balance asserting dominance with the maintenance of global legitimacy and reputation.
What Does It Take?
According to John Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism, great powers vie for the status of world superpower by amassing power at the expense of other states. It is presumed that the ultimate and most ideal power conditions for a state are achieved when a state reaches total hegemony. However, Mearsheimer argues that this task is impossible for two reasons: first, that great powers will always find incentive to tilt the balance of power in their favor and second, that great powers will never be satisfied with the status quo of power. Therefore, the more achievable goal is for a great power to pursue the status of a superpower rather than the coveted position of global hegemon. It is here that we find China and India.
To determine the point at which a state becomes a superpower, scholars have created varying definitions and frameworks. According to Alice Lyman Miller’s framework, a superpower is measured by its ascendancy in the four axes of power: military, political, economic, and cultural. Dominance in any one of these may enhance a nation’s power, but “extreme advancement, advantage, and dominance on each of these dimensions” are required to attain the stature of a superpower. By these parameters, the United States is currently the only state to enjoy this status unambiguously since the collapse of the Soviet Union, therefore making it the global hegemon of our day.
As plans for amassing power, grand strategies of states are chiefly concerned with ascendancy in the four arenas discussed above. The term in the traditional sense, expressed by military historian Liddell Hart in 1967, emphasized utilizing military means to fulfill state policy aims. Since then, leaders of states have come to realize that restricting their grand strategy plans meant underutilizing other forms of power at their disposal. The Cold War era has since shaped subsequent understandings of strategy. The U.S.-Soviet standoff remained a non-military conflict due to effective nuclear deterrence. Due to the absence of direct military confrontation, “political vitality…economic dynamism, and cultural appeal became the decisive dimensions” of the contest. Now, following the precedent of Cold War tactics, states have recognized the importance of these four axes and are constantly revising their strategies accordingly to fulfill their power-maximizing goals. Indeed, for great powers such as China and India, which are already poised for ascension on the international stage, grand strategy aims to continue the rise to superpower stature.
Building on Miller’s framework, there is another a crucial variable that should be taken into account in addition to advancement and dominance in the four axes. International legitimacy must be considered integral to the status of a superpower. As Mlada Bukovansky plainly explains, state legitimacy, and thus state power, requires external recognition. This international legitimacy is constructed as a purely subjective quality that is relational between actors and defined by one actor’s perception of the other. Robert Kagan has observed that a “perceived pattern of illegitimate behavior can limit the cooperation other countries are willing to offer and put sand in the gears of even a sole superpower.” Applying this notion to great powers, which possess de facto legitimacy, it can be argued that gaining legitimacy takes more than simple recognition to be constitutive; it requires a certain amount of engagement and cooperation, particularly from those states that have comparable or superior power. Conversely, international opposition or hostility to a state’s strategies may hinder its capability of ascension.
In this regard, states are mainly concerned with other actors possessing equal or more power, including international institutions, which have the power of prescribing normative behavior of states. The U.S., as global hegemon, must be taken into special consideration when analyzing the strategies of China and India. Since the current global order is dictated by democratic capitalist states, led by the U.S., the balance of power is usually in the Western system’s favor. The U.S. recognizes that its leadership of the global order positions it to dictate the environment in which India and China will need to make critical strategic choices. To be sure, Russia has risen again since the implosion of the Soviet Union and is now commonly considered a rival of the West, especially the U.S. Furthermore, there are multilateral organizations and alliances such as NATO, the United Nations, and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that great powers both take part in and take heed of. These organizations not only possess power in and of themselves, but also act as channels for the extension of U.S. influence far beyond American borders, contributing to the power and significance of the global hegemon. It is opinions such as these, from the world’s most influential countries and organizations comprised of a plurality of nations, which will most impact a state’s global legitimacy.
In analyzing the current strategies of China and India, it is accordingly important to take into consideration the influence other players might have on the path to superpower status. China and India already involve themselves strategically in numerous international affairs in all four axes. These policies and strategies, either domestic or foreign, inevitably attract the attention of the world, which may laud or criticize the governments responsible. The impact of this on a country’s global reputation and legitimacy make the ascent to superpower stature even more complex. A misstep in these strategies is capable of isolating or destabilizing the state by negatively impacting its reputation in the eyes of the world.
China and India
As great powers, it is imperative for China and India to identify where their major constraints and opportunities lie on what Zbigniew Brzezinski termed the grand chessboard of superpower politics. This race China and India are supposedly in has been long postulated. The incredible speed at which the two states’ economic and political profiles have developed has captured the world’s attention, resulting in surprise and disquiet in various quarters. The arguments that China is a dominant economic power and that India is politically advanced have been explored thoroughly. This has not proved enough for the recognition of either as a global superpower, however. It would appear, then, that there is more to becoming a superpower than dominance in one axis.
The two countries are likely candidates for the position of superpower due to their current regional dominance. China and India are certainly rivals in many respects as they both hold large economic markets, geopolitical competitors, and are nuclear powers. However, other analyses conclude that India is not a power to the same degree as China and is therefore not running the same race. Regardless, the consensus still holds that there is potential for either to become a world superpower. The section below will analyze the two countries’ strategies within the framework of the four axes of power, which make up the components of grand strategy. Only strategic success in all four axes, coupled with global legitimacy, can propel a country towards the position of a superpower.
Strategies That Propel or Hinder?
Although conventional warfare has been rapidly evolving in the 21st century, Mearsheimer contends that “power in international politics is largely a product of the military forces a state possesses." China and India currently field the world’s largest and third largest numbers of active personnel respectively and possess hundreds of nuclear weapons in each of their arsenals. Judging by their capabilities, both forces can certainly operate in the same league as other great powers that have heavy military forces, such as U.S., Russia, and France. Although “impressive military capability is usually sufficient to deter rival states from challenging the balance of powers,” maintaining effective deterrence is a more complex task when there are multiple states with such capabilities.
China’s relationship with the west is complicated, but extremely strategic. While the U.S. views China as a potential serious security threat, it still chooses to engage with its military affairs in order to gain leverage and assert power in the region. Similar to the Soviet standoff in the 1990s, the U.S. prefers to avoid direct combat with China and thus positions itself as an offshore balancer, siding with other states against China’s power. One example of this is the issue of Taiwan. U.S. involvement over the territorial disputes creates tension between the two great powers. While China strongly opposes the U.S. strategy of arming and defending Taiwan, it has refrained from exhibiting unbridled aggression to avoid crossing the United States. Even as a non-dominant power in the region, the U.S. is able to assert its status to discourage certain strategies in Beijing. For its part, China has chosen to exercise its significant military strength prudently, not only satisfying the U.S. but also protecting its global image. This sort of conduct demonstrates China’s understanding of the advantages that lie in appeasing the global hegemon and, in turn, the rest of the global order.
India, on the other hand, tends to enjoy the benefits of the U.S. being an offshore balancer. With respect to Pakistan, one of India’s most prominent military concerns, New Delhi looks to Washington as a counterbalance for powers such as China which side with its historic rival. According to Jonathan Holslag, “China continues to be Pakistan’s most privileged military partner as it is the only power that has invested substantially in the country’s nuclear programme.” India looks upon this relationship as a coercive strategy directed at them, further necessitating American support. Recently, India’s ban on trade with North Korea has won it favors with the U.S., a maneuver which may secure further American support against Pakistan in the future. The decisive move also aligned India with the UN’s sanctions, demonstrating their allegiance with the West more generally. Here, India’s strategy to sacrifice trade with an internationally unpopular state is pursued in hopes of exchanging favors with the global hegemon and its allies.
It is clear that Indian military policy is often oriented around U.S. involvement due to shared strategic interests, even at the expense of relationships closer to home. China’s strategic interests often exist in tension with those of the West, but China wields its military might frugally in order to avoid heightened tensions with the global hegemon and harm to its global reputation.
By almost any measure, the economic successes of Asia in the 21st century was unprecedented. Neither China nor India is satiated by their respective triumphs, however, and both have plans to fine tune their economic strategies for continued growth, affirming Mearsheimer’s contention that there is no status quo for power. In spite of this, the size and growth alone of a state may be a “poor indicator of latent power” in the quest for superpower status. Although disinclined to admit it, China may have recognized this as they have been focused not on exponential growth of the economy, but on how to use their economic power as leverage in shifting power balance in recent years. China’s strategy to control the flow of power has been called subtle: Eric Lorber states that “instead of applying blanket sanctions against target states to coerce changes in their behavior, China creates coercive leverage with regulations, purchasing decisions, the refusal to allow the import of certain goods into Chinese markets, and limiting exports of strategic materials to the markets of its adversaries.” This use of economic coercion has been notable especially in maritime disputes, such as the 2012 incident with the Philippines. The sovereignty claim over the Scarborough Shoal resulted in China imposing restrictions on imports, ultimately forcing the Philippines to concede.
Although China certainly has an advantage over the smaller economies in Asia, it needs higher profile victories to gain a noticeable edge as it strives for superpower stature. This opportunity may be found through better trade relations with both the U.S. and the members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This moment of fortuity was in part created upon orders from U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw from the agreement in January 2017, leaving a gap for a market leader to dictate terms of either existing or new multinational trade deals. If China were to lead a pack such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it would certainly advance its status as a ringleader for developed and emerging economies alike. This kind of international profile lends itself to mounting Chinese legitimacy on a global scale.
India, while also a large and stable economy, is challenged with transitioning traditional economic strategies to the level of modern sectors. It is also behind China with regard to foreign investment and trade. India is only now focusing on the export market as an economic strategy, just as China did decades ago. This economic progression was not met without discord; the liberal reforms since the 2000s further marginalized the poor by privatizing land and being pro-corporate. The very fact that the caste system still exists in India has extensive economic implications; the economy is still tied to rigid social movement and thus continues to be a challenge for modernizing India’s economy. Until these issues are addressed, India will not be in the same position as China to lead international economic policies such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Nevertheless, India is at an advantage in one way: it has enjoyed friendly relations with other great powers in the last decades, meaning that such powers are not as prone to use economic coercion against India as they are against China. Where India has focused directly on cultivating powerful partners but failed to achieve comprehensive economic strength, China has emphasized integrating with the world economy, such as membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). This lends China legitimacy while also enhancing their economic development and reinforcing their position as a market leader. India will be unable to participate on the same level until it reassesses its economic priorities.
Even in countries long identified as rising economic powerhouses, political strategies have great potential to determine a country’s trajectory on the international stage and its ability to become a superpower. China, in putting this potential to the test, has redefined its political strategy over the past five years. After his election to the post of Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, Xi Jinping launched a massive anti-corruption campaign, investigating and convicting powerful leaders and low-level bureaucrats alike. On the surface, this initiative appears to be a much-needed check to the corruption of the Chinese government and a way to restore faith in Chinese politics. Despite these good intentions, however, these measures may actually be counter-productive for China’s overall trajectory. The campaign has resulted in the monopolization and centralization of political power in the hands of Xi and his close allies. Indeed, Xi can now boast of unprecedented freedom from the checks and balances of other organs of government. This may reverse any progress China has made in casting off the label of an authoritarian state, thus damaging its reputation and legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. As we have seen, this may hinder China as it strives to become a superpower.
Conversely, Indian politics do not face such questions of legitimacy. India is a model of dynamic liberalism and democracy at work. Its institutions, including Parliament, the judiciary, and the civil services, function in unison to preserve popular legitimacy in such a diverse nation. Its political tradition has developed along the lines of what is expected within the international community: regular democratic elections, peaceful transfers of power, and dedication to non-proliferation. Indeed, the UN has recently lauded India for its commitment to multilateralism and its place as the second largest contributor to peacekeeping missions. Democracies, however, lack the option to unilaterally alter governing practices in the style of authoritarian states. Therefore, while India may enjoy the international legitimacy of a democratic power, it still suffers from the internal effects of corruption and cannot combat them using China’s methods. Indeed, New Delhi’s labyrinthine bureaucracy organized around the interests of officials and politicians resulted in a wave of populist protests led by social activist Anna Hazare in 2012. Still, India’s pursuit of legitimacy and openness has earned it more international popularity than China’s crusade against corruption.
India and China’s foreign policy strategies are similarly divergent. One major aspect of Beijing’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping is a strategic effort to replace the American alliance system in Asia with Chinese influence “while remaining firm in the face of external pressure on the South and East China Seas.” Escalating territorial disputes with neighboring countries, such as the conflict over the Senkaku Islands claimed by Japan, ensures that China must be taken seriously on the global stage and serves as a way for Beijing to distract from domestic grievances by satisfying growing nationalist sentiments. In fact, nationalism has been cultivated by the Chinese government for just such an instrumental use, proving useful both as a tool in foreign policy and in internal cohesion. This strategy may prove to be disadvantageous in the long run, however. Already, nationalism in certain sectors, such as the rising Chinese middle class, sympathizes with liberalism and is suppressed by the state despite its modernizing potential. China’s fanning and utilization of nationalist fervor, therefore, may prove counterproductive for party survival and may push China into more confrontations abroad when national honor is questioned.
India, on the other hand, looks not to nationalism but to international relationships and openness for success in its foreign relations. Unlike China, India has developed a strong, bilateral relationship with the U.S. New Delhi has also come to buttress America’s network of relationships and influence in East Asia as it builds stronger ties in the region. These relationships not only provide India increased influence and standing in Asia, but also bind it more closely to the world’s current political, economic, and cultural monolith. This is not say that India’s foreign policy is one-sided; its pursuit of global ties has also allowed it a close diplomatic relationship with Washington’s rival, Russia, a relationship resulting in part from American support for Pakistan. This approach has done much to enhance India’s legitimacy and reputation worldwide. Where China’s utilization of nationalism has the potential to cause more conflict at home and abroad, India maintains an outward-looking foreign policy that allows for good relations with many other countries.
The Hu Jintao administration used the term four-in-one to describe development in China, a conception of development that places culture, society, and politics on par with economics. This cultural aspect of development and influence is often applied as soft power on the international stage. Rather than the coercive nature of hard power, soft power applies attraction, persuasion, and cooperation, and draws on culture, political values, and foreign policies. According to Joseph Nye, countries have three sources of soft power: an attractive culture, consistent political values, and legitimate foreign policy. In addition to their usefulness as a means of pursuing influence, cultural policy and soft power have the ability to influence legitimacy on the global stage. Thus, they also play a role in the development of a superpower. Failure to prioritize correctly and pursue internationally popular policies, therefore, may be costly. Recently, China and India have been employing soft power to gain an edge abroad. Analyzing their approaches can provide insight into the cultural strategies they employ as they amass power.
China conceives of this soft, cultural power as a resource to be accumulated and measured against other countries. It is evident that China has worked to cultivate and make effective use of soft power. Chinese civilization represents one of humanity’s oldest and proudest historical, philosophical, and religious reservoirs with a history of cultural and linguistic dominance, providing Beijing with ample opportunities to expand its influence. The Confucius Institute, for instance, is an organization affiliated with the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China with the purpose of promoting Chinese language and culture internationally. There were 480 institute locations worldwide as of 2014. One of China’s chosen paths in building and exercising cultural influence, therefore, has been direct promotion globally. However, the Confucius Institute has also received criticism from abroad. After one Chinese minister referred to the organization as "an important part of China's overseas propaganda set-up,” it was openly accused of having a politicized mission, underscoring its role as an extension of soft power. It has been argued that Confucius Institutes are tied to Beijing’s policies and that they misrepresent and glorify China, avoiding uncomfortable topics such as Taiwan and Tibet in order to protect China’s interests and reputation. To some extent, then, Chinese efforts to cleanse their global image have resulted in increased criticism, especially in the West. This suspicion is ironic for what China intends as an initiative to dispel the notion of a Chinese threat.
Like China, India commands an abundance of cultural resources. These resources are multifaceted and include everything from music, art, and film to yoga and spiritualism, and the country can also boast of strong democratic values. New Delhi has been criticized of failing to utilize these soft power reserves effectively in the past, and analysts have even cast doubt on the extent of India’s potential cultural influence. More recently, however, current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has begun to utilize India’s soft power in a conscious strategy bearing resemblance to that of China. Even as Modi emphasizes his country’s democratic allies and promotes Indian culture on state visits and in official policy, India is simultaneously expanding its hard power resources. In addition to being the world’s largest weapons importer, India is also working to grow its own domestic defence industry and its navy. All of this, however, must be done without threatening neighboring countries. This explains the Modi government’s adept use of marketing and soft power in recent years, and mirrors China’s policies of reducing threat perception worldwide through the promotion of culture. Perhaps due to India’s status as a democratic power, it has faced less criticism than China in its extension of soft, cultural power.
New Superpowers on the Loose?
However natural the rising power of China and India may seem, we must be reminded that it is neither coincidence nor organic. Both countries have carefully plotted their courses to dominance with ambitious hope that they will be able to boast of the status of a superpower. Taking the four areas of strategy into account, it is clear that China and India possess opportunities as well as weaknesses as they aspire towards superpower status.
In military terms, China must continue to tread lightly because any aggression is already under strict scrutiny from great powers and international institutions. Strategically, it would be ill-advised for China to use coercive force to gain dominance, as extensive backlash would almost be certain. India must ensure the good faith of global powers while balancing a regional defense. Economically, India lags behind China in terms of development and global integration. It remains to be seen if China can sustain its steady growth while asserting itself as a regional and global leader by empowering others, not simply overpowering them in size. China’s political strategy involves tradeoffs. It has fought internal corruption at the cost of increased authoritarianism and fanned the flames of nationalism despite potentially reduced stability at home and flexibility abroad. This balancing act may provide Beijing with certain advantages, but is unlikely to provide an edge in garnering the political legitimacy necessary for ascent in global circles. India’s political trajectory, on the other hand, has struggled with problems of corruption while embracing democratic values and international engagement, forfeiting the centralized power of China’s government for the attraction of a global reputation. By way of soft power, both countries are now working to promote their cultures and amass soft power abroad. Unlike India, however, some of China’s more direct initiatives have received more criticism from a suspicious West.
The strategies employed by both China and India are intended to lead to growth and influence. Clearly, however, these strategies do not always benefit their countries as intended, especially with regard to international legitimacy. China’s policies have largely done so militarily and economically, while India has the advantage politically and culturally. Even should these countries devise strategies that maximize their power, however, their ability to ascend to the top is not assured. Indeed, John Ikenberry argues that while “it may be possible for China to overtake the United States alone... it is much less likely that China will ever manage to overtake the Western order.” Should this come to pass, the future China or India will likely be forced to operate in an international community defined by Western values. If either country is to become a power beyond its respective regions, it will need to ensure good relations with the West as well as the rest of world.
India may need to consider better relations with rival China in order to have good relations on both fronts—eastern and western. Also, they should consider alliances if ever one of them were to ascend to global hegemon and that becomes the new power to appease.
Strategic gain within any axis of power serves the interests of a given state. Equally important, however, is the perception of other countries with regard to a state’s strategic approach. Rising states coveting superpower status, therefore, must devise their grand strategies with this in mind should they wish to ascend to the top. This is especially true for China and India, as the two countries most watched for their future potential. They must be cognizant of how their current and future strategies affect their reputations with the global hegemon and other rival powers. Because America’s global supremacy is in no way guaranteed into perpetuity, however, China and India must balance this with the determined pursuit of their own interests, formulating strategies that act firmly in their own respective favors without attracting hostile counter-strategies from their peers. Should one of these rising powers achieve this balance, it will be well on its way to ensuring its own ascendancy in the global order.
Melly Hu is an International Conflict Studies MA student at King’s College London. She holds a BA degree in Economics and Communication from the University of Washington. Her previous professional background includes experience in the investment management and digital marketing fields.
Kyle W. Johnson is an International Conflict Studies MA student at King’s College London. He graduated from Emory University in 2015 in International Studies and History. He was awarded the John Jay Fellowship in Philadelphia, PA in 2016 and is interested in counter-terrorism and radicalization.
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Header Image: The flags of India and China (CNN)
 John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), 21.
 Ibid., 32-33.
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 Zhang, “China’s Cultural Future,” 383.
 UCLA Confucius Institute, “About Us,” URL: http://www.confucius.ucla.edu/about-us/confucius-institutes-worldwide.
 “A message from Confucius,” The Economist, Oct 22nd 2009, URL: http://www.economist.com/node/14678507.
 Rachelle Peterson, “American Universities Are Welcoming China’s Trojan Horse,” Foreign Policy, May 9, 2017, URL: http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/09/american-universities-are-welcoming-chinas-trojan-horse-confucius-institutes/.
 Howard W. French, “Another Chinese Export is all the Rage: China’s Language,” The New York Times, January 11, 2006, URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/11/world/asia/another-chinese-export-is-all-the-rage-chinas-language.html.
 Rohan Mukherjee, “The False Promise of India's Soft Power,” Geopolitics, History & International Relations Vol. 6 Issue 1 (2014): 48.
 Ibid., 51-52.
 Aakriti Tandon, “Transforming the Unbound Elephant to the Lovable Asian Hulk: Why is Modi Leveraging India’s Soft Power?”, The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs 105:1 (2016): 58, DOI: 10.1080/00358533.2015.1126956.