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.

Biggest Polluters Sign on at Durban Climate Talks

 After nearly two weeks of United Nations climate talks in Durban, South Africa, a last-minute agreement was reached which proponents deemed an “historic breakthrough to save the planet”. Nonprofit organizations, politicians and others which lobbied for strict emissions cuts with consequences and a clearer roadmap, on the other hand, denied that a real “deal” was reached, claiming the delegates “watered things down so everyone could get on board” and even that it was a “failure”. In the final moments of the meeting, the ‘Durban Platform for Enhanced Action’ was delicately worded so all countries could accept the legal form, however begrudgingly. The big news is that China, India and the US – the three largest greenhouse gas emitters not covered under Kyoto – finally accepted that the rest of the world (including the climate) could not wait any longer for them to act and to be held accountable.

The US has typically been against signing onto any legal framework or targeted emissions cuts unless China and developing nations also take part. China has argued that it is still a developing country and should not be held to the same emissions standards as the US and Europe while it continues industrialization. However, the European Union and smaller countries (particularly those that will be significantly impacted by climate change) grew tired of the lack of participation by the world’s largest emissions emitters, and coerced China, India and the US to agree on language that would give all parties mandates for compliance. The Platform constrains all parties to “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” to be decided in 2015 and that will come into force in 2020. For those countries most impacted by climate change, the long wait for enforcement in 2020 will not be soon enough to mitigate droughts or floods, or to save some small islands states (which are plentiful in the Pacific) from rising sea level.

As the “only binding climate instrument with specific emission targets”, the Kyoto Protocol commits the worst emitters to reduce emissions, with a heavier burden placed on developed countries. As the Kyoto Protocol is due to expire next year, the Durban talks kept the agreement alive, with the EU agreeing on a second commitment from 2013 “so that the world has a legal treaty to cut emissions in place before 2020”. The EU has taken pride in their leadership role in reducing emissions to mitigate climate change, even when Canada, Japan, Russia, and others are not ready. The European Parliament’s environment committee chairman suggested that the US and China have been playing a “ping-pong game” which “hijacked” the past three climate meetings. Nonetheless, the Europeans believe their diplomatic efforts have successfully put China, India and the US on “a roadmap that will secure an overarching deal”.

The ‘roadmap,’ will take time to develop. Between now and 2020, only Europe and a few developed countries “are legally bound to cutting carbon emissions through a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.” Given that the economic crisis has made many Americans feel that climate change is no longer an important issue it is difficult to foresee the US following through and signing onto an eventual legal framework. Meanwhile China, India and the US only have voluntary targets to follow until 2020.