The Security Studies Seminar is a monthly seminar series that aims to comprehensively discuss a new piece of academic research on matters pertaining to Indian and international security, with the author.

The India-China relationship has been defined by crucial moments of cooperation and contention since their emergence as modern nation-states. In this relationship, what role has cognitive predispositions played in determining Indian policy? Deep Pal examines this question by looking at divergences in Indian behavior concerning Tibet from 1950 to1959, Indian restraint during the invasion of Tibet in 1950, and proactiveness in granting asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959. Pal argues that such apparent reversals in policy become intelligible when examined through aspects of India’s self-image vis-à-vis China as refracted through India’s interactions with other actors in the region. As such, India’s non-action in 1950 was guided by the perception that these priorities were not threatened, whereas, in 1959, perceptions of threat motivated action.

Carnegie India hosted Deep Pal, a nonresident fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) and a recent graduate from the doctoral program at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, as he examined India’s contrasting foreign policy toward China over Tibet between 1950 and1959 by proposing a modified version of Jervis’ theory of images. The discussion was moderated by Srinath Raghavan, senior fellow at Carnegie India.


  • The Theory of Images: Participants discussed how India’s self-image and perceptions influence its foreign policy decisionmaking by analyzing India's contrasting foreign policy approach toward China in relation to Tibet from 1950 to 1959. They applied a theoretical framework of images in international politics that was proposed by Robert Jervis to tackle the research question. The theory highlights that states behave in a certain way to create a certain perception of themselves, they noted. Jervis’ theory was adapted by the participants to propose a modified framework of refracted images. This model examined India’s perceptions of its self-image in relation to China as refracted through Tibet. The participants stated that the notion of self-image goes beyond the direct relationship between the two states and is further influenced by the active refraction from third parties. In essence, decision makers in state A not only draw their interpretations from images projected by state B, but also from images refracted through other states such as C, D, and E. However, the participants questioned the application of the term ‘refraction’ in the adopted framework. They instead proposed the term ‘mediation’ with regard to the state’s image. 
  • Components of India’s Self-Image: To delineate the theory of refracted images, participants identified three components of India’s self-image: civilizational conviction, territorial anxiety, and development. First, participants claimed that for India to reinstate its importance on the world stage, it was necessary for it to reclaim its glorious past. They noted that for India’s leaders, the conviction of civilizational influence was a crucial lever in reclaiming its position of power and glory in the region. Second, they highlighted that as a result of India’s troubled experiences under the British rule and the baggage of the traumatic partition period, territorial anxiety significantly influences India’s self-image. Lastly, participants stated that India also looked to development as a crucial component of foreign policy to meet its aspiration of becoming a regional power. To that end, India not only focused on its internal development, but also extended development assistance to its smaller neighbours as a way to exert influence and draw them closer, they added. Thus, participants emphasized that India’s changing foreign policy toward China and Tibet arose out of deeper realizations about civilizational connections with Tibet, exacerbated territorial anxiety due to China’s advances in Tibet, along with continued trade and aid to Tibet. 
  • Future Research Prospects: Participants highlighted that the modified theory of refraction lacks analysis of institutional mechanisms. They explained that the current theory does not take into account the contemporary influence of bureaucratic structures on self-image and foreign policy of a state, particularly India. Furthermore, some participants argued that the three mechanisms of civilizational conviction, territorial anxiety, and development could potentially be interrelated identities and that it could be simplistic to analyse them in isolation. Additionally, participants deliberated on the applicability of the three factors beyond the case of India to establish the theory’s generalizability.

This event summary was prepared by Megha Gupta and Suchet Vir Singh, research interns at Carnegie India.