“Contemporary International Relations: Changing Dynamics, Challenges and Responses”


The contemporary international relations (IR) are at an inflection point in their evolution. In the last few months, they came under immense pressure from a small virus, whose origins are fiercely contested, but its debilitating and destructive implications are felt across the globe. Lives are lost; global economy is crippled, adversely affecting farmers, laborers, particularly the migrant laborers; education is disrupted, forcing it to go digital in the context of inadequate infrastructure and the lack of financial wherewithal. What this pandemic exposed is the lack of unity and vision among the global leaders in addressing its spread and ramifications.

Moreover, in the few years there has been a two-forked scepter of authoritarian tendencies and economic nationalism hovering over some countries with the potential to undermine the international system that has been painstakingly constructed in the last 75 years. Interestingly, at the same time, we find civil society reviving its 1960s and 1970s’ phase of activism with a number of initiatives such as Occupy Wall Street, Jasmine Revolution, Protests at World Economic Forum and Environment Summits to steer the global debates on a number of issues of critical importance to steer the international relations to be more inclusive, equitable and sustainable.

In addition, wars in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Iraq, Libya, Mali and conflict in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Congo, Sudan and South Sudan that have been going on for sometime are yet to see any durable solution. In fact, there are about 40 ongoing conflicts at present. The painful consequences of these wars and conflicts could be seen in the rise of refugees. According to UNHCR (www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html), there are a staggering 26 million refugees across the world. North Korean and Iranian nuclear arms race is another flashpoint. 

Against this backdrop, the article is divided into four sections. First section delineates International Relations with a focus on Changing Dynamics. India-China relations, as a microcosm of the international relations, form part of the second section. The third section examines some of the challenges such as the Scepter of authoritarianism, Contestation from China, and Terrorism that the global community is grappling with. Fourth section sheds light on the responses of India, Institutions and Individuals. The last section highlights a few concluding remarks. In mapping these contours, besides giving a snapshot, an attempt is made to approach the international relations from the vantage point of those on the margins, the poor and the exploited.

I. International Relations: Changing Dynamics

The international relations are going through an intriguing period in the last few years. To comprehend the changing dynamics of the present period, they must be situated in the context of the twentieth century’s developments. Much of the international system that we now have, came into existence in the aftermath of the two World Wars. It is a product of the twentieth century initiatives and institutions in the quest for order in the global politics such as the League of Nations, the United Nations and a number of others. Subsequently, this was followed by the Cold War that eventually ended in 1991 with the disintegration of the erstwhile USSR, leaving the US, the lone Superpower, to shape the global politics.

What we are witnessing now is the emergence of a complex phase beginning to unfold given the changes that have been taking place in the last few decades. There are three major processes that require discussion. First, the current phase of globalization, with critiques such as Joseph E. Stiglitz (2012) and defenders like P. N. Bhagavathi (2007), is undergirded by technological prowess along with the Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), resulting in the evolution of knowledge economies and information societies. This process is playing a pivotal role in making the international relations truly global. Some scholars even view this process as glocalization, a coming together of the global and local, tracing the global in the local and the local in the global. The outcome of this process is globalization of world politics (John Baylis and Steve Smith 2001). The increasing economic nationalism coupled with its ramifications for the international system led some scholars to characterize this phenomenon as de-globalization (Walden Bello 2004). A recent case in point is Brexit, Britain’s referendum to leave European Union (EU). 

Furthermore, the growth of Multinational Corporations (MNCs) added another dimension to this process. While they do contribute to the development of the economies, their growing influence is seen to be undermining the sovereignty of the nation-states. Some of them are racing to be trillion dollar companies, larger than the economies of several countries.

Second, the current wave of multilateralism, which is often depicted as New Multilateralism, is a clear indication of an attempt to change the dynamics of the international relations. The number of multilateral institutions such as Shanghai Economic Cooperation (SCO), Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), New Development Bank (NDB) established by the non-Western powers to create a space for themselves in the international system is indicative of this phenomenon. These are distinct from the old multilateral institutions established and led by the West like the United Nations Organization (UNO), World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), EU, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). All these attempts at evolving multipolar world are aimed at redrawing the existing global governance architecture. International order is also often depicted as politically unipolar and economically multipolar given the relative strength of the large economies that wield some form of influence. 

In assessing these developments scholars indicated the possibilities of chaos. While responding to such analyses, Eilstrup-Sangiovini and Hoffman state that what we are witnessing in the international relations may not be the impending crisis and collapse of the global order, but rather it’s an ongoing transformation from within (2020, p. 1086).

Third, quite intriguingly, an attempt is being made by China to expand its global footprint and contest the global leadership of the US. We also notice US and China adopting strategies and counter-strategies to strengthen their hold over the international relations. This phenomenon led some scholars to envisage a possible new Cold War between US and China. Cold War between the reigning Superpower and the Rising power in China, which is raring to change the dynamics of international relations, would have major ramifications for the global community. This could unleash another set of conflict between the two. The recent trade war between US and China involving higher tariffs is indicative of this danger. While the Cold War between US and the erstwhile USSR was fought on ideology, this is going to be on ideas. One of the ideas that China is trying to project is its development that is quite impressive in lifting about 500 million people out of poverty in the last four decades. This impressive accomplishment must be juxtaposed to its track record of lack of freedom of speech, suppression of democracy movement in the 1980s, dissent and the treatment of minorities in Tibet, Xinjiang and more recently what is happening in Hong Kong.

Therefore, the question that we must grapple with is: What is the nature of the international relations? Paul Kennedy alludes to international relations as an arena of Great Power politics (1989, p. 23). Given this nature, much of the focus on international relations is limited to this phenomenon as we find in the scholarly writings, though there are some exceptions to this. For instance, Huntington, in his much reviewed and critiqued article which was later expanded into a book, articulated that ‘Global politics began to be reconfigured on cultural lines … culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest level are civilization identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world’ (1996, pp. 19-20). Taking the argument further, Vinoth Ramachandra (1999, p. 10) posits that: ‘Religion, which lies at the heart of most cultures, seems to be the most powerful source of such conflict’.

Following what has been unraveling in the last few decades, IR scholars postulated multiple and divergent perspectives and frameworks. Some characterize International relations as Unipolar wherein the US is the dominant player in determining the dynamics of international relations.

In contrast, Bruce Jones indicates that the present international system is Bipolar wherein the US and China are shaping its contours. However, he makes an interesting qualifier stating that this is an Asymmetric Bipolar world with China as junior partner (www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2017/11/28/the-new-geopolitics/).

Others indicate that the international system is transitioning towards a Multipolar structure with countries like the US, China, Russia, UK, France, India, Germany, Brazil, Japan and South Africa having an element of influence. A variant of this framework is Multiplex, proposed by Amitav Acharya (2017), wherein some of these countries that are in the race for evolving a multipolar world, with their relative strengths in a particular area impact the world, simultaneously like a multiplex showing several movies at the same time.

IR Theories

In comprehending the changing dynamics of the international system, IR scholars have postulated a few theories over the last 100 years or so. One of them is Liberalism. It gives primacy to liberal values with a focus on democracy and adherence to institutional norms besides political and economic cooperation. The dominant institution that leads these objectives is the state. Robert Keohane and Francis Fukuyama are two most prominent exponents (Stephen Walt 1998, p. 38).

The second theory is Realism with a minor variation in the form of Neo-realism in which the state is once again the key institution. The central thrust of this theory is that the states are in a state of perpetual competition for enhancing their economic and military power through various means. Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz are two of its proponents (Stephen Walt 1998, p. 38).

The third theory is Constructivism which underscores the role of beliefs and common identities in shaping the international system. Interestingly, in contrast to Liberalism and Realism, it is not the state that is dominant, but the elite and the individuals who play an active role in changing the course of international relations. This theory factors the role of ideas and discourse in shaping the global system. Alexander Wendt and John Ruggie are its advocates (Stephen Walt 1998, p. 38).

Critical Theory is another IR theory that is critical of the above theories for their lack of commitment to establish a just world order. Raising questions such as where are the countries that are on the margins of the international system and how democratic is the current international system, they advocate the need for creating an alternative world order. Robert Cox and Andrew Linklater are two of its robust proponents.

The most recent theory that ventured into international relations is Feminism thus filling a void that existed for quite sometime. The invisibility of women in international politics in various platforms is the key driving force in advancing this theory. The key argument proposed that the international relations including the IR theories would be far more different provided more women are an integral part of global politics. Cynthia Enloe, Rebecca Grant, Cathleen Newland and Christine Sylvester are some of the pioneers of this theory.     

The Changing Architecture of Power

At the heart of international relations is the quest for power. Thus there is an imperative for a brief discussion on power in international relations. For Morgenthau, ‘international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power’. He elaborates the concept of power in the following manner: ‘When we speak of power, we mean man’s control over minds and actions of other men’ (1948, 13). This is what the Superpowers tend to do.

Given the importance of power in structuring and governing the global system, there has been considerable attention paid to the concept of power in international relations resulting in the emergence of interesting ideas and phrases. Of them, three stand out. First, Hard Power, which is to do with military and economic might. Second is Soft Power. According to Joseph Nye, soft power is ‘the ability to get the others to do what you want them through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies’. He also cautions that ‘attraction can turn to repulsion if the country that is using its soft power in an arrogant manner consequently resulting in the destruction of the real message of the deeper values’ (2004, X).

More recently, there has been an endeavor to go beyond hard power and soft power leading to the coining of the term Smart power which is a combination of hard and soft power. Former US President Barack Obama underscored this during his two terms in the Oval office. Taking this debate further, there is an interesting conceptualization in the form of Comprehensive National Power (CNP), a sum total of political, economic, military and S&T power. Political power includes membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and many other global regimes and institutions. In terms of the economic prowess, the size of the economy is touted to be quintessential. Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) power would cover R&D capabilities in space, artificial intelligence (AI)-robotics, drones, cyber security, biotech, eco-friendly technologies, the number of publications and patents, and innovative products ranging from computers to mobiles, from automobiles to robots.  

Power versus Principles

What is often pushed to the margins in the discourse on power in the international relations is the power of principles. In the quest for power, some countries tend to marginalize principles. Therefore, the responsibility of the civil society is to ensure that there is an endeavor made to balance the two: Power with Principles and Principles with Power.

II. India-China Relations

The relations between India and China, being a microcosm of the macrocosm of international system and the current border crisis that could threaten peace in the region, necessitate a brief discussion.

Right at the outset, we must recognize the element of asymmetry between India and China on a number of counts, be it political, economic, and S&T power, in the latter’s favor. China is a member of the UNSC, the most powerful body with the power to veto any anti-China resolution in the UN. Chinese economy is the second largest while the Indian economy is the fifth largest in the world. Its economy is five times larger than India. It has 3 trillion dollar reserves while India has only 400 billion dollar reserves. It is often called the factory of the world while India is known as the back office of the world. China spends about 2 percent of its GDP on R&D while India spends only about 0.7 percent. China is also way ahead of India in the number of scientific publications and patents, though there are concerns about the quality. In terms of military power, Chinese defence modernization in the last two decades, coupled with its edge in nuclear weapon capabilities, has led to disparity between India and China.

Given China’s financial wherewithal, it envisioned Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to connect Asia with China as the hub with the rest of the world with an initial investment of about 100 billion US dollars. China also outspends India in diplomatic outreach to influence the global perspectives. It has been using its 400 plus Confucius Institutes to promote its political and cultural agenda. Similarly, India is using Yoga to expand its cultural footprint. 

These stark differences between the two countries are central in placing China in a different league now, though they were on par with each other in the early 1950s or even in the early 1970s. India is striving to catch up with its own strategies now.

In such a context of asymmetry, either overestimation or underestimation of not only China’s capabilities but also its strategies could lead to disastrous consequences for the global community in general and India in particular. Therefore, an accurate estimation of China’s power and its regional and global strategies is the need of the hour. In doing so, we need to consider how the world perceives China and how China perceives itself. Some scholars do depict China as a Great Power while others view it as a Superpower. Still others like Susan Shirk (2008) describes China as Fragile Superpower, acknowledging that it is a Superpower but a fragile one given the inherent contradictions in its domestic context, referring to the flashpoints in Xinjiang, Tibet, lack of freedom of speech and growing inequalities. In this context, it is equally important to delve into the way the world perceives China. Some view it as a Statusquoist while others see it as Revisionist power. There are others who see China as a Peace-loving while others look at it as an Expansionist power. Still others consider China as a Nationalist and some others it as an Internationalist power. China’s foreign policy displays a combination of these four strands.   

China, under Xi Jinping, who is going to be a lifetime President, perceives itself as a power whose time has come to demonstrate its capabilities, making a departure from its previous policy of ‘Hide capabilities and bide time and harbor no ambitions’ that Deng Xiaoping espoused in the 1980s. In fact, China claims to be only a Great Power but behaves like a Superpower. It is part of the G2 along with the US. It speaks of establishing a harmonious world. But its actions in South China Sea, Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and vis-à-vis India on the border convey a totally different picture. 

China espoused two core pillars of peace and development in its foreign policy in the last four decades. Peace in the region and development in its domestic context. Is its rhetoric or reality or both? Both rhetoric and reality constitute its policy vis-à-vis the world. The framework of peace and development seems to have run its course and paving the way for a new framework.


In the global arena, China is at the forefront on various issues such as environment and terrorismand institutions like the UN, BRICS, SCO, AIIB. China’s global quest for energy resources is not only expanding its footprint but also consolidating it in Africa, Asia and South America. China is backing this with its own theoretical underpinnings on IR. Yan Xuetong (2011) and Qin Yaqing (2011) highlight some of these endeavours. One of the key goals of this is to shape the dynamics of international relations. The question then is: Can it and will it? China is beginning to do it. China has been trying to change the discourse on human rights at the UN focusing more on economic rights rather than political rights. Though India is part of some of these institutions, it lacks a credible global policy similar to that of China. There have been some explorations in theorizing international relations (Bajpai and Mallavarapu 2005) they are too few and many of them are yet to be factored into the Indian foreign policy architecture.


At the regional level, both the elements of convergence and divergence are part of the bilateral relations. According to Booz Allen Hamilton (2003), China is weaving a ‘String of Pearls’ around India to checkmate the growing influence of India in Asia.[1] This could be seen in strengthening its relations with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal and even Bangladesh. To counter this India came up with its Look East Policy which is now rechristened as Act East Policy wherein India is forging strong ties with Japan and some of the ASEAN countries including Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.


In the bilateral context, the relations between India and China witnessed a new phase from 1988 with Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China. Thereafter there have been a number of agreements leading to better diplomatic and trade relations. For instance, both signed an agreement on Comprehensive Building Mechanisms (CBMs) besides others; the bilateral trade grew from a few million dollars in the 1990s to 92 billion dollars in 2019. In the last five years several summits were held in both the countries to improve the relations. Given the existing political dispensations and the changing face of ideology, there have been a number of efforts at reviving the traditional ideas and strategies in the two countries, drawing from Kautilya’s Arthashastra (1992) in India and Confucius and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (2008) in China with their ramifications on the bilateral relations. 

It is in this context that we must place the border clashes between China and India resulting in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers. It is quite intriguing why China chose to rake up the border issue. One of the reasons conjectured by some scholars is that China needed some issue to divert the global attention from its Covid-19 debacle. While others argue that China wants to send US and India a message in the context of bonhomie that has been unfolding between the two in the last few years. Both India and China must keep in mind the issue of what matters-lives or land.

III. Challenges

One of the major challenges facing the global community is lack of unity among the leaders at various global institutions such as UN, G-2, G-7, G-20 and G-70. They all failed to formulate a well-calibrated global policy to address the pandemic. If this becomes a regular feature it will portend a major crisis for global governance. Trump’s plan to withdraw from a number of the international institutions is opening avenues for the Chinese to step in and begin to shape the international relations.

In addition, cooperation and collaboration are wanting among the leaders. Furthermore, some of these global leaders endeavor to serve not only their countries but also the companies that support them or the companies either they or their relatives own. It is in this process the concerns of the poor are pushed to the periphery.   

The second major challenge is the growing authoritarianism in several countries with a highhanded treatment of the minorities, civil society and media. This is going to marginalize the already marginalized even further. Therefore it is imperative for these sections to come together and forge a robust sense of unity and strive for equality and dignity for all.

The third challenge is the rise of China, the rising great power, trying to structure the international relations with its own imprint challenging the reigning superpower. This could be seen in the way it tried to forge Beijing Consensus as a counterweight to the Washington Consensus. Yan Xuetong in Ancient Chinese Thought and Modern Chinese Power pits the American commitment to values such as ‘equality, freedom and democracy’ with the Chinese commitment to ‘fairness, justice and civility’ (2011, ix). The latest closing down of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, Texas in the US and the American Consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan is just the beginning of the New Cold War unfolding between US and China.

The fourth challenge pertains to the ongoing wars and conflicts in Asia, Africa and Europe. The divergences in ideology, religion and approaches have been the main factors in this process. In addressing them, peace, not a negative peace but positive peace which is the presence of justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. (1992, p. 91) underscored, must become the dominant force driving the global community.

A closely related challenge is terrorism that includes both the state and non-state variants in different parts of the world. Quite often in containing terrorism the focus is limited to the symptoms rather than the root causes. Unless democratic practices are factored into global governance, these challenges will continue to persist causing problems for the global community.

IV. Responses

With both the global context and China’s place in a flux, India has several opportunities to expand its reach in the currently unfolding international system. The issue is whether the Indian leadership will be able to evolve a global vision and seize the moment. Prior to doing it, India must set its house in order, particularly in improving its political, economic and health systems which are no where near the global standards. The government cares for the rich and the middle class by sending aircrafts and buses but the poor and hapless laborers have to walk for hundreds and thousands of kilometres. This speaks volumes of our policies and priorities.

In evolving a credible response to China, we must keep in mind both the cordial relations in the distant past and conflict in the 1960s besides what India did to China in the early 1950s, supporting Maoist China’s membership in the UNO and what China did to India in 1962. Ambedkar was prescient in his analysis when he insightfully articulated: ‘India was spending herself in fighting the battle of Mao as against Chiang Kai-shek. This quixotic policy of saving the world is going to bring about the ruination of India and the sooner this suicidal foreign policy is reversed the better for India … India must strive every nerve, must seek every aid to make herself strong. Then only will her voice be effective’ (1951, 397). Unfortunately this was unheeded by the then leadership and thus paid the price and its ramifications continue to resonate.

In its relations with China in general and the border crisis in particular, while pursuing the path of peace, India must strengthen its economic, Science Technology and Innovation power besides modernizing its defence forces and developing infrastructure including in the border regions. If China’s assertive and expansionist policies persist, India should work with the US, Japan and Australia and strengthen the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Though this initiative is being opposed by China for safeguarding its own national and global interests, it must gain traction and taken to its logical conclusion.

Civil society, along with its constituents such as NGOs and all forms of media, must continue to strive to highlight and fight for the voiceless and the marginalized in various ways including protesting. As Martin Luther King Jr., while being a robust proponent and practitioner of non-violence during the Civil Rights Movement in the US, articulated, we need to protest because it is our ‘right to protest for what is right’ (1958, pp. 61-62).

As families and individuals we need to introspect as to how many of us pray for the international issues such as global governance under the global leaders and institutions; wars in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Congo, Mali; terrorism of all kinds-ideological, religious, state and non-state, in our daily prayers. It is hoped that this introspection may spur our spiritual leaders who lead the organizations and the pastors who shepherd their congregations to pray for, and preach on, these issues and participate in collective protests whenever the need arises and thus pave the way for greater awareness and active involvement.  

V. Concluding Remarks

International relations are thus going through a new phase in their trajectory with a number of challenges that need immediate and well-calibrated grand strategy to address them.

It is in this context, the global community must focus on the importance of principles and their pivotal role in international relations. It is imperative for us to factor into international relations the view that principles without power are weak and power without principles is dangerous. Post-pandemic international relations will be different to the extent that the global community is willing to shape it based on the principles of transparency, equality, dignity and justice for all not just the powerful and rich- that includes countries, companies, institutions and individuals.

India and China need the international system as much as the international system needs them like other countries. There has been mutual shaping of each other. Until recently, the international norms shaped China and now China is trying to restructure international relations. If this process continues, it will have major ramifications for the global politics including India in the foreseeable future.

In the final analysis, being wary of authoritarian tendencies both at the international and national levels, let us hope that the international system will tread towards being more inclusive, just and equitable. Similarly, let us be optimistic that India will make a paradigm shift from its current preoccupation with the Act East policy to evolving a well-calibrated and credible Global Policy that is grounded in the ideals of democracy, transparency and inclusivity besides being realistic in its approach and strategy.

Prof. Varaprasad S. Dolla teaches Chinese Studies at the Centre for East Asian Studies in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is the author of ‘Science and Technology in Contemporary China: Interrogating Policies and Progress’ (Cambridge University Press), besides presenting papers in the international and national conferences. He is also TRACI Community member and guides the research.


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Further Reading

Bajpai, Kanti. 2015. ‘India and the world’, in Niraja Gopal Jayal abd Pratap Bhanu Mehta eds. The oxford companion to politics in Inda. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 521-541.

Cox, R. W. 1981. ‘Social forces, states and world orders: beyond international relations theory’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 126–155.

Enloe, Cynthia. 1989. Bananas, beaches and bases: making feminist sense of international politics. London: Pandora.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1992. The end of history and the last man. New York: The Free Press.

Grant, Rebecca, and Kathleen Newland, 1991. eds. Gender and international relations. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jervis, Robert. 1976. Perception and misperception in international politics. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Keohane, Robert O. 1984. After hegemony: cooperation and discord in the world political economy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Linklater, A. 1990. Beyond realism and Marxism: critical theory and international relations. London: Macmillan.    

Mearsheimer, John. 2003. The tragedy of great power politics. New York: W.W. Norton Company.

Qin, Yaqing. 2011. ‘Development of international relations theory in China’, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 231-257.

Ruggie, John. 1998. Constructing the world polity: essays on international institutionalization. New York: Routledge.

Sylvester, Christine. 1994. Feminist theory and international relations in a postmodern era. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2004. World systems analysis: an introduction. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Waltz, Kenneth. 1979. The theory of international politics. Reading. Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Wendt, Alexander.  1999. Social theory in international politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] While some argue that it is an American overture to get India on its side, it is a reality, nevertheless.