The processes of informal or soft regionalism driving China’s regional engagement are resulting in nuanced understandings of state, security and the conduct of international relations in China. The paper looks at a set of three interrelated processes that made this engagement possible—the informal processes driving China’s engagement; the graduated manner in which China has re-engaged with the regional economy; and the process of decentralisation of decision-making powers aimed at providing local incentives for growth. The paper argues that lowering the research and policy gaze can throw up interesting instances of a growing bottom-up engagement by China’s border states with its subregional neighbourhood. The paper will attempt a preliminary typology of subregional policy networks with its own distinctive local governance particularities and set of stakeholders. It argues that their role as bridge-builders in transborder governance with an innate capacity to jump scales as well as blur traditional jurisdictional boundaries needs to be acknowledged by mainstream research and policy. If it is willing to do so, the “subregional turn” in China’s foreign policy can bring a long-overdue attention to the borderlands both as a missing level of analysis and as a governance actor in its own right besides nudging Chinese IR towards innovative intellectual pathways.
The “Subregional Turn”
The institutional landscape of subregional Asia has been transforming in interesting ways in recent decades bringing with it a diverse set of actors and agendas. State-led institution building, Track-II dialogues and civil society associational activities are introducing a level of complexity to modes of governance in Asia and that is both nascent as well as dynamic. The idea of subregionalism has been gaining increasing recognition in discourses of development bringing new insights to mainstream theories of regionalism. The subregional level of analysis essentially rescales regionalism towards geographically proximate subregions within two or more countries. Several such growth triangles or quadrangles are already in operation in the region, such as the Singapore-southern Johore-Batam Island, the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), the Southern China Growth Triangle and the Yellow Sea Economic Zone,Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Initiative for Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the Mekong Ganga Economic Cooperation (MGC), and the BCIM Economic Corridor (Bangladesh China India Myanmar). These also call into question conventional assumptions of a linear progression of regional integration based on the European experience to accommodate less formal and more diverse patterns of regional flows and formations.
Source: Nimmi Kurian, India China Borderlands: Conversations Beyond the Centre (New Delhi: Sage, 2014).
The Bamboo Network
Over the decades since 1949, China’s developmental debate has seen several temporal and spatial shifts with priorities swinging from a focus on inland development during the Mao years to Deng’s coast-led strategy and most recently back again to the inland provinces under the Western development programme. Interestingly, the Maoist pursuit of self-sufficiency had less to do with equity concerns as commonly understood and more with the overriding preoccupation with safeguarding national assets, as the sanxian policy (Third Front) clearly demonstrated. The policy thrust imparted to regional comparative advantage thus set the stage for China’s highly successful economic re-engagement with the regional and global economy. This was made possible as a result of a set of three concurrent processes—the informal processes driving China’s engagement; the graduated manner in which China has re-engaged with the regional economy; and the process of decentralisation of decision-making powers aimed at providing local incentives for growth.
A defining characteristic of China’s open door policies has been the informal processes driving regional economic integration. Asian regionalism, as Peter Katzenstein observes has been characterised on the one hand by dynamic market institutions and weak formal institutional structures on the other. The Southern China Growth Triangle is a case in point where there were no formal inter-state agreements between the member economies. The overseas Chinese business networks played a central role in defining and imparting their distinctive impact on the character of the regional political economy. These networks constituted a valuable source of information and entry point to the overseas markets besides providing a critical impetus to the forces of regional economic integration through heavy infusions of capital into the mainland. The ‘Chinese Commonwealth’ of entrepreneurial relationships, as John Kao notes, operated as an “open architecture” with “access to local resources like information, business connections, raw materials, low labour costs, and different business practices in a variety of environments.” The increasingly transnational nature of economic activity points to, as Shaun Breslin notes, “the disjuncture between national boundaries as the limits of political space.” The success of the ‘bamboo network’, as it is also referred to, owed itself in no small measure to the high degree of flexibility of these informal arrangements that created the space for economic cooperation between divergent economic and political systems.
A related factor has been the strong cultural identification which the ethnic Chinese diaspora has maintained with the mainland. This socio-cultural bonding was forged in the context of migrations from the mainland over long periods of history, triggered by political turmoil, displacement, and economic deprivation, and reinforced by the fierce resentment Chinese immigrants faced at the hands of the indigenous communities. It is thus little surprise that the first Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to be established in China were in the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian from where the bulk of the overseas Chinese trace their traditional roots. Underlining the close mesh between the cultural and economic factors in defining the form of integration in the region, Darryl Crawford says, “Overseas Chinese social relationships have always been transnational in nature, but today their economic activities have come to match the transnationalism of their social connections and now constitute a series of coordinated socioeconomic networks that span the globe.” Asia’s informal or soft regionalism marks a point of departure from the thick web of formalised institutional arrangements that characterise economic blocs like the European Union. These trade and investment patterns, as Michael Borrus notes, “lie ‘below’ the aggregate regional picture but ‘above’ the interactions between states.” This informal nature of economic integration adds enormous fresh insights to mainstream theories of economic integration and calls for a more nuanced definition of regionalism. Andrew Hurrell describes the new patterns that constitute soft regionalism as “regionalisation,” which he defines as “the growth of societal integration within a region and to the often undirected processes of social and economic interaction.”
What was also distinctive was the graduated manner in which China has re-engaged with the regional economy. Given the vast inter-regional diversity in endowments and assets, it was admitted that “the pace at which areas and peoples became prosperous will never be simultaneous.” The setting up of the SEZs perhaps best exemplifies the localised nature of its external engagement wherein only sub-regions or parts of China were to strive for external economic integration. The political logic of the decision to localise and restrict economic activity to spatially demarcated zones was informed by an acutely perceived need to confine any negative externalities should the experiment fail. Thus, it was no coincidence that the SEZs of Zhuhai, Shantou and Shenzhen were located in Guangdong province, while Xiamen was in the Fujian province, which together came to be known as the Southern China growth triangle. Sub-regional economic zones or growth triangles came to be so known since geographically proximate sub-regions within two or more countries became important sites of transnational economic exchange. It was only after the success of the Southern China triangle that similar sub-regional economic zones were extended to the Pearl River Delta, Shanghai, and other zones. In the same vein, many of the preferential policies such as tax concessions, land use rights, measures granting substantial financial autonomy to provinces were also introduced in these zones for the first time by way of experiment. For instance, land use rights introduced in the Shenzhen SEZ in 1987 paved the way for the implementation of land use reforms throughout the country.
Subregional Policy Networks
Illustrative examples from border regions across the world offer interesting instances where the subnational level has led when federal policy has lagged. An instance is the International Council for Local Environmental Initiative (ICLEI) a platform which connects local leaders such as mayors, councillors and officials with national and international organisations, the business sector and academics in a global network of stakeholders. Networks such as these constitute geographies of innovation given their capacity to jump scales and blur traditional jurisdictional boundaries. The ICLEI for instance jumps scales by bringing together local, national and global stakeholders across more than 1,200 cities, towns and counties spread over 70 countries. However, the agency available to local governments tends to vary across a bandwidth of powers that has to be negotiated with the Centre. New modes of governance are emerging which, by their very nature, are hybrid coalitions with a capacity to democratise transboundary governance within the subregion by forging multi-actor coalitions. Several such networks are already in existence such as the Asian Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Network (AECEN), Southeast Asian Biosphere Reserve Network (SeaBRNet), Asian Network of Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources (ANSAB), Freshwater Action Network South Asia (FANSA), Himalayan Conservation Approaches and Technologies (HIMCAT) and South Asian Network on Environmental Law (SANEL), among others. These are also creating opportunities for a diverse set of local actors to engage in cross-border multisectoral collaboration in diverse sectors such as energy, environment, health and climate change, among others. For instance, Sao Paulo in Brazil has set for itself targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that go well beyond those set by the national government. Similarly, arrangements such as the Western Climate Initiative and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the U.S.-Canada borderlands underline the need to look beyond formal, legal instruments to informal processes that has local resonance and consequently greater prospects for success. Institutions can also evolve over time to move increasingly towards a decentralised set of cross-border arrangements as shown by the Franco-German-Swiss Conference of the Upper Rhine set up in 1975. From an initiative typically consisting of national governments, it has moved towards a classic instance of multi-level governance with municipalities today being the main partners in negotiations on cross-border issues and national government representatives participating only as observers. Subregional policy networks thus need to be recognised as a field of governance in its own right, with a capacity to rescale foreign policy beyond solely national frames.The following section will briefly examine the emerging field of subregional policy networks and their capacity to forge multi-actor coalitions.
Lowering the research and policy gaze can throw up interesting instances of a growing bottom-up engagement by China’s border states with its subregional neighbourhood. These constitute subterranean subregionalism(s), a form of integration that mainstream research and policy has so far chosen to ignore. For instance, it is the subnational level in China that is empowered to negotiate and sign subregional cooperation agreements. It is the Chinese province of Yunnan that is a signatory of the Greater Mekong Subregion along with Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. These are resulting in innovative experiments in jumping scales that are bringing three levels of governance together in the subregion, namely the local, national, and regional. An example of this is the Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KSLCDI) set up in 2009 that brings India, China and Nepal to develop a joint framework for improved management of shared bio-cultural landscape issues. The Kailash initiative members include the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Ministry of Environment and Forests, People’s Republic of China, Government of India, and Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservationof the Government of Nepal. The lead participating research institutions include the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, and the Central Department of Botany, Tribhuvan University. Similarly, the Brahmaputra Salween Conservation Landscape Initiative by India, China and Myanmar seeks to share experiences on landscape approaches towards biodiversity conservation issues.
Transborder ethnic networks represent a form of social capital based on highly place-centric notions of identity that the subregional discourse needs to engage with. Transborder ethnic capital can find this a natural setting, provided policy leverages it as a critical resource in furthering the subregional governance agenda. A social history of trans-Himalayan trade, for instance, reveals how transborder exchanges were characterised by highly personalised trust-based relationships. These performed crucial economic functions by reducing transaction costs involved in long-distance trade. Trade ties were underwritten by trust-based ritual practices such as gamgya and netsang, unwritten contracts that, inter alia, included preferential terms of barter, besides access to grain and shelter. For instance, the Dolpos, who traded rock salt from Tibet to the lower parts of Nepal, maintained netsang (nesting place) relationships with their Tibetan counterparts.The success of such social networks can be measured from the fact that they often lasted for several generations being passed on from trader to the next of kin. The role that transborder social networks can play in facilitating subregional interactions, and possibly integration, remains largely neglected in the official subregional discourse. What these instances underline is that subregional policy networks can often work with, and need not necessarily be at cross-purposes with, the national government on a range of regional public goods.
India’s subregional discourse is also witnessing the rise of a new set of border stakeholders with stakes in subregional integration processes. Mainstream research and policy needs to take sharper notice of interesting instances of a growing subterranean engagement by India’s border states with its subregional neighbourhood. There are three reasons why it should begin to do so. First, there is growing evidence that border regions are beginning to effectively engage the Indian state to deepen subregional integration processes. Secondly, they are on occasion bypassing the state and directly forging cross-border issue-based linkages. Thirdly, these processes have the capacity to socialise national policy makers towards a decentred approach to problem solving and thereby build subregional governance capacity.
Towards Alternative Governance
Taken together, these instances of informal, bottom-up networks offer the scope of ‘horizontal learning,’ creative ways of power sharing, institutional learning and adaptation. It is such horizontal links among actors that can create enabling policy spaces for institutional learning and change to take place. Social networks also have a crucial performative dimension by linking the state to society and allowing for an easy and effective flow of information between the two governance actors. These multi-scalar interactions among actors can also create opportunity structures for adaptive governance by compressing decision-making response time to meet local requirements. Recognising reciprocity in actor interactions can go a long way in building trust and strengthen overall system legitimacy and success. Hybrid policy network approaches thus effectively question the notion of hierarchy and represent alternative forms of governance. The existence of diversified platforms and actors can also significantly reduce the scale of failure when compared to conventional centralised regimes.Multiple sites for debate and deliberation also hold the scope for enhancing democratic legitimacy. The degree of ‘nestedness’ of actors will hinge in turn on the capacity of co-governance arrangements to create entry points for diverse actors to voice their preferences. If actor preferences and strategies remain vaguely defined, the anticipated adaptive governance capacities will consequently be limited in its potential.
A subregional turn in IR can also introduce a new lexicon for theorising space. If disciplinary IR is to make itself relevant to borderlands, it will first clearly have to rethink its conceptual borders and engage with the notion of the international in imaginative ways. It will also have to problematise the peripheral status of the borders and rethink set categories of ordering space. Not doing so is likely to, in turn, consign IR to increasing marginalisation as a discipline. While subregionalism as a concept can offer a critically constructive template for the study of bottom-up approaches to regional development and foreign policy formulation, its success can by no means be uncritically assumed. Advancing cross-disciplinary engagement and learning will be contingent on moving away from a tendency to privilege any single discipline towards multi-perspectival inputs. Such disciplinary crossings could, as Barry Buzan and Richard Little argue, position IR to become “a kind of meta-discipline, systematically linking together the macro-sides of the social sciences and history.”
Greater attention needs to be paid to situate subregional policy networks within the larger literature of policy networks, as well as with other allied approaches such as multi-level governance, advocacy coalitions and network governance. The field of border research has covered much ground over the decades, with different disciplines arriving at the borders armed with their diverse theoretical toolkits. This has helped populate the landscape with new foci of intellectual enquiry on demographic changes, health, trade, environment and migration, nudging the research agenda beyond the narrow remit of studying the patterns of inter-governmental conflict and cooperation. It is also introducing a whole new lexicon of approaching these spaces as dynamic and socially constructed. Itinerant enquiries are now stepping onto the road less taken, taking as their point of departure the holy grail of the modern state, namely the linear boundary line that divides and separates. Boundary lines continue to be important, no doubt, but scholarship has begun to now increasingly look at what crosses these lines and why.
New discourses are engaging with the international in imaginative ways, bringing fresh insights into its domain, be it critical geopolitics, cultural geography, and political geography. The field of border research has covered much disciplinary ground over the decades, with different disciplines arriving at the borders armed with their diverse theoretical toolkits. A new border imaginary will hinge as much on the capacity to identify implicit biases in knowledge production as it would on its ability to problematise notions of space, epistemology and agency. These could recast research peripheries by placing hitherto missing issues onto the agenda and enable the borderlands to reimagine their own future differently. Privileging only formal intergovernmental processes can also result in a highly distorted and partial understanding of the quotidian dynamism of the borderlands. The underlying power shifts and assumptions that such a cross-border remapping entails also remain subsumed in mainstream visions. These remappings are no impartial imaginaries and it will be pertinent to invoke William Callahan’s warning that these could well result in “a new set of borders—which would have a different logic of exclusion and inclusion, creating new centres and peripheries—rather than a borderless region.” IR as a discipline is likely to increasingly struggle with the contradictions of maintaining its analytical focus on relations between territorially bound sovereign states as it faces up to the overwhelming reality of social, economic and cultural flows that bear declining relevance to territory. Far from offering alternative imaginaries, mainstream IR has tended to faithfully mirror the ‘cartographic anxiety’ of the state. IR scholarship has often taken the cue from statist frames, disinterested in the everyday struggles and contestations of the borderlanders, preferring instead esoteric systemic battles. A politico-military reading of border landscapes is conspicuous by what it leaves out of its research remit; that there is also an anthropology, a history, and a sociology of borders to negotiate. By presupposing the irrelevance of sub-systemic actors to state behaviour, mainstream IR theory tends to flatten out differences and effectively block voices and representations from the margins.
Dissident writings that seriously interrogate spatial and territorial assumptions now overlap with inquiries in political geography, border studies, and ethnic theory on the state, identity and difference. Many of these cross-disciplinary insights can help to problematise disciplinary IR’s “fixed representation of territorial or structural space” and underline the spatial and socially constructed nature of borders. The field of border research has also covered much ground over the decades, with itinerant inquiries stepping away from the reductionist logic of conceiving borders as territorial dividers and bringing with it a whole new lexicon of approaching these spaces as dynamic and socially constructed.
Towards ‘Contingent Relationships’
Fungible borders and the processes of informal regionalism driving these have innovatively reconfigured conventional notions of borders as fixed territorial markers,reaffirming the overlap of domestic and international systems. In the process these have reconfigured China’s international relations, considerably transforming relations with its neighbours, permitting a considerable measure of flexibility for divergent political and economic systems to cooperate. Central to this reconfiguring has been the role of the state in setting the direction, the pace as well as the nature of China’s external economic relations. The processes of informal or soft regionalism driving China’s external engagement are thus resulting in newer and more nuanced understandings of state, security and the conduct of IR in China. China today is dramatically different from the country, which for decades put its faith in a self-chosen path of autarky and self-reliance. With phenomenal increases in foreign trade, different macro-regions of China are in the process of being bound to different parts of the extended regional and global economy. This development holds considerable import since it underlines the increasing role domestic imperatives are beginning to play in China’s foreign policy. As a corollary, the increasing levels of interdependence with the region also mean that external linkages have become more important for these macro regions of China than ties with the domestic economy. Greater China, as William Callahan points out, is not “normal in IR” since it does not constitute a geopolitical entity but is best understood as a set of “contingent relationships” of highly mobile populations engaged in ties of trade, investment and tourism.
This paper has argued that China’s subregional shift represents a potential foreign policy innovation since it shifts the scale of reference beyond the hitherto conventional national and regional to the micro-regional level. Subregional policy networks are playing the role of bridge-builders in transborder governance, and their innate capacity to jump scales and blur traditional jurisdictional boundaries needs to be acknowledged. Mainstream research and policy also needs to systematise the diversity of this growing regional engagement by border regions in terms of its nature (formal or informal); activities (social, economic, cultural, and political); duration (sustained or episodic) and actors (public or private). If it is willing to do so, the “subregional turn” in India’s foreign policy can bring a long-overdue attention to the borderlands, both as a missing level of analysis as well as a governance actor in its own right besides nudging Chinese IR towards innovative intellectual pathways.
Nimmi Kurian is a Professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and an Academic Advisor, India China Institute, The New School, New York. Her research interests include Asian borderlands, federalism and foreign policy, comparative regionalism and subregionalism, transboundary water politics, and multilevel and network governance. She is one of the authors of the India Country Report as part of the Joint Study Group on the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor constituted by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. Her recent publications include: India and China: Rethinking Borders and Security (co-author) University of Michigan Press, 2016; The India China Borderlands: Conversations Beyond the Centre, Sage, 2014; “Re-engaging the ‘International’: A Social History of the Trans-Himalayan Borderlands,” Journal of Borderlands Studies (Joensuu, Finland, 2019 forthcoming); “Why the ‘Good’ Refugee is a Bad Idea,” Open Democracy, April 1, 2018; “How Suu Kyi can Change the Rohingya Narrative,” Diplomatist, November 2017; “Addressing the Drought of Ideas on the Brahmaputra,” China-India Brief, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, October 2017; and “Doklam: The Game of Shadows,” Asia Society, New York, August 2017; and other articles.
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 The area covered includes the southwestern part of Tibet, and parts of northern India and northwestern Nepal. Its members include ministries from the respective countries, scientific research institutions as well as community-based organisations in the member countries.
 Three protected areas to be the focus are the Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve in China, Namdapha National Park in India, and the Hkakaborazi National Park in Myanmar (Kurian 2018).
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 A classic instance of hybrid policy networks at the domestic grassroots level is the Communitisation Initiative in the Indian state of Nagaland, an ongoing experiment in co-governance. Institutions such as the Church and civil society groups like the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR), the Joint Forum of Gaon Buras, Naga Hohos, the Naga Peace Centre and the United Naga Council have played valuable roles in enabling consensus-building through wide consultations across diverse stakeholders. Their role in raising awareness, funds and mobilising broad-based support for communitised programmes needs to be recognised (Kurian 2012).
 Kurian, “Subterranean Subregionalism: Interrogating the Role of Borders in Indian IR.”
 The effects of this lobbying can be seen in India’s decision to open 70 border haats along its border with Bangladesh, with 35 along the border with West Bengal; 22 at the Meghalaya border; five in Tripura and four in Assam (Chakraborty 2014; Kurian 2016)
 What is likely to be bookmarked as one of the first instances of subregional problem solving is the Palatana thermal power project. Given the challenges in transporting heavy equipment to Tripura due to the difficult terrain, Bangladesh allowed transhipment of heavy turbines and machinery through its territory. Bangladesh’s decision to allow transhipment became a critical factor in the successful completion of the project (Kurian 2016).
 The key organising principle here is that of subsidiarity, the idea that each issue or task is performed most effectively at the local or immediate level. There are successful international instances of local substate actors exercising effective functional autonomy with the role of central authority being a subsidiary one (Kurian 2017).
 Vertical governance models on the other hand tend to be hierarchical with a ‘downward flow of authority among national states and their bureaucracies’ (Rosenau 2002: 80).
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