Labor Activism and Democracy in China

Han Dongfeng: collective bargaining a “Win-win-win solution”

Worker in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Worker in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China. Photo credit: Genevieve Neilson

Factory-level collective bargaining can serve as a pathway toward democracy in China, according to prominent Chinese labor rights activist Han Dongfeng. On Monday April 1, George Mason University hosted Mr. Han Dongfeng for a discussion about labor movements starting from the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 to the contemporary situation in China. Since economic reforms by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s liberalized trade and focused on obtaining foreign investment, workers have increasingly relied on industrial action to advocate for higher pay and better working conditions, disrupting production. Because strike organizers have generally been imprisoned or blacklisted and the labor system lacks organization due to a government monopoly on unions, workers have hesitated to take what Han calls “personal responsibility” to lead movements locally or regionally. In free market capitalism as well as China’s state capitalism, the relationship between workers, employers and the state has much room for improvement; instituting widespread collective bargaining is a “win-win-win” solution for China according to Han. The process of democracy has begun in China, and the labor movement provides a model lesson for how democracy can be institutionalized in workers’ lives.

Worker identity as essential to collective action

A leader of industrial labor movements, Han spoke with emotion and conviction about historical and current labor tensions and the slow progress toward democracy in China. As a railway worker, Han founded the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation (China’s first independent, non-state trade union) during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Because of his role in the protests, Han was arrested and held for nearly two years without trial. In 1993 after leaving China for medical attention, he was not allowed to return. Han moved to Hong Kong, and in 1994 founded the China Labor Bulletin, a nongovernmental organization that protects and promotes the rights of workers in China.

Chinese workers are proud to keep their identity as working class. Their ability to successfully act collectively, however, has been hampered by the stripping of protective measures in the 1980s and strong state control over economic and political spheres. The removal of protections has led to a chaotic system of sporadic industrial action. Workers in China do not legally have the right to strike – that right was removed from the Constitution in 1982. What Han calls “wild cat” strikes continue to occur when workers demand higher wages or better working conditions from their employers, but have no option other than stopping work.

Workers in a factory outside of Guangzhou. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Workers in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China.  Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

 While workers become more willing to strike as a group, they still often lack representation through independent unions. Workers’ right to collective bargaining should be legislated to enable unions to adequately represent workers in negotiations with employers. According to the International Labour Organization, “Collective bargaining allows both sides to negotiate a fair employment relationship and prevents costly labour disputes…Countries with highly coordinated collective bargaining tend to have less inequality in wages, lower and less persistent unemployment, and fewer and shorter strikes than countries where collective bargaining is less established.” Organizations such as the China Labour Bulletin and nonprofit organizations take up cases and help improve conditions and individual factories, but competition for workers in central versus coastal areas (city versus rural), improved work-life balance and consistent and rising wages could benefit from adequate public policy measures by the central government. To effect change, workers must continue their fight to force the CPC to make these reforms.

Furthermore, workers can still face retaliation from their employers if they participate in or discuss strikes in the media. The China Labour Bulletin provides an example: “five workers who had taken part in a strike at Guangdong International Paper on 19 February said they were fired simply because they had given interviews to the media. They were neither the organizers of the strike nor even active participants in it.” It is then up to the workers to keep their elected representatives accountable. Earlier this year workers at the Ohms Electronics factory in Shenzhen petitioned for a recall and reelection of their union chairman after he failed to protect their interests with management in two disputes over contracts. As workers and representatives gain more confidence in negotiations with employers they continue to face difficulties that require legislative protections.

Finding a path forward for reforms

Compared to 5 or 6 years ago, the government leadership in China has moved in a new direction regarding labor activism. Protestors and strike organizers now rarely go to prison for industrial action. According to Han, labor is one of the “least sensitive issues” for the Communist Party of China, even less so than environmental issues; by backing away from restrictions on labor rights and media freedoms, the CPC is strengthening civil society and allowing for more voices to be heard. These developments are encouraging for improved labor rights and standards.

In contrast to Han, the new generation of workers does not remember the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and so are living without fear, particularly without the “fear of government.” Instead of fighting for freedom of assembly and political rights of the previous generation, new workers – who some say “lost their spirit” – seek improved economic status and the ability to purchase the goods that they produce.

Han says with collective bargaining, he “can see some light at the end of the tunnel.” In Guangdong province, which includes major manufacturing and exporting cities Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the local government is starting to support collective bargaining initiatives. Official unions in China are another form of control, so enabling independent unions and programs to flourish in Guangdong will, Han believes, make the case for widespread collective bargaining within the next 2 to 3 years.

Democracy as a process

As the market economy develops in China, workers will continue to demand more economic, political and social opportunities. Han believes that there should be more emphasis on labor rights at the start of democratic movements. By enabling workers to elect their own union representatives to negotiate on their behalf, they will be given a taste of the election process, creating a positive political habit.

Others, in contrast, believe that organized workers will be the biggest force against the market economy by demanding more economic protections; but China can follow its own democratic path without instituting a classical market economy that mirrors the US. Local politics in China remains a product of local representatives’ personal interests; therefore workers must pursue their own interests to gain progress.

When people ask Han “when will China be a democracy?” He answers, “What is the reference for a democracy?” In the United States and Europe, democracy is “still processing” as states battle with election fraud and strained political rights. China is at the early stages of developing a democracy; rather than answer the question of when China will reach democracy, Han prefers to answer when China will begin the democratic process, which he believes is starting now. “We cannot afford to advance our dream in one step. It is a long process and may not be achieved to the level that we want in our lifetime.” In comparison the Tiananmen Square protests and other large movements in other countries, the labor movement requires grassroots efforts that obtain small victories to build momentum. Historically these individual efforts have had more success and are proving more effective than a fast-sweeping movement.

International implications of Chinese labor movement

In their efforts, the China Labor Bulletin focuses primarily on internationally-owned factories to help create a model for future reforms. Some internationally-owned factories may already have higher standards than Chinese-owned factories, but they are also more profitable and garner more media coverage; the increasing media spotlight on particular factories such as Foxconn that serve international companies, combined with support for industrial action can help to improve domestic standards for working conditions.  

Worker in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Worker in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

While labor movements in the United States and Europe are on the decline thanks to government reforms with pressure from business, the labor movement in China is on the rise and has significant international implications. As the world’s factory, “China made the race to the bottom possible,” but “that chain is about to break” according to Han. When asked about the future prospects for labor movements in the United States given right-to-work laws, Han agreed that workers in the US and Europe were in trouble. However, Han displayed optimism that the US will have a chance to restore its domestic production process; once an ever-increasing number of China’s 500 million workers raise their own working conditions and pay through labor activism, the price of goods will rise and, internationally, production will become more competitive. Chinese consumers will be hungry for American-produced goods and a more equal balance will be restored. Financial analysts agree that this “tipping point” will bring jobs back to American shores or other destinations closer to consumers.

 “Everything is ready”

In the clash between workers, employers and the economy, Han believes that “everything is ready.” The current economic and political system cannot sustain itself; as international consumer demand has dropped, China needs internal growth from wider working and middle classes to boost consumer spending. Han is positive about the prospects for economic and political reform in China, seeing the new party leadership as “sincere in dealing with these issues.” Han and China Labor Bulletin are placed to help collective bargaining turn many of the 500 million Chinese working class producers into consumers. By continuing to highlight workers rights in China through high profile cases using international companies (like recent engagements with Wal-Mart and Apple) improved working conditions and pay increases can be fought for with collective bargaining and perhaps in the future freedom of association and other democratic practices.

Collective bargaining is the sharp edge in a push toward increasing democratic practices in China. If Chinese labor activists can stake out a legal space for collective bargaining then this will establish democratic practices in Chinese workplaces and provide a safe space for workers to assert their allegiances and interests. Further, workers, employers and the Chinese government stand to gain from the stability that comes from having satisfied workers who have reasonable means for negotiations. The pursuit of improved material conditions for laborers and their families is a necessary motivation toward democracy. Employers will benefit from more stable labor relations, and “Economically [collective bargaining] is the gold mine for the government;” higher wages and benefits come from employers, but the government will get the credit for improving labor standards. While increased labor costs will likely raise the price of goods in the West, the global community and workers around the world could benefit from a more democratic and egalitarian China.


Can Wind Energy Clear the Air in China?

Xioa Yan Kou Farm, China. Photo: Danish Wind Industry Association

Beijing’s record-breaking air pollution is making global headlines, and the hazardous air quality is “putting a lot of pressure on the government to protect the environment.” China already invests more in renewable energy – wind, solar, and hydro power – than any other state, and part of Beijing’s plan to cut national carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent before 2020 relies on wind energy.  But how did the local wind power industry develop and what are the future constraints? On January 16 I attended Georgetown University’s book launch for Dr. Joanna Lewis’ work Green Innovation in China: China’s Wind Power Industry and the Global Transition to a Low Carbon Economy.  Lewis presented her empirical study of the growth of the wind energy industry in China by focusing on methods of international technology transfer, international cooperation and domestic government policies.

Lewis examined China as a way of understanding the global wind energy industry and the political economy of the clean energy sector. China is the largest emitter of CO2, with more than a quarter of global emissions due in part to the country’s heavy reliance on coal, and will continue to produce a greater share of global CO2 emissions despite its large scale forays into the clean energy sector. Along with new hydropower plants and wind farms, China continues to build coal plants; two-thirds of China’s current energy consumption utilizes coal. Wind is only 2% of energy generated in China but still ranked third among sources.

The wind power industry in China transformed over the past ten years in line with China’s development as foreign firms saw an opportunity for a new market. Lewis looked back to 1993, when there were few foreign firms and even fewer Chinese firms with domestic market share. Foreign firms such as Vestas and Nordex imported their European-produced wind turbines into China. Over time, foreign firms and domestic policy had a marked effect on the ability of Chinese firms to gain domestic market share. In 2003 Vestas merged with NEG Micon to become the largest wind manufacturer in the world; however many of the workers laid off due to the merger were hired by Chinese manufacturers, helping them to gain skilled workers formerly trained in the best factories in Europe.

Additionally, Chinese government policies and laws such as the Power Concession Program (2003), Requirements of Local Content (2005) and Renewable Energy Law (2005) enabled local factories and encouraged the development of new wind farms. In 2005, the government mandated that 70 percent of turbine parts (for eligibility in the wind concession program) be locally sourced. With much pressure from the US, in 2009 China dropped its heavy local sourcing requirements for the wind energy sector, but the law had already served its purpose – it had a significantly positive impact on three domestic producers in particular, who are now among the world’s top 10 wind turbine producers.

While top wind energy industry producers have since built factories in China for the Chinese market, not all have transferred technology to share innovation. From the start, American giant General Electric utilized its large Chinese manufacturing supply chain rather than importing wind turbines from the US. There are now more than 80 Chinese firms in the wind energy sector focused on local consumption. They benefit from licensing agreements, mergers and acquisitions and joint development as means of technology transfer. Chinese firm Goldwind is an example of a local star in the Chinese market that follows what Lewis saw as a pattern of developing country firms: begin with licensing agreements, then move on to joint development; and to gain maximum market share, act with mergers and acquisitions. In 2010 Goldwind maintained 90% of domestic market share.

China was the largest investor in clean energy in 2010 and 2012, with wind industry investments outranking others. Wind energy is no longer on the fringe of research and development funding in the renewable energy sector and China has embraced the technology as a way to curb emissions, drive innovation and contribute to its economy. China is far ahead in deploying wind capacity; there are now many active firms in the Chinese market, and China is within the top 5 countries securing patents for clean energy. Whereas solar power manufacturing is targeted for export, the wind power industry is intended for domestic consumption because the Chinese market is so large that there is sufficient demand.

As countries develop, advancement in the clean energy industry is possible in a relatively short amount of time (India and Korea provide additional examples as demonstrated by Lewis). Technology transfer is a positive way to spur innovation and bridge knowledge gaps. Licensing can be inexpensive, but the structure and information is limited with market restrictions. There is still an important role for government to encourage technology transfer, particularly where there have been problems with operations and maintenance of wind turbines in China. After all, the story of the wind energy industry still goes on after the equipment is built; machines need to be used and maintained effectively to enable power production with lower carbon emissions. Northern China and specifically Inner Mongolia has been the primary area of success for wind farm activity and growth; however, connectivity and curtailment issues remain.

The US and China should try to balance policies that foster innovation while enabling sharing of technology that is critical for reducing carbon emissions, protecting the environment and improving livelihoods. China began as a ‘late’ producer in the wind energy industry but through government policies, strong domestic demand and international collaboration has secured many achievements. However coal still dominates the energy sector in China and there is still much room for international collaboration. There are many US-China bilateral operations, with the US-China Clean Energy Resource Center (founded in 2009) providing a path for genuine technology collaboration. Some policies conflict with international trade law (see Canada, as an example for local content) affecting bilateral cooperation. This problem could, according to Lewis, “blow up if not addressed by governments”. Much larger barriers exist for next generation disruptive technologies such as carbon capture and potential solutions such as carbon trading. One hopes that we will not have to wait for the fabled emergence of ‘clean coal’ technology for governments to have policies that adequately balance innovation and cooperation to share in the benefits of clean, renewable energy.

Huntsman on Pragmatic US Foreign Policy in a Competitive Age

On Monday September 17, the Asia Society and George Washington University’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies hosted the event “In Conversation with Jon Huntsman.”  Moderated by David Shambaugh, the discussion covered questions for former Governor Jon Huntsman about the US political process, public service, US foreign policy, and current affairs in Asia.  While many of the topics Huntsman discussed involved reminding the audience that the geopolitical and economic position of the US is sliding, he remained optimistic that America’s values are still the “envy of the world” and urged younger generations to participate in the domestic and international policy process.   While being realistic about the challenges that the US faces, Huntsman offered areas to improve the country’s global image.  Both at home and abroad, the US must seek collaboration with partners to correct issues such as mistrust that perpetuate a fearful narrative of competition.

 ‘Cleaning up’ the economy and politics

 At least three times, Huntsman mentioned crony capitalism, and emphasized that the US has a lot of “cleaning up to do.”  He offered solutions to help mitigate the “trust deficit” in the US, such as Congressional term limits, eliminating super pacs, and expanding participation in democracy by improving voter turnout.  For an effective foreign policy, according to Huntsman, Americans “need to be united on the home front.”  With a weak economy, the US has no leverage in international trade negotiations which seek fewer restrictions on trade barriers. 

 With the world lacking leadership, the Obama Administration has attempted to project its strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific.  However there will always be a concern that the US may be unable or unwilling to sustain its role in the region given the lack of a concerted world view.  In line with current government officials, Huntsman believes that the future of the US does not lie in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Asia.  Huntsman proposed that the youth of today should have linkages with Asia in the same way that earlier generations had with Europe, participating in a shared culture and exchanges.  Seemingly optimistic, Huntsman said it boils down to the “people to people” relationships and connections to reinforce and strengthen US foreign policy.

 Working with rather than against China

 In the preamble to a question, the moderator invited discussion about how in recent times, the US has had to balance cooperation with competition – what Shambaugh calls “coopatition.”  Certainly, balancing cooperative efforts, not appearing to ‘hold China back’, and maintaining global and regional primacy is not an easy task.  Huntsman interprets  US-China dynamics pragmatically; when working with China on causes of mutual interest (such as China’s WTO accession), the US is able to manage the competitive dynamics of the relationship.  However, the US is failing to put at the forefront the issues on which the two powers can collaborate effectively. 

 The bilateral relationship between the US and China is understandably more similar to a global relationship; recognizing and changing the narrative will be a large undertaking given the lack of domestic American enthusiasm for China.  As the two leading global powers, when the governments of China and the US meet they must discuss a range of international issues such as the financial crisis in Europe, freedom of navigation, the Arab spring, and so forth.  There is a need to “humanize” US-China relations, and to move away from the “easy” fear factor narrative and “toward the opportunity factor.” 

 Overall, Jon Huntsman provided an honest, albeit moderated, conversation about the state of US foreign policy regarding China specifically and Asia more broadly.  Drawing on his experiences in different US administrations and most recently as Ambassador to China between 2009-2010, Huntsman offered unique insights, personal anecdotes and policy points like a candidate just off the campaign trail (or potentially still on that trail).  Perhaps he is still reflecting on his failed presidential campaign, including the debates in which  antagonistic opinions were rewarded while his more reasoned approaches to policy left the crowd cold.  If, as Huntsman claims, there are “impressive personalities coming forward in China” that hold pragmatic viewpoints, the American public should watch the leadership transition and hope that the US can engage its largest potential threat – or opportunity.

Prospects for Regional Security in Asia

The convergence of economic interests, shared transnational threats perpetuated by globalization and balancing powers are drivers of regional security cooperation in Asia.  As recent events in the South China Sea have illustrated, how to deal with these issues and the conceptualization of threats to state security has differed across Asia.  Therefore, rather than caving to external pressures and trying to be like the European Union or NATO, a regional security framework for Asia would need to be organic and based on the distinct experiences, interests and values of Asian states.  In order to be successful, regional security mechanisms in Asia must: take a pragmatic, bottom-up approach to regionalism; involve China and the US as strategic players; and, establish a clear division of labor among existing political and security entities to promote maximum efficiency.

Increasingly states in Asia are incorporating non-traditional security issues such as energy security, human security, threats caused by climate change and other transnational issues into their traditional state military-centered security institutions.  Attaining security, according to Alan Collins (2003) involves effectively managing threats and having sufficient access to resources to maintain relative peace and stability.  For example, part of China’s energy security strategy is to control the supply chain by gaining equity positions in the oil sector using national oil corporations.

In the wide regional landscape of Asia, states have the goal of political interdependence and territorial integrity, but in part their lack of agreement regarding what constitutes a threat has led to the stalling of deeper regional security cooperation.  Security cooperation in Asia combines power-political and institutional approaches to encompass joint actions to advance a common security goal.  Security architecture, meanwhile describes a broader security environment in which distinct mechanisms and processes interact with the aim of ensuring regional stability.

There is no indication that states in Asia will initiate a new comprehensive regional security architecture.  Europeans frequently criticize the multitude of regional institutions and loosely structured arrangements in Asia; outsiders have argued that Asia must follow a European model to succeed in promoting functional cooperation and real integration.  For Asia, a more likely path is to take a pragmatic, step-by-step, bottom-up approach to regionalism instead of an idealist, comprehensive, top-down pan-Asian ‘vision’ approach similar to Europe.  Given the delicate nature of security and historical animosities built over time, a pragmatic approach such as the institution of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are a way forward for regional security.  Originally started to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism in Central Asia, the SCO has added observers and dialogue partners in addition to additional issues of drug trafficking and economic issues.  The SCO brings together countries which did not previously consult together.

Any approach to regional security in Asia must take into consideration the United States and China as leading regional powers.  The US alliance system is the most important feature of security in Asia and is the central stabilizing factor.  Both the US and China prefer a bilateral structure over multilateral institutions as the most efficient way to organize state security policy, and for the US because of geographic concerns.  The ‘hub and spoke’ pattern enables the central power to have more influence over its junior partners.  Further deepening bilateral security relations is part of the US Asia-Pacific Strategic Engagement Initiative.  Moreover the rise of China and India has led states to reconsider regional security dimensions; as China continues to flex its strategic muscles in the South China Sea and continues with a charm offensive in the Pacific, Asian states will need to gauge future bilateral and multilateral relations.  The incorporation of the US into the East Asia Summit and China into ASEAN + 3 are examples of regional security cooperation extension.

With overlapping membership and areas of capability, the “current alphabet soup of groupings” (Bisley, 2009) has not met the demand for institutionalized security cooperation.  As Jim Rolfe (2008) highlights, relations within and between these organizations are complicated.  Therefore there is a significant need to set out a clear division of labor among political and institutional entities.  The desire for APEC to include a security dimension demonstrates the changing attitudes to security cooperation.  A regional security architecture is needed to facilitate regional order, and the broad range of multilateral mechanisms – including platforms such as the Shangri-La Dialogue, ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting, the EAS, ARF and others – need to be catalogued and work together in a more constructive way.  With an active secretariat, historical longevity and due to the fact that it is not led by China, Japan or the US, ASEAN is the premiere regional grouping; it would however need to change its membership rules and the ASEAN way in order to take a central role in security maintenance in Asia.

Because of the changing regional landscape in Asia, the prospects for security cooperation rely primarily on the attitudes of regional powers.  China, India, the US and Japan approach state and regional security based upon their own interests.  These powers have already demonstrated their desire to take part in multilateral institutions alongside deepening of bilateral relationships and alliances.  There is genuine interest in Asia in the ability of cooperative elements of existing security architecture to reduce strategic uncertainties, improve policy coordination and collaborate on nontraditional security problems.  While the drivers for regional cooperation are evident, nationalism (including increased military modernization), historical animosity, and balance of power thinking remain as impediments to a concerted architecture.  Therefore, when considering regional security architecture in Asia, policymakers must take into account the achievement of relative international strategic stability in the post-Cold War period for such a diverse region.  A forced architecture from non-Asian states (such as former Australian PM Kevin Rudd’s Australian-led Asia-Pacific community) has already been rejected, and is a clear sign that like ASEAN, movements must be made from within Asia.

Comparing the Economic, Political and Strategic Rise of China and India

As modern states, China and India should not be examined in isolation, but rather placed within the context of an international system dominated by unequal and competing states.  The rise of two developing nations – which together comprise one-third of the global population – in economic, political and strategic realms of international relations provides ample content for scholars and strategists.  Factors enabling and perpetuating the rise of China and India are dissimilar; the differences in the two states’ strengths and weaknesses emphasize the power disparity between them.  First, China has a larger economy and is experiencing faster economic growth than India; this economic prowess, when combine with China’s status as a major power within the United Nations and other international institutions enables Beijing to minimize India’s international political capabilities despite its period of ‘shining’.  Finally, Beijing’s comprehensive grand strategy and increasing military planning and spending compared to India’s muddled strategy and slower spending have given China a strategic advantage.

The end of the twentieth century was tumultuous for China and India.  Since economic reforms in 1978 and 1991, respectively, China and India focused on state-building to perpetuate regime legitimacy.  The arrival of the United States as the global hegemon at the end of the Cold War caught the attention of both China and India; India aspired to limit its vulnerabilities by improving relations with the United States while encouraging the construction of a multipolar order, and finding its own place in the international system.  Asia was transitioning to a regionally unipolar order, however, dominated by China. (Mohan, 2007)  This essay examines the economic, political and strategic differences between the rise of China and the rise of India. 

The contrasting economic growth models of both China and India underlie their emergence as rising powers.  Whereas China achieved growth through blue-collar, manufacturing-driven growth, India’s development has included white-collar, service labor. Interestingly, Brahma Chellaney notes, “in India the private sector continues to fuel economic growth while China’s economic growth is largely state-driven.  India performs poorly wherever the state is involved, while the strength of the Chinese state as the primary catalyst of accumulating power carries significant strategic ramifications.” (Chellaney, 2008, p. 34) 

Since the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China’s ultimate national goal has been to create a ‘relatively well off society’. (Lieberthal, 2007, p. 31)  Over the past three decades, China has established average real growth in excess of 9% annually, and in peak years had growth rates around 13% and 14%.  China now has the world’s second largest economy, and is projected to overtake the United States in size of GDP during the first half of this century. (Tellis, 2011, p. 3) China’s economy relies largely on foreign investment and export markets; because of the global recession, China has relied increasingly on the domestic market. Rapid growth must continue to avoid massive domestic instability. The “leadership’s mentality, Beijing’s resulting grand strategy and the actual spillover effects of the dynamics of China’s domestic system…are shaping the international consequences of China’s rise.” (Lieberthal, 2007)

India meanwhile grew its economy on the back of internal sources, leading to a potentially more stable level of trade. (Lieberthal, 2007, p. 4)  India’s economic rise has coupled with its security interests in its relations with the United States and how others think of the state.  The Indian economy has grown at a rate of about 7.5% over the past decade; however economic reforms to continue this growth have been hampered by political contestation over reforms and lack of domestic political consensus.  (Tellis, 2011, p. 4)  By being inward-oriented India’s economy has weathered the global financial crisis, and enabled it to work on creating an international agenda.  However, when viewed in the bilateral context, India “is not a rising power in material terms compared to China.”  In 2010, China’s GDP ($5.88 trillion) was more than three times as large as India’s ($1.73 trillion). (Fravel, 2011, p. 78)  The economic gap between China and India continues to widen, causing China to see India as a non-competitor in this realm.

In the contemporary political sphere, China and India face competing priorities within their region and internationally.  Because of China’s ability and desire to enter new markets in search of energy security, trade relations and strategic partnerships, China’s rise poses a potential threat to the stability of India, whereas India’s rise has left Beijing relatively unaffected.  In fact, China’s major power status has helped it to minimize the role and capabilities of India.  Chinese leaders believe it is in the national interest to become a major power, and that China should be treated as such when participating in international institutions. Although for China being a major power does not undermine its status as a developing nation when it comes to shrinking its carbon footprint.  China’s status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council is a clear advantage over India; not only can Beijing impede efforts by India to gain a permanent seat, but it can offer political protection to rogue regimes such as Iran and now historically Myanmar through its veto power.  Thus China’s rising political clout has enabled it to hold India back within the United Nations while also getting an advantage in gaining energy resources: “Beijing’s ability to provide political cover is a fundamental element of China’s thriving commercial ties with a host of problem states.” (Chellaney, 2008, p. 26) Diplomatically, China has closer relations with its East Asian neighbors than India has with its South Asian neighbors.  In border disputes and relations with Pakistan, China also has the upper hand.  Moreover, China has been constructing trade and transportation links with India’s neighbors in order to benefit China’s greater interests, bringing India under strategic pressure.

In part because India is a democracy and has a history of nonalignment, contemporary United States foreign policy is more trusting of India than of China; “that China remains governed by an authoritarian regime, has a long history of subordination in East Asia, and nurtures a troublesome streak of nationalism domestically only accentuates” American anxieties about “what China’s rise implies for regional security.” (Tellis, 2011, p. 16, 32)  Therefore the potential for a significant India-United States partnership has increased with the rise of China.  The George W. Bush Administration’s decision in 2005 to sign a major atomic energy pact with India underscores the importance that Washington attaches to the partnership in countering China’s influence in the region. (Er and Wei, 2009, p. 2)  Increasingly US-China and India-China relations are plagued by mistrust.  It is India’s ‘culture of strategic restraint’ and democratic values that perpetuate the United States-India partnership. (Sinha and Dorschner, 2010)

In terms of strategic capabilities, planning and military spending, China yet again has a profound advantage over India.  While both the rise of China and India led to goals for military modernization, the difference in scale and type of funding has been notable.  In April 2012, India launched its first inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), joining an elite group of states; China, meanwhile, developed its first ICBM in the 1970s.  Washington was notably silent when India launched the ICBM, whereas Beijing reacted with caution. (Times of India, 2012)   Based on percentage of GDP, military spending in China has risen the fastest in the world: for two continuous decades, Beijing had persistent double-digit increases in military spending.  During the same period, defense spending in India declined as a percentage of the country’s GDP.  In addition to the scale disparity between the two states, “China apportions 28% of the country’s military budget for defense-related research and development, India apportions just 6% for research and development.” (Chellaney, 2008, p. 35)  During its rise, China has become one of the largest arms exporters globally, while India relies on arms imports for primary defense needs.  China’s top arms clients (Pakistan, Burma and Bangladesh) neighbor India and have been a cause of concern for New Delhi. (Chellaney, 2008, p. 35)

Pursuing an “omnidirectional diplomacy combined with military modernization,” China and India have in different ways come to terms with the implications of their rising power for their national and international interests.  (Fravel, 2011, p. 70) To the dismay of scholars and strategists, India has not proclaimed a consistent strategic vision of its goals within the international arena.  Aseema Sinha and Jon P. Dorschner (2010, p. 77) argue that “India’s strategic vision and behavior at the international level are marked both by change and remarkable continuity.”  In contrast, China seeks “a peaceful and stable external environment,” “peaceful development,” and “aims to maximize its autonomy in the international system to limit the constraints of unipolarity.” (Fravel, 2011, p. 69)  The difference in preparedness between China and India is evident in their plans for naval power projection in the Indo-Pacific region.

In the economic, political and strategic realms of international relations, China has been the more aggressive and dominant player during its rise when compared to India.  (Chellaney, 2008, p. 31)  Although the rise of China and India are often mentioned together, there are substantial differences between them.  India, overall, presents a potential force, “while China is active in the here and now.” (Sinha and Dorschner, 2010, p. 77) China’s rapid pace of perpetual development has placed it well ahead of India in terms of domestic infrastructure and development, military and economic strength, and hence political clout.  Each of the numerous factors and implications surrounding the rise of China and India are significant topics of discussion in their own right. 

Works Cited

“Agni-V launch: India demonstrates ICBM capability; China reacts cautiously, says India not rival.” (4/19/2012)  [] (6/24/2012)

Er, L.P. and Wei, L.T. (2009) The Rise of China and India: A New Asian Drama. Singapore: World Scientific Press.

 Fravel, M.T. (2011) “China Views India’s Rise: Deepening Cooperation, Managing Differences,” in Ashley J. Tellis, Travis Tanner, and Jessica Keough, eds., Strategic Asia 2011-12: Asia Responds to Its Rising Powers, China and India. Seattle: The National Bureau of Asian Research.

 Lieberthal, K. (2007) “How Domestic Forces Shape the PRC’s Grand Strategy & International Impact,” in Ashley J. Tellis and Michael Wills, eds. Strategic Asia 2007-08: Domestic Political Change and Grand Strategy. Seattle: The National Bureau of Asian Research.

 Mohan, C.R. (2007) “Poised for Power: The Domestic Roots of India’s Slow Rise,” in Ashley J. Tellis and Michael Wills, eds. Strategic Asia 2007-08: Domestic Political Change and Grand Strategy. Seattle: The National Bureau of Asian Research.

 Schweller, R. and Pu, X. (Summer 2011) “After Unipolarity: China’s Visions of International Order in an Era of U.S. Decline.” International Security, 36/1, pp. 41-72.

 Sinha, A. and Dorschner, J. (January 2010) “India: Rising Power or a Meer Revolution of Rising Expectations?” Polity, 42/1, pp. 74-99.

 Tellis, A. (2011) “The United States and Asia’s Rising Giants,” in Ashley J. Tellis, Travis Tanner, and Jessica Keough, eds. Strategic Asia 2011-12: Asia Responds to Its Rising Powers, China and India. Seattle: The National Bureau of Asian Research.


A Review of Water: Asia’s Next Battleground

In much of Asia, the growing middle class is driving up demand for freshwater supplies, water-intensive crops and resource-intensive goods that have been taken for granted  in the West. With only one-third of global water resources for three-fifths of the world’s population, efficient use and management of water is critical to social, political and economic stability in Asia. Climate change and increased demand are putting strain on the global water supply, and uncertainty of future reserves and access to existing stores are making water a disputed commodity.

In Water: Asia’s Next Battleground, Dr. Brahma Chellaney explores the geopolitical consequences of water management policies in Asia set against the landscape of a water-stressed continent. A fantastically detailed look into the domestic and international issues of several key states in Asia, the book demonstrates that the management of the increasingly scarce and necessary resource is invariably complex and can create tensions among neighbors. As potential solutions to an impending crisis, Chellaney calls for the establishment of Asian norms for transboundary water resources, inclusive and coherent basin organizations, and a holistic approach to planning, conservation and water quality. China is at the heart of the problems and solutions of the impending water crisis in Asia, with its reluctance to be a leader for multilateral arrangements, its focus on dam-building and neglect of the environment.

Poised to become the scarcest essential resource in the world, water scarcity affects internal and external security of states. Compared to all other regions, Asia has the least amount of freshwater per capita and one of the lowest levels of water productivity and efficiency. Chellaney defines water shortage as “an absolute deficiency where the level of available water cannot meet basic societal and economic needs”, and water stress as having “less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per capita”. The goal of water security is for every person to have dependable access to sufficient, safe and affordable water, while keeping the ecological systems intact and thriving. Asia is, according to Chellaney, negligent in its use and management of natural resources, and water is no exception. Inadequate supply, increasing pollution and diminishing natural wetlands are critical issues faced by the rapidly-developing states at a time when demand continues to rise.

Improvements in irrigation technologies and better widespread use of drip irrigation may improve Asia’s water security. While the rest of the world uses rainwater as its primary source for agriculture, Asia has a much higher percentage of cultivated land using irrigation than any other continent. Chellaney calls Asia “the global irrigation hub” and notes that the Asian method of irrigation is making the land less productive than rainwater-fed land. Throughout the book, Chellaney reiterates the need for more investment in drip irrigation, particularly in India, and steadily criticizes China’s South-North Water Diversion Project as another troubled megaproject. Large-scale irrigated farming has helped to reduce rural poverty and enabled greater agricultural self-sufficiency in many Asian countries. As top water-intensive crops, rice and cotton continue to be critical to Asian livelihoods. Despite food security underpinning the rise of Asian economies, the increasing population and their desire for water-intensive products are fueling rivalries and tensions.

The Tibetan Plateau and Brahmaputra River are examples of significant areas where access to water is being controversially modified. With control of the Tibetan Plateau, China has attempted to tap resources from each international river originating in the area; Chellaney suspects that a central part of the Great South-North Water Diversion Project in China is the diversion of the Brahmaputra River. As the essential river for Bangladesh and a critical basin for India, any plans to modify the flow or affect the ecosystem of the Brahmaputra River will impact millions of people. The increasing number of Chinese-led megaprojects exploiting rivers flowing from the Tibetan Plateau are worrying their neighbors and making water a divisive issue. Chellaney lambasts the Chinese government, run by individuals with engineering backgrounds, for perpetuating Mao’s idea of controlling nature rather than bending to it (ignoring potential environmental damage and disruption to wildlife) and for resettling entire villages and towns to make way for megaprojects. China has more dams in operation than all other countries combined, and has over 100 dam projects in dozens of countries. However China continues to publicly claim that is has no plans to divert the Brahmaputra River, and Indian suspicion of this claim is growing. Despite its unique position supplying river waters to the most individual countries, China does not have a water-sharing agreement with its neighbors or co-riparians and is instead embroiled in disputes with riparian neighbors; rather than joining the Mekong River Commission or other multilateral solutions, China’s preference for bilateral arrangements somewhat undermine the Commission and future efforts.

Much of the conflict – current and potential – over water access seems to be on racial and ethnic lines. Tensions among different ethnic groups within Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka and India are made worse by water disputes. Chellaney’s case studies demonstrate limited ability of a purely supply-side strategy to meet the challenges brought on by water distribution. In each of these states, governance is poor and water disputes are associated with “deeper socioeconomic discontent, fueling a cycle of unending unrest and sporadic violence”. When citizens lose confidence in the ability of their government to be fair and impartial, new threats arise from an erosion of the rule of law. Chellaney offers a direction for relevant states in Asia to mitigate their water-sharing disputes and challenges, but the book would benefit from a more detailed prescription and less repetition of his outwardly anti-China rhetoric.

For both domestic and international disputes, Chellaney prescribes a holistic approach that is long-term, adequately integrates both demand management and supply-side approaches, focuses on quality as much as quantity of water, and utilizes input from diverse stakeholders and management at different levels. Cooperative relations are necessary to solving water disputes and protecting resources for the future; these relations can then broaden to include additional areas of cooperation. There must be trust among co-riparians, with competition for resources minimized to enable a foundation for a contemporary water-sharing agreement. While Asia could use another green revolution to institute more practices for efficient water use, another significant need is to build institutions to facilitate a water-sharing framework in transboundary basins. Strategic planning and resource management are key to supervising stocks of Asia’s water supply; however without unified norms and institutions accountability and structure will be lacking.

Don’t Go Overboard: China’s Naval Modernization & the US Response

With the impending launch of its first aircraft carrier, increasing out of area operations and territory disputes in the South China Sea, China’s naval modernization continues to be pertinent for Asia-Pacific security. On Monday March 12, I attended a book talk at Johns Hopkins University entitled “The PLA Navy: Expanding Capabilities, Evolving Roles”. The book can be downloaded here. The topics and perspectives given were strikingly similar to the February 2012 Congressional Research Service report on China Naval Modernization; however, the discussants were more optimistic about the future of US-China relations and the struggle for power in the Asia-Pacific. While the rise of China and its military capabilities may be inevitable, the decline of the US in the near term is not. This post will highlight several features of China’s naval modernization and its impact upon the American pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region.

The continued increase in naval spending by China (and India, for that matter) should be viewed as normal rather than a threat to regional stability. China’s naval modernization began in the 1990s and “encompasses a broad array of weapon acquisition programs, including programs for anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs), surface-to-air missiles, mines, manned aircraft, unmanned aircraft, submarines, aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, patrol craft, amphibious ships, mine countermeasures (MCM) ships, hospital ships, and supporting C4ISR10 systems.” The effort also includes “improvements in maintenance and logistics, naval doctrine, personnel quality, education and training, and exercises.” (CRS, 3) A rising naval power does not always mean more conflict. At the time of its ascent, the US did not use its increased power with rivals the UK and Soviet Russia. It’s only fair that when a state develops economically that it should also be able to add new technologies to its capacity. China will be the last of the permanent UN Security Council members to obtain an aircraft carrier. A lot of fuss has been made about China reaching that level of naval strength, but it is not surprising that the state would seek out such capabilities. Even so, it will take the Chinese military time to learn to manage the carrier and to use it as an effective part of its defense.

According to panelists at the book discussion, a twenty-year long debate within the PLAN has shown that ‘there is no real strategy yet’. However, China is working to create a comprehensive strategy instead of relying on operational guides, and is likely to continue to expand its range and type of operations. Several of the emerging trends in China as noted by Christopher Yung have been submarine development, out of area operations (such as in the Gulf of Aden), operationalization of anti-ship missiles and the arrival of the aircraft carrier. New missions include naval diplomacy, the use of a hospital ship (great imagery with China’s flag in background assisting others), the PLAN being seen as the protector of the economy (vital to protect shipping lanes), and Hu Jintao’s ‘new historic missions’. The CRS report also noted that China’s naval modernization effort is increasingly directed in pursuit of the following goals unrelated to Taiwan:

  • asserting or defending territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea;
  • enforcing China’s view that is has legal right to regulate foreign military activities in its 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ);
  • protecting China’s sea lines of communications;
  • protecting and evacuating Chinese nationals living and working in foreign countries;
  • displacing US influence in the Pacific; and
  • asserting China’s status as a major world power. (CRS, 4-5)

These goals are of course very realist in nature, as would be expected by American analysts and policy advisors. China’s naval modernization effort and pursuits of its interests are moving at a respectable pace, leading many eyes to watch developments in the Pacific as it develops a more comprehensive naval strategy.

Anti-access and area denial are American-introduced terms which are now used to describe attempts by China to prevent the US from intervening if China sought to attack Taiwan. The emerging maritime anti-access force is similar to the seadenial force developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War to deny American “use of the sea or counter US forces participating in a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict.” (CRS, 4) However, China’s force also includes anti-ship ballistic missiles (DF-21) with the ability to hit moving ships. “The basic idea is to prevent approaching US Navy aircraft carrier strike groups from getting within tactical aircraft operating ranges.” The US government views this as a method “to challenge US freedom of action within the region”. Observers herald the DF-21 a “game changing” weapon, because the US has not previously faced this threat from anti-ship ballistic missiles. China is somewhat conflicted in its desire to keep other states from intervening or being effective in the region (by utilizing its anti-access and area denial capabilities) and while also seeking to reach out to other regions. The potential for Chinese power-projection grows stronger as its naval power develops. A central tenet of the US policy of deterrence is believability, and so when it can the US tries to take a stern stance on China’s power projection in the region. The Obama administration’s tour of the Pacific last year including the harsh words sent to Chinese leadership and the stationing of US troops in Darwin, Australia contributed to the deterrence strategy. Moreover, the US already has Air Sea Battle plans to balance anti-access and area denial capabilities; the maritime strategy is apparently “not directed at any single country, but China is the only one with anti-access arms.” (CRS, 41)

Taiwan is only one security issue among many for China, and the probability for war between the two states is on the decline. To the PLAN event discussants, that meant there are more avenues and opportunities for cooperation between China and the US rather than armed conflict; it is difficult to imagine the two powers engaging in war over circumstances other than Taiwan’s safety. For example, freedom of navigation and the protection of shipping lanes would be of mutual benefit. For the CRS Report, even “in the absence of such a conflict…the US-Chinese military balance in the Pacific could nevertheless influence day-to-day choices made by other Pacific countries, including on choices whether to align their policies more closely with China or the US.” (CRS, 1) Once China’s aircraft carrier is fully functional, it will have a political as well as strategic impact on the region. Both the US and China are concerned about the ‘political evolution of the Pacific, which in turn could affect’ their abilities to pursue particular policies in the region and elsewhere. (CRS, 2) Budget cuts have affected other parts of the US Department of Defense, but the US government was clear that US Naval forces in the Pacific will remain strong.

With such different geostrategic environments the navies of the US and China have evolved and been used in different ways. The US Navy is not as concerned with protecting its coastline as the PLA Navy; not only are their perspectives different but their immediate security concerns vary. It is important for the US and China to maintain a dialogue of shared goals and concerns; as much as China’s military modernization has turned heads, so too has the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific.