The Centrality of Nuclear Weapons

Brahma Chellaney

Paper presented to the Valdai Discussion Group, November 2014

downloadPower shifts are an inexorable phenomenon in history. The global power structure is not static but continually evolves. The international institutional structure, however, has remained largely static since the mid-twentieth century rather than evolving with the changing power realities and challenges. Reforming and restructuring the international system poses the single biggest challenge to preserving global peace, stability, and continued economic growth. A twenty-first world cannot remain indefinitely saddled with twentieth-century institutions and rules.

Although the world has changed fundamentally since the end of the World War II, one factor remains the same — nuclear weapons still represent power and force in international relations. Despite major military innovations and the deployment of an array of new weapon systems, nuclear weapons’ relevance or role has not changed. Indeed, five key points stand out:

1. Nuclear weapons have strategic and political utility. Think of Britain and France without nuclear weapons. They would become irrelevant, if not in international relations, then at least at the United Nations. Britain and France value nuclear weapons for their political utility. Russia must take comfort in the strategic utility of these weapons; without them, the United States would have assembled a “coalition of the willing” to take on Russia in response to the developments in Crimea and Ukraine.

Such is the strategic utility of nuclear weapons that U.S. President Barack Obama was quick to rule out the military option against Russia after the referendum in Crimea. He even distanced the U.S. from the “Budapest Memorandum,” the pact that was signed in 1994 to provide Ukraine security assurances about its territorial integrity in exchange for its relinquishing of the nuclear arsenal. After all, Russia remains a nuclear superpower.

2. Nuclear proliferation and the utility of nuclear weapons are linked. It is the very utility of nuclear weapons that serves as the main proliferation incentive. This means that the proliferation incentive will remain strong as long as nuclear weapons exist.

To be sure, the international nuclear nonproliferation regime has progressively become very stringent since the 1970s. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards in non-nuclear-weapons states, for example, have gone from being site-specific to becoming “full-scope” (comprehensive) in nature. The IAEA’s Additional Protocol empowers its inspectors to check even a non-nuclear facility in a non-nuclear-weapons state. There isn’t much room to further tighten the nonproliferation regime.

Still, the stringent nonproliferation regime has made proliferation very difficult or driven it underground. There are limits to what underground proliferation can accomplish. But there are also limits to what coercive enforcement of nonproliferation norms can achieve.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which came into force in 1970, was originally intended to prevent countries like Japan, West Germany and Italy from acquiring nuclear weapons. Japan, for example, did not ratify the treaty until 1976 — eight years after the NPT was concluded, and six years after the pact took effect. West Germany and Italy deposited their instruments of ratification only in 1975. After France conducted its first nuclear test in 1960 in the Sahara, West Germany was considered the most likely candidate to follow suit. West Germany first tried to block the conclusion of the NPT before seeking to influence the outcome of the negotiations.

The NPT also became the foundation for a number of regional nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) agreements, which include the Treaty of Tlatelolco (1969), establishing a NWFZ in Latin America’ the Treaty of Rarotonga (1986) in South Pacific; the Treaty of Bangkok (1997) signed by ASEAN members; the Treaty of Pelindaba (2009); and the Central Asian NWFZ (2009), which has all post-Soviet republics in Central Asia as its members. Regional NWFZ agreements were designed to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. Today, the NWFZs cover almost half of the world and include 115 states plus Mongolia, whose status as a one-state nuclear-weapon-free zone is recognized by UN General Assembly Resolution 3261. The effectiveness of the NWFZs depends on the NPT as the core foundation of the nonproliferation regime.

The challenges to the NPT, however, have been coming from outside the list of its original targets. NPT’s first test, in fact, came early — in May 1974 when India carried out a “peaceful nuclear explosion” (PNE). As India was a non-signatory and indeed had vowed to stay out of the NPT when the treaty was concluded, the test involved no breach of legal obligations. However, after the Indian test, PNEs quickly fell out of international favor, although the U.S. and the Soviet Union both had large PNE programs.

Looking back, the NPT has been a remarkably successful treaty, limiting nuclear-weapons states to a small number. Yet the NPT’s long-term challenge comes from the dichotomy it creates — that it is morally and legally reprehensible for most countries to pursue nuclear ambitions but morally and legally alright for a few states to rely on (and modernize their) nuclear weapons for security.

Today, the spotlight is on the nuclear programs in two states — Iran and North Korea and Iran — as well as on the potential nexus between terrorism and WMD.

North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un won’t give up the nuclear option because he understands the utility of nukes. After all, the United States used aerial bombardment to overthrow ruler Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, eight years after he surrendered Libya’s nuclear option in 2003. The big question today is whether Iran, as part of a rapprochement with the United States, would agree to at least freeze its nuclear program, if not give up its nuclear option.

3. Nuclear disarmament has fallen by the wayside. It has become little more than a pious slogan. The United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament (CD), for example, has been without real work for 18 years now.

It is significant that nuclear disarmament fell off the global agenda after the NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995. The NPT was originally conceived as a 25-year bargain between nuclear-weapons states and non-nuclear-weapons states. But as a result of the 1995 action, the treaty has become permanent. This action eliminated international pressure on the nuclear-weapons states in regard to their arsenals.

Not only has nuclear disarmament fallen by the wayside since, there is also little international attention on the nuclear-modernization programs currently underway. This means the five NPT nuclear powers and the three non-NPT nuclear-weapons states of India, Israel and Pakistan can pursue nuclear modernization with no real constraints.

Take Obama, who, having championed “a nuclear-free world,” has quietly pursued plans for an extensive expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, already the world’s most-expensive and most-sophisticated nuclear deterrent. As the New York Times reported on September 22, 2014, the United States plans to spend about $355 billion on nuclear weapons over the next 10 years, and up to $1 trillion over 30 years. Spending so much more money on nuclear weapons is simply not justified, given the changing nature of security threats. In fact, in mid-2014, an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal commission co-chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and retired Gen. John Abizaid called the Obama administration’s plans to expand the nuclear arsenal “unaffordable” and a threat to “needed improvements in conventional forces.” By pursuing a slightly less ambitious nuclear-modernization program, the United States can easily save billions of dollars and still keep the “triad” of delivery systems armed with the same number of nuclear warheads planned under the 2010 New START Treaty.

The real “success” of the NPT has been in reinforcing the system of extended deterrence by enabling countries such as those in NATO and others like Australia, Japan and South Korea to continue to rely on the U.S. for nuclear-umbrella protection. Minus the NPT, these countries would have been the most-likely candidates to go nuclear because they also happen to be the most-capable states technologically. So, the effect of the NPT has to strengthen extended deterrence.

Today, a key question that arises is whether any of the countries ensconced under the U.S. nuclear umbrella would be willing to forgo the benefits of extended deterrence in order to help lower the utility of nuclear weapons and give a boost to the cause of nuclear disarmament. After all, the security imperatives that prompted such countries more than half a century ago to seek nuclear-umbrella protection no longer are valid in a post-Cold War world.

To be sure, some of these states, especially Japan, have seen their regional security environment deteriorate and thus can ill-afford to renounce reliance on U.S. nuclear-umbrella protection. However, the majority of states basking under the U.S. nuclear umbrella find themselves today in relatively benign security environment. They extend from Canada and Norway to Portugal and Australia. Such states could take the lead to gradually wean themselves away from relying on extended nuclear deterrence.

4. Nuclear might provides the cover to some powers for engaging in acts that contravene global norms and international law. There are several examples of this.

For example, Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East, reinforced by its conventional-military superiority, emboldens it to act preemptively at times, or to employ disproportionate force, as was seen recently in Israel’s Gaza war, which was triggered by the Hamas’s firing of crude, home-made rockets with no guidance.

Consider another example: Pakistan’s military generals export terror by playing nuclear poker. They export terrorism from behind the nuclear shield so as to prevent retaliation against their roguish actions.

One can argue that nuclear might also drives America’s interventionist impulse. America’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate president, Barack Obama, has been more at ease waging wars than in waging peace, as underlined by the launch of his presidency’s seventh military campaign in a Muslim country. His new war in Syria — which he initiated by bypassing the United Nations — is just the latest action of the United States that mocks international law. Other such actions in the past 15 years include the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without UN Security Council authority, Gaddafi’s overthrow, the aiding of an insurrection in Syria, CIA renditions of terror suspects, and National Security Agency’s Orwellian surveillance program. Yet, paradoxically, Obama has escalated a sanctions campaign against Russia in the name of upholding international law.

5. In our rapidly changing world, most technologies tend to become obsolescent in a decade or two. But more than seven decades after they were invented, nuclear weapons still remain the preeminent mass-destruction technology.

Nuclear arsenals may have no deterrent effect on the pressing conflicts we face today. Yet, for the foreseeable future, nuclear weapons, with their unparalleled destructive capacity, will remain at the center of international power and force. Nuclear weapons, as the 2002 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review stated, will continue to play a “critical role” because they possess “unique properties.”

However — a century after chemical arms were introduced in World War I and nearly seven decades following the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the world is at the threshold of new lethal and precision weapons, as underlined by the advent of information weapons, anti-satellite weapons, and the extension of arms race to outer space and cyberspace.

The aforementioned points indicate that nuclear weapons will remain at the core of international power for the foreseeable future. Still, there is a widely held international misperception about the number of countries that rely on nuclear weapons for security. Their number is not just nine (the five NPT nuclear powers, the three non-NPT nuclear-weapons states of India, Israel and Pakistan, plus North Korea). A sizable number of additional countries rely on nuclear-umbrella protection — a fact often obscured.

Actually, the states that are currently ensconced under the U.S. nuclear umbrella number 30. Their number has been growing as part of the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In fact, the taproot of the ongoing U.S.-Russian tensions has been NATO’s aggressive expansion, including to the Baltics and the Balkans. Russia, however, drew a line in the sand when NATO announced in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.”

The nuclear-umbrella protection provided by the U.S. extends to all members of NATO, a military alliance that has expanded from its original 12 members in 1949 to 28 states now. In1997, three former Warsaw Pact members, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, were invited to join NATO. Then, in 2004, seven more countries joined, including the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. And in 2009, Albania and Croatia became the latest entrants to NATO.

NATO’s nuclear umbrella primarily relies on American nuclear weapons. However, in a contingency, British and French nuclear arsenals are also expected to play a role.

In addition to NATO members, the U.S. provides nuclear-umbrella protection to Japan (as part of the bilateral Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security of 1960), to South Korea (a commitment from 1958 that was reaffirmed by America after North Korea tested a nuclear device in 2006), and to Australia under the terms of ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty of 1951).

The U.S. nuclear umbrella, however, no longer covers New Zealand, whose accession to the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (Treaty of Rarotonga, 1985) and subsequent enactment of domestic measures to comply with the imperatives of the zone triggered a bitter diplomatic row with the United States. By contrast, another ANZUS member, Australia, remains under the American nuclear umbrella despite being a party to the Rarotonga Treaty.

The security alliances of the Soviet Union (which broke up into 15 separate countries) and those of today’s Russia also are believed to have incorporated nuclear-umbrella protection, although Moscow has never acknowledged that publicly. However, after the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact and the breakup of the Soviet Union, half of the ex-Soviet allies and breakaway states have been absorbed by NATO as members. Russia currently has a military alliance — known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) — with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The creation of the Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in 2009 has only strengthened the dependence of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan (which are CSTO members) as well as of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan on the Russian nuclear umbrella.

Against this background, the number of states that rely directly or indirectly on nuclear weapons for their security is substantial. From an international-law standpoint, however, extending nuclear deterrence to non-nuclear-weapons states violates the spirit, if not the text, of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Some, of course, have argued that it actually breaches the text of the NPT. After all, NATO’s nuclear doctrine is pivoted on nuclear sharing, and the United States has deployed nuclear weapons for decades on the territory of non-nuclear NATO members, often without their knowledge during the Cold War years. Now, the U.S. is believed to have approximately 500 tactical nuclear warheads in five NATO states — Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Until 1991, American tactical nukes were deployed in South Korea. The North Korean nuclear threat makes redeployment of U.S. nuclear capabilities in South Korea theoretically conceivable.

Nuclear proliferation in the future will hinge largely on the credibility of U.S. security guarantees as perceived by America’s key, technologically advanced allies. The future of the NPT regime, despite its tremendous success thus far, looks anything but certain. The treaty’s main challenges now come from within, not from its non-parties — India, Israel and Pakistan, which never signed the NPT and have developed nuclear weapons.

Significantly, technological forces are now playing a greater role in shaping international geopolitics and power equations than at any other time in history. The growing tide of new innovations has not only shrunk the shelf-life of most technologies, but also accelerated the weaponization of science. Such are the challenges from the accelerated weaponization of science that instead of disarmament, rearmament today looms large on the horizon, with the arms race being extended to outer space and cyberspace.

Grand speeches about a world without nuclear weapons are crowd-pleasers at the United Nations. But in truth, pursuing disarmament is like chasing butterflies — enjoyable for some retired old men but never-ending. Until nuclear weapons remain the premier mass-destruction technology, disarmament will stay a mirage. The Chemical Weapons Convention became possible only when chemical weapons ceased to be militarily relevant for the major powers and instead threatened to become the poor state’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). If the rapid pace of technological change creates a new class of surgical-strike WMD that makes nuclear weapons less relevant, nuclear disarmament would likely take center-stage.

Nevertheless, it has become difficult to palm off nonproliferation as disarmament. What many members of the international community want to see are genuine efforts to substantially reduce nuclear arsenals and to erode the utility of WMD in national military strategies. Today, the world has a treaty (although not in force) that bans all nuclear testing — the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) — but no treaty to outlaw the use of nuclear weapons. In other words, those that are party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) are prohibited from testing a nuclear weapon at home but are legally unencumbered to test the weapon by dropping it over some other state. This anomaly must be rectified.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi; a fellow of the Robert Bosch Stiftung in Berlin; and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is the author of nine books, including an international bestseller, Asian Juggernaut (Harper, New York, 2010).

Water, Power, and Competition in Asia


Asian Survey, Vol. 54, Number 4, pp. 621–650. ISSN0004-4687, electronic ISSN1533-838X. (Copyright 2014 by the Regents of the University of California.)

ABSTRACT: At a time when Asia is at a defining moment in its history, water stress has emerged as one of its most serious challenges. Water shortages have not only stirred geopolitical tensions by intensifying competition over the resources of shared rivers and aquifers, but they also threaten Asia’s continued economic rise.

KEYWORDS: Water stress, hydropolitics, dam racing, hydro-hegemony, Harmon Doctrine

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (2013) and Water: Asia’s New Battleground (2012), which won the Asia Society’s 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award. Email: <>.

THE FUTURE OF OUR WORLD WILL BE determined by several factors. One critical factor is adequate access to natural resources. The sharpening geopolitical competition over natural resources has already turned some strategic resources into engines of power struggle. Water, mineral ores, and fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas are resources of the greatest strategic import. They hold the key to human development and, in the case of water, to human survival.

Food production is closely intertwined with water and energy, whereas water and energy are closely connected with each other. Water is essential for energy extraction, processing, and production, while energy is vital to treat, distribute, and supply water. Moreover, water is intimately linked with climate change. Human-induced changes in the hydrological cycle contribute to climate variation, and global warming, in turn, affects water resources, creating a vicious circle in the process.

Access to potable water is becoming a major issue across large parts of the world because of rapid demographic and economic expansion. Lifestyle and dietary changes have spurred increasing per-capita water consumption in the form of industrial and agricultural products. Freshwater, although a renewable resource, is a finite commodity whose quantity has virtually remained the same since the dawn of civilization.  In fact, less than 1% of the world’s water is usable because 97.5% of it is ocean salt water while another 1.6% is locked up in polar icecaps, glaciers, and permafrost.

Asia is attracting international attention more than ever before, in large part because of its reemergence on the global stage after a two-century decline. Asia is now the world’s largest creditor and main economic locomotive. Asia’s rise, however, has been accompanied by an insatiable appetite for natural resources. This has set off a sharpening resource competition between Asian economies within Asia and far beyond in other continents.

Although able to secure fossil fuels, mineral ores, and timber from distant lands, Asian economies cannot import the most critical resource for their socioeconomic development—water. Water is essentially local and prohibitively expensive to ship across seas. To compound the continent’s challenges, some of the world’s worst water pollution and shortages are found in Asia, promoting environmental degradation and creating a potential for conflict over shared waters.

A little-known fact is that Asia, not Africa, is the world’s most water-stressed continent. Water stress is internationally defined as the per capita availability of less than 1,700 cubic meters per year. Not only is Asia’s per capita water availability the lowest of any continent, but its water stress has also been exacerbated by its dramatic economic rise. The rapid economic growth, coupled with breakneck urbanization and the changing lifestyles of Asians, has made an already difficult water situation worse. Much of the world’s coming expansion of urban population is projected to take place in Asia, with the portion of the global population living in urban areas expected to jump from slightly over half in 2011 to more than two-thirds in 2050.[1] Asia’s rapid urbanization is driving increased water demand both for municipal supply and for the industrial and agricultural products in demand in cities.

This essay analyzes how shared water has become an instrument of power in interstate relations in Asia, stoking underlying tensions, fostering competition, exacerbating impacts on ecosystems, and impeding broader regional collaboration. It examines cases of both upriver and downriver hydro-hegemony, which is water-resource capture or control at the basin level achieved through coercive or diplomatic means by exploiting and reinforcing regional power asymmetries. And it analyzes the security-related water trends in Asia, now the center of global water challenges. In doing so, the essay opens a window to the nature of interstate water competition and conflict, its wider impacts, and its management.


Natural-resource constraints in Asia raise troubling questions about the region’s future growth trajectory. Asian economies facing a domestic resource crunch are being forced increasingly to rely on imported mineral ores, timber, and fossil fuels, bringing international supplies under pressure and triggering price volatility. Yet Asia, paradoxically, remains the world’s economic locomotive. Its growing resource constraints raise the issue of whether it can continue to spearhead global economic growth in the coming years.

Asia’s rise has fueled an insatiable appetite for resources it does not have. Unlike North America and Europe, which are well endowed with natural capital, Asia is the world’s most resource-poor continent in per-capita terms. Its resources are also unevenly spread. Its energy resources, for example, are largely concentrated in the desert lands of Central and West Asia, while its water resources are concentrated in the mountainous hinterlands, yet 95% of Asians live in the plains or coastal regions. Even as resource-wealthy countries such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, and Russia enjoy commodity-export booms, Asia’s resource struggle has brought it to a treacherous point of growing external dependency, geopolitical tensions, and environmental degradation.

Asia’s overexploitation of its own natural resources has spurred an environmental crisis, which, in turn, is furthering regional climate change. Asia thus confronts three interlinked crises—a resource crisis, an environmental crisis, and a climate crisis—that threaten its future. From Asian cities dominating the list of the world’s most-polluted cities to many urban areas reeling under serious water shortages, Asia faces increasing resource-related stresses. Meanwhile, sharpening Asian resource competition has aggravated disputes over resource-rich territories, including in the East and South China Seas and southern and central Asia.


All the important Asian economies are in or near conditions of water stress.China supports 19% of the world’s population on its territory with a 6.7% share of global water resources. The situation in India is grimmer: It has 17.8% of the global population but just 4.3% of the world’s water.[2]

A World Bank estimate placed the economic cost of water-resource degradation and depletion for China at 2.3% of gross domestic product (GDP), including 1% stemming from the direct impact of rampant water pollution. The health and non-health impacts of both air and water pollution in China were estimated at US$100 billion a year, or about 5.8% of GDP.[3] China, with a per capita annual availability of 2,060 cubic meters in 2013, is not yet in the category of water-stressed states, a list that includes a number of other Asian economies. Water-scarce India and South Korea, for example, are seeing a greater impact nationally than China, with water shortages already beginning to reshape their economies, including the location of industries.

Asia’s yearly per capita freshwater availability (2,816 cubic meters) is not even half the global average of 6,079 cubic meters.[4] Yet Asia has experienced the world’s most rapid growth in freshwater withdrawals from rivers, lakes, and aquifers in the period since it began rising economically. One international report, detailing the resulting steep declines in water availability for development in a number of Asian states since 1980, had this warning about the regional water situation: “Water shortfalls on this scale heighten competition for a precious resource and frequently lead to conflicts, which are emerging as new threats to social stability.”[5]

Asia’s rate of utilization of freshwater already exceeds its renewable stocks. By digging deeper wells, further damming rivers, and transferring surface water across some basins, Asia is using tomorrow’s water to meet today’s needs, thereby accelerating environmental degradation. State policies, including the provision of irrigation subsidies as well as subsidized electricity and diesel fuel to farmers, have unwittingly contributed to water-resource depletion and environmental degradation.

The fact that Asia has one of the lowest levels of water efficiency and productivity in the world makes a bad situation worse. With water stress projected to cover two-thirds of the global population by the end of the next decade, up from about 50% today, the majority of the world’s people living in water-related despair will continue to be in Asia.


Asian economies are already facing a new problem on the food front at a time when agriculture’s appropriation of the bulk of the water resources is coming under challenge from expanding cities and industries. Growth in crop yields and overall food production in Asia is now beginning to lag behind demand. Rising prosperity and changing diets, including an increased preference for animal-based protein, are compounding Asia’s food challenges.

While new technologies, including genetic engineering, can serve as tools to enhance agricultural productivity, a way has not yet been found to reduce the dependence of crops on large amounts of water, except by installing expensive micro-irrigation systems. Unlike the large conglomerates that own much of the cropland in North America and Europe, most farmers in Asia have small acreage, limiting their capacity to invest in new technologies and irrigation systems.

The fast-rising Asian consumption of meat has by itself turned into a major driver of water stress. After all, production of meat is as much as 10 times more water-intensive than plant-based calories and proteins.[6] In a reflection of the larger Asian trend, meat consumption quadrupled between 1980 and 2010 in China. The ecological footprint of Asia’s increasing livestock population is compounding environmental and resource stresses. The only silver lining for India in an otherwise dismal water situation is the fact that a sizable percentage of its population remains vegetarian.

Asia needs to grow more food with less water. To be sure, the region has come a long way in addressing its food needs. Up to the 1960s, it was troubled by food shortages and recurrent famines. Then, on the back of an unparalleled expansion of irrigation, Asia emerged as a net food exporter in just one generation, opening the door to its economic rise. The total irrigated cropland in Asia doubled between 1960 and 2000 alone. Now, Asia boasts 72% of the world’s total acreage equipped for irrigation, with irrigation mostly concentrated in its most populous subregions.[7]

The irrigation-spurred farming boom, however, has come at a high price. Asia channels 82% of its water resources for agricultural use.[8] This level is not sustainable. With the world’s most rapid industrialization and urbanization, Asia is witnessing the fastest increase in water demand from its industries and municipalities. It thus must make major water savings in agriculture to quench the thirst of its booming industries and expanding cities. This challenge is compounded by the slowing growth in crop yields at a time when Asian food demand, for the first time in decades, is outstripping supply.


How Asian states manage their resource challenges will shape their security and economic trajectories in the coming years. For example, the biggest enemies of alleviating economic poverty are water poverty and energy poverty. Water and energy poverty keep the poor chained to economic poverty. Asia needs an energy-technology revolution that can deliver cheap, reliable power to those mired in energy poverty and help clean up polluted or brackish waters, chemically treat and recycle wastewater, and make ocean water potable. Otherwise, water pollution—largely an intrastate challenge at present—is likely to assume transboundary dimensions and compound inter-country tensions and discord.


Asia’s water resources are largely transnational, making inter-country cooperation and collaboration essential. Yet the vast majority of the 57 transnational river basins in continental Asia have no water-sharing arrangement or any other cooperative mechanism. This troubling reality has to be seen in the context of the strained political relations in several Asian subregions.

The river basins in the Asian continent that have a treaty-based sharing arrangement currently in place are the Al-Asi/Orontes (Lebanon-Syria), Araks-Atrek (Iran-Russia), El-Kaber (Lebanon-Syria), Euphrates (Iraq-Syria), Gandhak (India-Nepal), Ganges (Bangladesh-India), Indus (India-Pakistan), Jordan (Israel-Jordan), and Mahakali (India-Nepal). Arrangements in some of these basins, such as the Gandhak, Jordan, and Mahakali, do not incorporate a formula dividing the shared waters between the parties but rather center on specific water withdrawals, transfers, or rights of utilization. An important arrangement in the Mekong Basin—limited to the lower riparian nations—is centered on the sustainable management of water resources but without any water sharing.

The only treaties in Asia with specific sharing formulas on cross-border river flows are the ones between India and its two downriver neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In addition, the Soviet-era water arrangements in Central Asia continue to hold, even if tenuously, through an interim agreement signed in February 1992. Such is the competition over scarce water resources that even sharing arrangements are not free of rancor and discord.

Central Asia

Consider the water discord among the five so-called “stans” of Central Asia. The interim agreement, signed shortly after these states gained independence, defined on an ad hoc basis the principles to govern the sharing of the waters of the region’s two main rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya. Soviet Central Asia’s internal rivers became international watercourses following the independence of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The post-Soviet agreement, while stipulating that the principles would continue until the parties had worked out a new water-sharing arrangement, set up an Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC) to help develop a new but still-illusive regional water management system.

In the Syr Darya River Basin, where the total annual flows aggregate to 36.57 billion cubic meters, the share of Kazakhstan—located farthest downriver—was set to be no less than 10 billion cubic meters downstream of the Chardara Reservoir. Uzbekistan, however, is the main consumer of the waters of both the Syr Darya and the region’s largest river, the Amu Darya, whose average yearly flows total 78.46 billion cubic meters. In 1996, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan reached a water-allocation accord between themselves to supplement the five-nation 1992 interim agreement.

The fact, however, is that rising nationalism and competition over water resources in parched Central Asia has impeded the development of a regional alternative to the Soviet-era water management system. The old system survives largely due to the threat of force. The three lower but militarily powerful riparians—Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan—wield the threat of force against the small and weak Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which are the sources of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, respectively. Most of the water flows in these two lifelines of Central Asia are generated in the mountainous parts of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.


More broadly, Asia’s water map stands out for the unique riparian status that China enjoys. China is the source of rivers for a dozen countries. No other country in the world serves as the riverhead for so many countries. This makes China the central driver of inter-riparian relations in Asia.

Yet China also stands out for not having a single water-sharing arrangement or cooperation treaty with any co-riparian state. Its refusal to accede to the Mekong Agreement of 1995, for example, has stunted the development of a genuine basin community. By building mega-dams and reservoirs in its borderlands, China is working to unilaterally re-engineer the flows of major rivers that are the lifeblood for the lower riparian states.

To be sure, China trumpets several bilateral water agreements. But none is about water sharing or institutionalized cooperation on shared resources. Some accords are commercial contracts to sell hydrological data to given downstream nations. Others center on joint research initiatives, flood-control projects, hydropower development, fishing, navigation, river islands, hydrologic work, border demarcation, environmental principles, “good-neighborliness and friendly cooperation,” or nonbinding memorandums of understanding.[9] By fobbing off such accords as water agreements, China creates a false impression that it has cooperative riparian relations. In fact, it is to deflect attention from its unwillingness to enter into water sharing or institutionalized cooperation to sustainably manage common rivers that Beijing even advertises the accords it has signed on sharing flow statistics with co-riparian states. These agreements are merely contracts to sell hydrological data, which some other upstream countries provide free to downriver states.

The plain fact is that China rejects the very concept of water sharing. It also asserts a general principle that standing and flowing waters are subject to the full sovereignty of the state where they are located. It thus claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters on its side of the international boundary, including the right to divert as much shared water as it wishes for its legitimate needs.

This principle was embodied in the now-discredited “Harmon Doctrine” in the U.S. more than a century ago. This doctrine is named after U.S. Attorney General Judson Harmon, who put forth the argument that the U.S. owed no obligations under international law to Mexico on shared water resources and was effectively free to divert as much of the shared waters as it wished for U.S. needs.[10]  Yet, despite this thesis, the U.S. went on to conclude water-sharing agreements with Mexico between 1906 and 1944.

China, in rejecting the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (which lays down rules on shared water resources and constitutes the first move to establish an international water law), placed on record its assertion of absolute territorial sovereignty over the waters within its borders: “The text did not reflect the principle of territorial sovereignty of a watercourse state. Such a state had indisputable sovereignty over a watercourse which flowed through its territory.”[11] This indicates that the Harmon Doctrine may be dead in the country of its birth but is alive and kicking in China.

In this light, it is hardly a surprise that water has become a new divide in China’s relations with riparian neighbors. This divide has become apparent as Beijing has increasingly shifted its dam-building focus from the dam-saturated internal rivers to international rivers, most of which originate on the water-rich Tibetan Plateau. Only three important transnational rivers—the Amur, the Irtysh, and the Ili (or Yili), which flow to Russia or Kazakhstan—originate in China outside the Tibetan plateau, whose wealth of water and mineral resources is a big factor in its political subjugation. China’s water disputes with neighbors extend even to North Korea, with which it has yet to settle issues relating to Lake Chonji and two border rivers, the Yalu and the Tumen.

China’s rush to build more dams promises to roil inter-riparian relations, fostering greater water competition and impeding the already slow progress toward regional cooperation and integration. By erecting dams, barrages, and other water diversion structures in its borderlands, China is setting up an extensive upstream infrastructure, thereby spurring growing unease and concern in downriver countries. Getting China on board has thus become critical to shape water for peace in Asia.

More fundamentally, the absence of water institutions in the bulk of transnational basins in Asia is hardly conducive for water peace because it increases the geopolitical risks from the sharpening resource competition and unchecked environmental degradation. These risks are accentuated by the lack of an overarching Asian security architecture and by weak regional consultation mechanisms. Asia is the only continent other than Africa where regional integration has yet to take off, largely because Asian political and cultural diversity has hindered institution building.

Integrated management of transnational water resources through interstate collaboration is essential to prevent their degradation, depletion, and pollution. Only robust water institutions, with rule-based cooperation and sharing, can create the right incentives for nations to sustainably manage and conserve water supplies and to refrain from actions at the expense or injury of a downriver state. When cooperative arrangements are absent in any basin, there is a strong incentive for an upper riparian to try to capture water resources before they flow out of its national borders.


Just as the scramble for energy resources has defined Asian geopolitics in recent decades, the struggle for water seems set to define many inter-country relationships in the coming years. At a time when territorial disputes and separatist struggles in Asia increasingly are being driven by resource issues, water indeed is becoming the new oil. But unlike oil—dependence on which can be reduced by tapping other sources of energy—there is no substitute for water.

In what can be described as tacit hydrological warfare, the resources of transnational rivers, aquifers, and lakes have become the target of rival appropriation plans. The fusion between national identity and river or groundwater basins creates a sense of ownership and propels efforts to control water resources, even if they are internationally shared. Driving the rival appropriation plans and the accompanying water nationalism is the notion that sharing waters is a zero-sum game. This, in turn, has given rise to environmentally questionable ideas with transboundary implications—from China’s Western Route to divert river waters from the Tibetan plateau to its parched north and northwest, to India’s embryonic National River Linking Project that proposes to connect rivers across India to alleviate floods and shortages. China’s Western Route plan is the third phase of its South-North Water Transfer (or Diversion) Project (Nanshui Beidiao Gongcheng), whose first two phases involving internal rivers—the Eastern Route and the Central Route—are already complete or nearing completion.

The danger that riparian disputes could escalate to overt conflict looms large on the Asian horizon, with important implications for Asia’s continued rapid economic growth and water security. Water-rich areas, ominously, are at the center of geopolitical tensions in Asia. They range from Kashmir and Tibet to the Golan Heights and the West Bank. Such areas not only boast water wealth but also are strategically located.

Take Central Asia’s Fergana Valley, whose control is divided among Kyrgyzstan (which holds almost two-thirds), Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The ethnic fault lines that run through the Fergana Valley—a minefield of ethnic animosities—are the source of periodic clashes among the Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. The 2010 bloody riots in the Fergana Valley, which left several hundred Uzbek citizens of Kyrgyzstan dead, were sparked in part by local ethnic Kyrgyz fear that Uzbekistan wanted to absorb the water-rich Kyrgyz part.[12]

There is a similar tripartite political split over water-rich Kashmir. India controls about 45% of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan 35%, and China the remaining 20%. Because the largest rivers flow to Pakistan from the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, many Pakistanis—especially the military generals and their longstanding allies, the mullahs—have linked the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan’s water security. However, only one of the six Indus-system rivers originates in Indian Kashmir; three have their source in India’s Himachal Pradesh state and two in Chinese-ruled Tibet.

Even the Pakistani-held portion of Kashmir, paradoxically, has assumed water-related significance for Pakistan’s unity and social harmony because the upstream Pakistani construction of giant dams on the Indus has created a deep divide between the downriver Sind and Baluchistan provinces and the upriver Punjab, which has appropriated the bulk of the river waters through hydroengineering structures, located largely in Pakistani Kashmir. This large-scale upstream diversion has reduced the Indus system’s farthest downstream flows to a trickle, turning the Indus Delta into a saline marsh and inviting saltwater intrusion from the Arabian Sea into a once-fertile land.

However, to deflect attention from their water appropriation, the Punjabi elites that rule Pakistan have sought to scapegoat India, an increasingly water-stressed country that reserved more than 80% of the Indus basin waters for Pakistan under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. This pact remains the world’s most generous water-sharing arrangement, under which India agreed to keep for itself only a 19.48% share of the waters. (The volume of waters earmarked for Pakistan—by way of comparison—is over 90 times greater than the 1.85 billion cubic meters the U.S. is required to release to Mexico under a 1944 treaty with that country.) India is wracked by increasingly bitter domestic water-sharing disputes that have defied settlement through judicial arbitration.

Significantly, South Asia is the only region, other than North America, where inter-riparian relations are governed by bilateral treaty arrangements, which involve India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan. There are also project-specific water agreements between Bhutan and India. Yet water has emerged as a divisive issue in this region in both the inter-country and intra-country context, with dam building at the center of tensions and recriminations on the subcontinent. The India-Pakistan water relationship remains rife with disputes.

Pakistan, for example, invoked the Indus treaty’s dispute settlement provisions in recent years to take two Indian hydropower projects separately for international adjudication. India has embarked on several dam projects in its part of Kashmir to address chronic electricity shortages there. While railing against the modestly sized run-of-the-river Indian dams, Pakistan has stirred local grassroots protests at home by embarking on much larger, storage-type dams such as the 4,500-megawatt Bhasha Dam (also known as Diamer-Bhasha) and the 7,000-megawatt Bunji Dam. While storage-type hydropower plants impound large volumes of water, run-of-the-river projects are located so as to use a river’s natural flow energy and elevation drop to generate electricity without the aid of a large reservoir and dam.

Pakistan’s new dams are centered in Pakistani Kashmir’s northernmost Gilgit and Baltistan areas, where the Pakistan Army and Sunni jihadist groups have sought to suppress a long-simmering rebellion against Pakistani rule by the local Shiite Muslims. China’s growing role in dam building and other strategic projects in Gilgit-Baltistan, along with the entry of Chinese military units to guard such construction sites, has made the situation there more complex and unsettled, as underscored by the June 2013 killing of nine foreign tourists, including three Chinese, by gunmen.

Kashmir, like other water-rich regions, is a key crossroads in the international geopolitical rivalry, with the Islamic insurrection in the Indian-administered part adding to the India-Pakistan tensions. Tibet is firmly under China’s rule, while the Golan Heights (the source of the Jordan River’s headwaters) and the aquifer-controlling West Bank remain under Israel’s control since their capture in the 1967 Six-Day War. However, Kashmir, like the Fergana Valley, remains a divided and contested territory, with Pakistan averse to accepting the territorial status quo. For the foreseeable future, all the water-rich regions extending up to the traditional Kurdish homeland, which straddles the Tigris-Euphrates basin, are likely to stay potential flashpoints for water conflict in Asia because they seem ripe for further geopolitical jousting.

In fact, like arms racing, “dam racing” has emerged as a geopolitical concern in Asia, where the world’s fastest economic growth is being accompanied by the world’s fastest increase in military spending and the world’s fiercest competition for natural resources. As riparian neighbors compete to capture the water of shared rivers by building dams, reservoirs, barrages, irrigation networks, and other structures, distrust and discord have begun to roil relations between upstream and downstream states.

Asia is already the world’s most dam-dotted continent: It has more dams than the rest of the world combined. China, the world’s biggest dam builder, alone has slightly more than half of the approximately 50,000 large dams on the planet.[13] China’s dam-building zeal began in the Mao Zedong era but picked up momentum after Deng Xiaoping emerged as the paramount leader in 1978. A succession of engineer-presidents in China—Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping—have supported grand water-diversion projects, including the Three Gorges Dam and the South-North Water Diversion Project.

The numerous new dam projects in China and elsewhere show that the damming of rivers remains an important priority for Asian policymakers. In the West, the building of large dams has largely petered out; the rate of decommissioning of dams indeed has overtaken the pace of building new ones in several developed countries. According to international projections for the next 10 years, the total number of dams in developed countries is likely to remain about the same. Much of the dam building in the developing world, in terms of aggregate storage-capacity buildup, is expected to be concentrated in Asia. Dam building on transnational rivers, however, is already stoking inter-riparian tensions in Asia.


Water disputes in Asia center on four distinct zones: China and its neighbors; India and its neighbors; the countries of continental Southeast Asia; and the five “stans” of Central Asia. The dam-building competition involves even the lower riparian states because it is often driven by the doctrine of prior appropriation, which legitimizes the principle “First in time, first in right.” Under this doctrine of customary international water law, the first user of river waters (whether an upstream or downstream state) acquires a priority right to the continued utilization of river waters, as long as those resources are diverted for “beneficial” applications, including irrigation, industrial or mining purposes, electric power generation, and municipal supply.

In the interstate context, water can be turned into an instrument of power through resource capture and control or by upholding inequitable utilization patterns. This usually necessitates either the construction of hydroengineering structures to reengineer transboundary flows or the perpetuation of unfair, pre-independence arrangements in the name of protecting “historical rights.” The latter could involve implicit threats of use of force. Dam building, by intensifying water disputes and tensions across Asia, carries implications for regional stability.

The ability to fashion water into an instrument of control or manipulation, of course, hinges on regional power equations. Only militarily and economically powerful states can normally shape water into a possible political weapon, irrespective of whether they are located upstream or downstream. But if one party, even if lacking matching military and economic prowess, has sufficient capability and political will to mount an effective or strong challenge against a co-basin state, it crimps the latter’s potential to use water as a weapon. Generally, downstream states have a tendency to be alarmist on an upper riparian’s damming of a shared river. When the upper riparian is the preeminent regional power, it may have little incentive to enter into a water-sharing treaty with a downriver state, although the United States and India have concluded such pacts with weaker neighbors.

Central Asia

Central Asia serves as a good example of how water can be wielded as an instrument of power through downstream control, including through threat of force. The regional water competition pits the upstream interests of energy-poor Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan against those of the larger and stronger countries that are the main water consumers: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. The three hydrocarbon-rich countries not only use the bulk of the region’s renewable water resources—estimated at 263 billion cubic meters per year—but also insist that their leonine share is protected under the norm of “historical rights.”

The Central Asian downstream states, with their military might, have the capacity to prevent the upstream countries from building any new hydroengineering projects that could materially alter transboundary flows. This power has blocked the emergence of an equitable successor regime to the region’s Soviet-era water-management system, which integrated water, energy, and agriculture under a federally run and highly centralized regional arrangement. The region’s artificial political frontiers, which bear little resemblance to natural or ethnic fault lines, have also compounded water-sharing issues. The regional water competition indeed is fraught with major ethnic-rivalry dimensions. The intersection between ethnic identity and water insecurity in Central Asia has fostered deep-seated ill will among communities and occasionally spawned violent conflict.

The continued downstream production of cotton, a highly water-intensive crop, through intensive irrigation has exacerbated the regional water discord. In fact, the curse of cotton from the Soviet era has been an important contributor to the degradation of water and land resources in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. It has also led to the extensive retreat of the Aral Sea, which has shrunk to about one-fourth of its original size because of heavy extractions for irrigation from its principal sources, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya.[14]

In this tricky and risky situation, Uzbekistan, with 45% of the Central Asian population, consumes more than half the region’s water supply and uses threats of military reprisals against upstream states to shield its appropriation of the dominant share of water resources. It remains embroiled in bitter water rows with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan over their dam-building proposals to boost energy production. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan contend that such dam building is imperative because the main water-consuming states located downstream are unwilling to supply them with hydrocarbons at concessional rates, as was the practice in the Soviet era. However, Uzbekistan’s implicit military threats have stymied their plans to build large new hydroelectric stations and become renewable-energy exporters. The threats have compelled Tajikistan, for example, not to press ahead with plans to resume work on unfinished Soviet-era hydropower projects, including one on the Vakhsh River that was intended to be the world’s highest dam.


China, however, serves as the best example of upstream water hegemony in Asia—and indeed the wider world. It has established a hydro-hegemony unparalleled on any continent by annexing in 1951 the Tibetan Plateau, the starting place of major international rivers. Another sprawling territory Beijing forcibly absorbed, Xinjiang, is the source of the transnational Irtysh and Ili Rivers. Given that China is at the geographical hub of Asia, sharing land or sea frontiers with 20 countries, no rules-based regional order can emerge without its participation in institutionalized cooperation. This challenge is most striking on transboundary rivers.

The Tibetan Plateau is central in Asia's water map

The Tibetan Plateau is central in Asia’s water map

Not content with the large number of dams, reservoirs, barrages, and irrigation networks it has already built, the Chinese government in early 2013 unveiled plans to build new cascades of dams, many of them on major rivers flowing to other countries. The decision by China’s State Council to ride roughshod over downstream countries’ concerns and proceed unilaterally showed that the main issue facing Asia is not readiness to accommodate China’s rise but the need to persuade its leaders to institutionalize cooperation with neighboring countries.

Most of China’s dams serve multiple functions, including generating electric power and supplying water for manufacturing, mining, irrigation, and households. Dam building in downstream countries, although stoking interstate disputes too, pales in comparison with the extent of China’s dam building. For example, China’s latest dam on the Mekong River, the 5,850-megawatt Nuozhadu, can alone generate more electricity than the combined installed hydropower capacity in the lower-Mekong countries at present. The 330-megawatt Indian dam project on the Kishenganga (Neelum) stream that prompted Pakistan to invoke international arbitration proceedings under the Indus Treaty in 2010 is of a size that Chinese dam builders would scoff at, considering it uneconomical as a stand-alone project unconnected to a cascade of dams. In fact, the largest dam India has built since independence, the 2,000-megawatt Tehri on the Bhagirathi River, is not large by Chinese standards. Tehri is capable of producing barely one-tenth of the electricity generated by China’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s biggest.

By ramping up the size of its dams, China now not only boasts the world’s largest number of mega-dams, but it has also emerged as the biggest global producer of hydropower, with an installed generating capacity of nearly 230 gigawatts. The serious environmental and social problems spawned by the Three Gorges Dam—which officially uprooted 1.7 million Chinese—have failed to dampen China’s hyperactive dam building.

In its 2013 actions, China’s State Council, seeking to boost the country’s hydropower capacity by another 120 gigawatts, identified 54 new dams—in addition to the ones currently under construction—as “key construction projects” in a revised energy-sector plan up to 2015. Most of the new dams are planned in the biodiversity-rich southwest, where natural ecosystems and indigenous cultures are increasingly threatened. Among the slew of newly approved dam projects are five on the Salween and three each on the Brahmaputra and the Mekong. China has already built six mega-dams on the Mekong, the lifeblood for continental Southeast Asia.

The new damming plans threaten both the Salween River’s Grand Canyon—a UNESCO World Heritage site—and the pristine, environmentally sensitive upstream areas through which the Brahmaputra and the Mekong flow. These three international rivers originate on the Tibetan plateau, whose bounteous water resources have become a magnet for Chinese planners. The Salween, which runs through Yunnan Province into Myanmar and along the Thai border for a stretch before draining into the Andaman Sea, will cease to be Asia’s last largely free-flowing river once work is completed on the giant 4,200-megawatt Songta Dam in Tibet.

The State Council decision reversed the suspension of dam building on the Salween announced by Premier Wen Jiabao in 2004, after an international uproar over the start of multiple megaprojects in the National Nature Reserves, adjacent to a world heritage area—a stunning canyon region through which the Salween, the Mekong, and the Jinsha flow in parallel. The decision to resume work on dams along the rim of the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Area was consistent with the pattern established elsewhere, including the Yangtze: China temporarily suspends a controversial plan after major protests in order to let public passions cool and to buy time, before resurrecting the same plan.

China’s new dam projects on the Brahmaputra, the main river running through northeastern India and eastern Bangladesh, have meanwhile prompted the Indian government to advise China to “ensure that the interests of downstream states are not harmed” by the upstream works. Water has emerged as a new divide in Sino-Indian relations. Then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally proposed to Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang in separate meetings in the spring of 2013 that the two countries enter into a water treaty or establish an intergovernmental institution to define mutual rights and responsibilities on shared rivers. Both Xi and Li, however, spurned the proposal. The Indian assumption that booming bilateral trade would make Beijing more amenable to solving the border and water disputes with India has clearly been belied.

Indeed, China is damming not just the Brahmaputra, on which it has already completed several dams, but also other rivers in Tibet that flow into India. It has built a dam each on the Indus and the Sutlej and unveiled plans to erect a cascade of dams on the Arun River, which helps augment downstream Ganges flows and is thus critical for India to meet its water-sharing treaty obligations vis-à-vis Bangladesh. The flash floods that ravaged India’s Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh states between 2000 and 2005 were linked to the unannounced releases from rain-swollen Chinese dams and barrages.

The Brahmaputra is a huge attraction for China’s dam program because this river’s cross-border annual discharge of 165.4 billion cubic meters into India is greater than the combined transboundary flows of the three key rivers running from the Tibetan plateau to Southeast Asia—the Mekong, the Salween, and the Irrawaddy. An officially blessed book published in 2005, Tibet’s Waters Will Save China, openly championed the northward rerouting of the mighty Brahmaputra, although it is unclear whether this idea is technically feasible.[15] As China gradually moves its dam building on the Brahmaputra from the upper reaches to the river’s lower water-rich Great Bend—the area where the Brahmaputra makes a U-turn around the Himalayas to enter India, forming the world’s longest and steepest canyon in the process—it is expected to embark on Mekong-style mega-dams.

More fundamentally, China’s new focus on building dams in its southwest carries transnational safety concerns because this is an earthquake-prone region. Indeed, some Chinese scientists blamed the massive 2008 earthquake that struck the Tibetan Plateau’s eastern rim, killing 87,000 people, mainly in Sichuan Province, on the newly constructed Zipingpu Dam, located beside a seismic fault.[16] The weight of the water impounded in the 156-meter-high dam’s massive reservoir was said to have triggered severe tectonic stresses, or what scientists call reservoir-triggered seismicity (RTS). China’s southwest is an area of high seismic activity because it sits on the fault line where the Indian Plate collides against the Eurasian Plate.

To be sure, China, despite its riparian dominance in Asia, faces important water challenges internally. Although China’s average renewable water resources are 2,051 cubic meters per capita annually, the figure is just 700 cubic meters in its water-stressed north, home to nearly half the country’s population.[17] The intrastate disparity in water availability is compounded by the fact that the largely parched north serves as the country’s agricultural and industrial heartland. This has contributed to serious surface-water pollution and the steady depletion of groundwater resources in the north.

Yet such is its fixation on supply-side measures that China is to spend a staggering $290 billion under its current five-year plan on water-related infrastructure projects, including dams.[18] At a time when dam building has run into growing grassroots opposition in Asian democracies like Japan, South Korea, and India, China will remain the nucleus of the world’s dam projects. Significantly, China is also the global leader in exporting dams.

While the dams China is building in Africa and Latin America are largely designed to supply the energy for its mineral-resource extraction and processing, many of the dam projects in Southeast Asia financed and undertaken by Chinese state-run firms are intended to generate electricity for export to China’s own market. Indeed, China is demonstrating that it has no qualms about building dams in disputed territories, such as Pakistan-administered Kashmir, or in areas torn by ethnic separatism, like northern Myanmar. At home, by embarking on a series of dams in its ethnic-minority-populated borderlands, China is seeking to appropriate river waters before they cross its frontiers, thereby exacerbating ethnic tensions through the submergence of land and displacement of residents.

China’s overseas dam projects have drawn attention to their mounting environmental and human costs. For example, work on the Myitsone Dam—the biggest of the seven dam projects in Myanmar sponsored by China to import electricity—instigated new disputes and fighting, ending a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army and government forces, before authorities shocked Beijing by suspending the project in late 2011. The bold action set the stage for Myanmar’s own transformation from military rule and a virtual Chinese client state to a country that has opened its doors to political and economic reform, attracting global investors and the first-ever visit by a U.S. president. The question haunting Chinese policymakers today is, “Who lost Burma?”

As for China’s dam projects at home, the countries likely to bear the brunt of the Chinese thirst for power and control over transboundary waters are those located farthest downstream on rivers like the Brahmaputra, the Mekong, and the Ili: Bangladesh, whose future is threatened by climate and environmental change; Vietnam, a rice bowl of Asia; and Kazakhstan, which boasts 17,000 natural lakes but whose own overexploitation of water resources has already dried up 8,000 small lakes.[19]

Whereas the Brahmaputra is the largest source of freshwater for Bangladesh, Vietnam is located downstream on two rivers flowing in from the edge of the Tibetan plateau: the Red River, the main watercourse of northern Vietnam; and the Mekong, the principal river of southern Vietnam. China’s water appropriations from the Ili threaten to turn Kazakhstan’s largest lake—Balkhash, spread over 18,000 square kilometers—into another Aral Sea, which has become the symbol of human-made environmental disaster. Diversion of water for irrigation from the Ili Basin already “has led to ecological problems in the region, notably the drying up of small lakes.”[20]

At a time when upstream Chinese dams have helped stir popular passions in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, the U.S. has sought to diplomatically cash in on downstream concerns by launching the Lower Mekong Initiative, or LMI. The U.S.-sponsored LMI—seeking to promote integrated cooperation among Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam in the areas of environment, education, health, and infrastructure—emphasizes sustainable hydropower development and natural resource management, including improving institutional capacity to address connected transnational issues. The LMI, however, cannot obscure the imperative to build institutionalized cooperative arrangements involving all the Mekong basin states, including China. One U.S. official has urged Beijing to overcome its loathing of institutionalized water cooperation and join the Mekong River Commission, which was set up in 1995 to foster integrated and sustainable management of basin resources.[21]

The situation in the basin has also been roiled by Laotian and Cambodian plans to build dams on the Mekong, including with Chinese financial and technical aid. Laos, which wants to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia by selling electricity to its neighbors, has courted regional controversy by starting work on the 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi (Sayabouly) Dam and unveiling a plan to build the smaller 260-megawatt Don Sahong Dam near its iconic Khone Falls area in the south, just before the river enters Cambodia. Environmentalists have warned that the Xayaburi Dam, which Laos began constructing over its neighbors’ objections, posed a potential threat to the survival of the wild population of the Mekong giant catfish.


Another zone of water discord centers on India, which has multiple riparian identities. It is the uppermost riparian on some rivers that originate on its territory, such as the Chenab and the Jhelum, which flow to Pakistan, and the Teesta, which drains a part of northern Bangladesh. India is the mid-riparian on the Brahmaputra and the main Indus stream. And India is the lowermost riparian on the rivers that begin in Tibet and flow southward via Nepal to empty into the Ganges Basin, such as the Karnali, the Gandak, and the Kosi (Arun). Besides India, few other states in Asia fall in all the three categories—upper, middle, and lower riparian. Indeed, such is India’s geographical spread that it has a direct stake in all the important river basins in South Asia.

Because of its mottled riparian status, India is potentially affected by water-related actions of states located upstream—China, Nepal, and Bhutan—while its own actions can carry a cross-border impact on Pakistan or Bangladesh. No nation is more vulnerable to China’s re-engineering of transboundary flows than India because it alone receives nearly half of all river waters that leave Chinese territory. A total of 718 billion cubic meters of surface water flows out of Chinese territory yearly, of which 48.33% runs directly into India.[22] (Some additional Tibetan waters also flow to India via Nepal.) Bangladesh, on the other hand, has one of the world’s highest dependency ratios with regard to cross-border inflows, receiving 91.3% of its water from India, although a sizable portion of that water originates in Tibet.

India confronts a deepening water crisis, which is more acute than China’s. Yet India’s per capita capacity to store water for dry-season release (200 cubic meters yearly) is one of the world’s lowest; indeed, it is 11 times lower than China’s (2,200 cubic meters).[23] The 2030 Water Resources Group—a consortium of private social-sector organizations providing insights into worldwide water issues—has a dire warning for India: the country is likely to face a 50% deficit between water demand and supply by 2030.[24] India’s own agencies say it must nearly double its annual grain production to more than 450 million tons by 2050 to meet the demands of increasing prosperity and a growing population, or risk becoming a major food importer—a development that will disrupt the already tight international food markets.[25] The growing water shortages also threaten to slow Indian economic growth and fuel social tensions.

With water increasingly at the center of interprovincial feuds in India, the country’s Supreme Court has struggled for years to settle water-related lawsuits, with several of the parties returning to litigate on new grounds. Plans for large water projects in India, meanwhile, have run into stiff opposition from influential nongovernment organizations (NGOs), so that it has become increasingly difficult to build a large dam, blighting the promise of hydropower. Proof of this was the federal government’s 2010 decision to abandon three dam projects on the Bhagirathi River, a Ganges tributary, including one that was already half-built, with authorities having spent $139 million on construction work and ordered equipment worth $288 million.

Yet, seeking to exercise the right of prior appropriation on transnational rivers, the Indian government has since 2012 approved the construction of several dams for electric-power generation in the Himalayan states of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and Jammu and Kashmir. They include the Tawang (800 megawatt), Tato (700 megawatt), Subansiri Upper (1,800 megawatt), and Teesta (520 megawatt) projects. Cost and time overruns are common problems in every dam project in India. But given the growing grassroots power of NGOs in blocking dam building, it is unclear which of the newly approved projects will be completed and in what time frame.

In truth, India demonstrates that dams and democracy normally don’t go well together. Whereas China continues to build giant dams and reroute rivers, trumpeting these projects as symbols of its engineering prowess, the public pressures generated by India’s democracy act as a brake on ambitious water projects that displace many people or flood vast areas. For example, while India’s river-linking plan remains in the realm of fantasy, China’s similar program began transferring water domestically through the Eastern Route by 2013.

Still, given the growing gap between Asian water demand and supply, water disputes are almost as rife between India and its neighbors as they are between China and its neighbors. There are, however, two key differences. One, India has water pacts with all its riparian neighbors other than China. And two, its water-sharing treaties with Bangladesh and Pakistan contain dispute-settlement mechanisms.

The Indus Treaty, according to a 2011 majority staff report prepared for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is “considered the world’s most successful water treaty, having remained relatively intact for 50 years and having withstood four Indo-Pakistani wars.”[26] Yet this treaty has not been able to stop bilateral water disputes from surfacing and embittering relations. The treaty, however, contains elaborate provisions to resolve differences or disputes through the appointment of a neutral international expert or a court of arbitration. These mechanisms help to moderate disagreements, ensuring that they do not escalate to conflict.

Still, the reality is that water shortages have become acute in Pakistan, which maintains one of Asia’s highest population-growth rates. The total quantum of cross-border flows into Pakistan from India has not materially changed over the years, in spite of genuine concerns over the impact of global warming. The inflows include an average of 167.2 billion cubic meters yearly from the three large rivers reserved for Pakistan under the Indus Treaty, plus 11.1 billion cubic meters in bonus waters that run across the border from the three smaller rivers set aside for India’s use. So, Pakistan’s effective share, according to the U.N., adds up to 85.9% of the 207.6 billion cubic meters in total yearly flows of the six Indus-system rivers.[27] In other words, Pakistan’s share of transboundary waters is greater than that of Egypt, another state located farthest downstream on a major international river system.

But with Pakistan’s per capita water availability falling in proportion to its population expansion, the country has since the 1980s gone from being a water-sufficient country to becoming a water-stressed one. It is now headed toward acute water scarcity. India’s own portion of the Indus Basin is reeling under growing water stress, with the deficit between water supply and demand estimated at 52%.[28] Both Pakistan and India thus face difficult choices on water that are likely to be compounded by climate change, including the accelerated thawing of glaciers—a significant source of meltwaters for the major rivers, particularly the Indus and the Brahmaputra.[29]  Dealing with the challenges demands greater bilateral water cooperation, which hinges on improved India-Pakistan relations.

Low-lying Bangladesh, for its part, has too much water during the annual four-month monsoon, when large parts of the deltaic country become inundated, and too little in the dry season, which runs from early spring to early summer. Bangladesh’s annual per capita water availability averages 8,252 cubic meters—or more than five times that of India—but the major interseasonal variations, which are larger than that in any other South Asian country, and the limited storage capacity of its aquifers, make its water situation difficult.

India’s 1996 Ganges water-sharing treaty with Bangladesh, which ended protracted acrimony over the diversion of water by India’s Farakka Barrage, guarantees the downstream state specific cross-border flows in the critical dry season—a new principle in international water relations. This provision means that even if the river’s flows were to diminish due to reasons beyond India’s control—such as climate change or the planned Chinese damming of a key Ganges tributary, the Arun (also known as the Kosi) that contributes significantly to downstream Ganges water levels—India would still be obligated to supply Bangladesh with 34,060 cubic feet of water per second of time (cusecs) on average in the dry season, as stipulated by the treaty. Bangladesh’s share of downstream flows is about 50%.

The Ganges Treaty, by and large, has been smoothly implemented, but new disagreements have flared over smaller river basins shared by Bangladesh and India, especially over New Delhi’s proposed revival of a long-dormant multipurpose dam project, Tipaimukh, in remote Manipur State bordering Myanmar. Located 210 kilometers upstream from the Bangladesh border on the Barak River and designed to control floods, improve river navigation, and generate 1,500 megawatts of hydropower, the Tipaimukh Dam had been held up for years by grassroots concerns on the Indian side over displacement and submergence. To help resolve bilateral differences over this plan, India has arranged tours for Bangladeshi officials and lawmakers to the project site and supplied the design and other technical details.

Separately, Bangladesh wants India to reserve for it about half of the waters of the Teesta River, which originates in the Himalayan Indian state of Sikkim and ultimately merges with the Brahmaputra in the Bangladeshi delta. The draft text of the proposed Teesta Treaty has been under discussion since at least 2010, and the two countries would have signed the agreement in 2013 but for the opposition of the government of India’s West Bengal State, for whose northern part the Teesta serves as the lifeline. Many believe that it is only a matter of time before this agreement is signed, a development that will end the long global absence of a new water-sharing treaty since 2002, when Syria and Lebanon agreed on a sharing formula on their small border river El-Kaber.

Two other South Asian states, Nepal and Bhutan, sit on vast untapped Himalayan hydropower reserves. Nepal, which remains in danger of becoming a failed state, holds up to 83,000 megawatts of potential hydropower reserves, yet it produces less than 1,000 megawatts of electricity for its 32 million citizens from all sources of energy and actually imports power from India. Several water treaties underpin the India-Nepal relationship, but the pacts have been particularly controversial in upstream Nepal, where many seem to believe that they are loaded in India’s favor. The two neighbors thus have made slow progress on bilateral water collaboration, with Nepal recently turning to China for dam construction. The Bhutan-India water relationship, by contrast, has flourished through joint, small-scale hydropower projects, with electricity exports swelling Bhutanese coffers.

If the already difficult water situation on the Indian subcontinent is to be prevented from deteriorating, much greater interstate and intrastate cooperation is needed. This is one of the world’s most-densely populated and thirstiest regions. Yet it is wracked by complex water challenges that are set to become more difficult due to demographic and economic expansion and global warming. This region has virtually the same land area as Central Asia, but a population that is more than 18 times larger. Its water resources are barely six times greater than those of Central Asia. In global terms, the countries of South Asia account for about 22% of the world’s population, but make do with barely 8.3% of the global water resources.[30]


The situation in Asia—the hub of global water challenges—shows that water can be fashioned into a hidden political weapon by various means, including the denial or delayed transfer of hydrological data, and that a powerful state can wield the water weapon irrespective of whether it is located upstream or downstream. In a diplomatic or economic sense, water wars are already being waged between riparian neighbors in several of Asia’s subregions. With a number of Asian nations jockeying to control transnational water resources, even as they demand transparency and the sharing of information about their neighbors’ hydroengineering projects, sharpening water competition could provoke greater tensions and conflict.

Such competition actually underscores Asia’s broader challenges, which threaten its continued rise. To be sure, the ongoing global power shifts are primarily linked to Asia’s economic rise, the speed and scale of which have been phenomenal. But Asia faces major constraints. It must cope with entrenched territorial and maritime disputes; harmful historical legacies that weigh down its most important interstate relationships; increasingly fervent nationalism; growing religious extremism; and sharpening competition over water, energy, and other resources.

Moreover, Asia’s political integration lags behind its economic integration and, to compound matters, it has no overarching security framework. One central concern is that, unlike Europe’s bloody wars of the first half of the 20th century, which made war there unthinkable until the advent of the Ukraine crisis recently, the wars in Asia in the second half of the 20th century only accentuated bitter rivalries. Several interstate wars have been fought in Asia since 1950, when both the Korean War and the annexation of Tibet started, without resolving the underlying disputes. Given the significant role that natural resources have historically played in global strategic relations—including instigating conflict—Asia’s increasingly murky resource geopolitics threatens to exacerbate existing interstate tensions.

Water-sharing disputes have become common across Asia. Measures taken by one nation or province to augment its water supply or storage capacity often threaten to adversely affect downstream basins, thereby stoking political or ethnic tensions. To compound matters, governmental or commercial decisions on where to set up new manufacturing or energy plants are increasingly being influenced by local availability of adequate water resources. Attempts to set up water-intensive energy or manufacturing plants in already water-stressed areas have provoked strong local protests, including violent confrontations with police.

Today, it has become virtually impossible to set up nuclear power plants along freshwater bodies in Asia, the center of the so-called global nuclear renaissance. These water-guzzling plants perforce have to be erected along coastlines so that they can rely on seawater for their operations. Yet the 2011 Fukushima disaster has served as a warning of the vulnerability of seaside nuclear facilities to extreme weather events, which are likely to become more common in an increasingly global-warming-driven environment. Meanwhile, the proliferation of new dam projects highlights the continuing Asian efforts to engineer potential solutions to the water crisis via traditional supply-side approaches when the imperative is instead to adopt smart water management.

Against this background, the big question is: how can the struggle for water be prevented from becoming a tipping point for overt conflict? Strategic competition over natural resources will continue to shape Asia’s security dynamics, yet the associated risks could be moderated if Asia’s leaders were to establish norms and institutions aimed at building rules-based cooperation. Unfortunately, little progress has been made in this direction, as underlined by the absence of institutionalized cooperation in the vast majority of transnational river basins.

Averting water wars demands rule-based cooperation, water sharing, uninterrupted data flow, and dispute-settlement mechanisms. Transparency, collaboration, and sharing are the building blocks of water peace. Asia also needs new market mechanisms, public-private partnerships, innovative practices and technologies, conservation, and astute management to advance adaptation and affordable solutions and thereby open the path to a more sustainable and peaceful environment to safeguard its continued rise.

Asian economies must focus on three specific areas to mitigate their water crisis. One is achieving greater water-use efficiency and productivity, especially by controlling profligate agricultural practices. Another is using new clean-water technologies to open up nontraditional supply sources, including desalinated ocean and brackish water and recycled wastewater. The third is expanding and enhancing water infrastructure to correct regional and seasonal imbalances in water availability, and to harvest rainwater, which can be an additional supply source to help ease shortages. Improving water-supply management calls for abandoning the business-as-usual outlook and embracing unconventional approaches.

Renewed efforts are also needed to try and co-opt China in basin-level institutions. Without China’s active participation in water institutions, it will not be possible to transform Asian competition into cooperation. Only water institutions involving all important co-riparians can make headway to regulate inter-country competition, help balance the rights and obligations of co-basin states, and promote sustainable practices. If China were to accept rule-based cooperation, it would have to strike a balance between its right to harness transnational water resources for its development and a corresponding obligation (embedded in customary international law and the 1997 United Nations Convention) not to cause palpable harm to any co-riparian state.

A balance between rights and obligations indeed is at the heart of how to achieve harmonious, rule-based relations between co-basin states. To be sure, any water arrangement’s comparative benefits and burdens should be such that the advantages outweigh the duties and responsibilities, or else the state that sees itself as a loser may walk out of discussions or fail to comply with its obligations. China must be persuaded that its diplomatic and economic interests would be better served by joining forward-looking institutionalized cooperation. Beijing will need considerable convincing, of course, if it is to participate in any basin-level framework centered on compromise, coordination, and collaboration. If China insists on staying on its current unilateralist course, the risk is not only that it will define and implement its water interests in ways irreconcilable with those of its co-riparian states, but also that prospects for a rule-based order in Asia could perish forever.

The dirty little secret about bilateral or multilateral water cooperation in any basin is that it is really more about politics than about law. Without improved inter-country relations and better trust, Asia’s hydropolitics will remain grating. Strained political relations in most of Asia’s subregions make an Asia-wide security structure or more effective resource cooperation difficult to achieve. Connected with this is the overarching challenge for Asian countries to eliminate the baggage of history that is preventing them from charting a more stable and peaceful future. Unassuaged historical grievances have constricted diplomatic space for building political accommodation and reconciliation. Asian states must find ways to overcome their histories of antagonism to build cooperation. As a Russian proverb warns, “Forget the past and lose an eye; dwell on the past and lose both eyes.”


[1] United Nations, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision (New York: UN, April 2012).

[2] Brahma Chellaney, Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), p. 273.

[3] World Bank, Cost of Pollution in China: Economic Estimates of Physical Damages (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2007), <>.

[4] United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Aquastat online database. Figures for 2011,

[5] United Nations, The State of the Environment in Asia and the Pacific 2005 (Bangkok: United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, 2006), pp. 57-58.

[6] A. Y. Hoekstra and A. K. Chapagain, Globalization of Water: Sharing the Planet’s Freshwater Resources (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008); and Food and Agriculture Organization, Water Resources of the Near-East Region: A Review (Rome: FAO, 1997).

[7] FAO, Aquastat online database.

[8] Ibid.

[9] For a list of agreements China advertises, see Annex I in Patricia Wouters and Huiping Chen, “China’s ‘Soft-Path’ to Transboundary Water Cooperation Examined in the Light of Two UN Global Water Conventions—Exploring the ‘Chinese Way’,” The Journal of Water Law 22:6 (2011), pp. 246-47.

[10] U.S. Attorney General Opinions, 21 Op. Att’y Gen. 274 (1895) (‘‘Harmon Opinion’’). Attorney General Judson Harmon wrote in 1895 that ‘‘the fundamental principle of international law is the absolute sovereignty of every nation, as against all others, within its own territory.’’ Hon. Judson Harmon to the Secretary of State, December 12, 1895, in E. C. Brandenburg, ed., Official Opinions: The Attorneys-General of the United States, Advising the President and Heads of Departments,vol. 21 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1898), p. 281.

[11] Statement of Chinese envoy Gao Feng at the United Nations General Assembly, May 21, 1997, in “General Assembly Adopts Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses,” United Nations Press Release, GA/9248, <>.

[12] Michael Schwirtz and Ellen Barry, “Russia Weighs Pleas to Step in as Uzbeks Flee Kyrgyzstan,” New York Times, June 14, 2010.

[13] Chellaney, Water, Peace, and War, p. 233. Also see International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), “Register of Dams,” <>.

[14] Philip Micklin, “The Aral Sea Disaster,” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 35 (May 2007), pp. 47–72.

[15] Li Ling, Xizang Zhi Shui Jiu Zhongguo: Da Xi Xian Zai Zao Zhongguo Zhan Lue Nei Mu Xiang Lu [Tibet’s Waters Will Save China], in Mandarin (Beijing: Zhongguo Chang’an chu ban she, November 2005), book sponsored by the Ministry of Water Resources.

[16]Shemin Ge, Mian Liu, Ning Lu, Jonathan W. Godt, and Gang Luo, “Did the Zipingpu Reservoir Trigger the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake?” Geophysical Research Letters 36 (2009). Also see Richard Kerr and Richard Stone, “A Human Trigger for the Great Quake of Sichuan,” Science, 323, no. 5912 (January 16, 2009); Sharon La Franiere, “Possible Link Between Dam and China Quake,” New York Times, February 6, 2009; and Jordan Lite, “Great China Earthquake May Have Been Man-Made,” Scientific American, February 3, 2009.

[17] United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Country Fact-Sheet: China, Aquastat, 2014, <>.

[18] Leslie Hook, “China: High and Dry,” Financial Times, May 14, 2013.

[19] United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Irrigation in the Countries of the Former Soviet Union in Figures, FAO Water Report No. 15 (Rome: FAO, 1997).

[20] FAO, Irrigation in the Countries of the Former Soviet Union.

[21] Joshua Lipes, “China Should Join Mekong Commission: U.S. Official,” Radio Free Asia, January 9, 2014, <>.

[22] FAO, Aquastat online database.

[23] Chellaney, Water, Peace, and War, p. 287.

[24] 2030 Water Resources Group (Barilla Group, Coca-Cola Company, International Finance Corporation, McKinsey & Company, Nestlé S.A., New Holland Agriculture, SABMiller PLC, Standard Chartered Bank, and Syngenta AG), Charting Our Water Future (New York: 2030 Water Resources Group, 2009), p. 10.

[25] Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development, Integrated Water Resource Development: A Plan for Action, vol. 1 (New Delhi: Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development, Ministry of Water Resources, 1999); National Water Development Agency, Indian Ministry of Water Resources, “The Need,” <>.

[26] United States Senate, Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia’s Growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, A Majority Staff Report, Prepared for the Use of the Committee on Foreign Relations (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, February 22, 2011), p. 7.

[27] United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Irrigation in Southern and Eastern Asia in Figures, Water Report 37 (Rome: FAO, 2012). The figure does not include the waters of the Kabul River, which flows from Afghanistan to join the main Indus stream in Pakistan.

[28] 2030 Water Resources Group, Charting Our Water Future, p. 56.


Walter W. Immerzeel, Ludovicus P. H. van Beek, and Marc F. P. Bierkens, “Climate Change Will Affect the Asian Water Towers,” Science 328:5983 (June 11, 2010), pp. 1384–85.

[30] FAO, Aquastat online database.

Asian Survey, Vol. 54, Number 4, pp. 621–650. ISSN0004-4687, electronic ISSN1533-838X.

Copyright 2014 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website, DOI: 10.1525/AS.2014.54.4.621.

The Chinese Art of Creeping, Covert Warfare

Brahma Chellaney, Mint, December 25, 2013

With its increasingly powerful military calling the shots in strategic policy, China’s jurisdictional creep in Asia is manifesting itself in three distinct ways. One mode is by air, as illustrated by its new air defense identification zone (ADIZ) — an action that lays unilateral claims to international airspace over the East China Sea and covers territories that China does not control. Another method is territorial creep by sea. And the third approach is encroachment by land to strengthen its military position and claims against India.

China is working to alter the status quo in Asia little by little as part of a high-stakes effort to extend its control to strategic areas and resources and to gain Asian primacy.

China’s persistent territorial nibbling reflects a strategy of extended coercion against neighbors that aims simultaneously to neutralize America’s extended deterrence in the Asian theater. Unlike the U.S., which has multiple allies and strategic partners, including a hub-and-spoke framework centered on bilateral security treaties, China is a lonely rising power with no real allies, yet propping up two renegade states, North Korea and Pakistan, to secure narrow sub-regional geopolitical advantages.

Through extended coercion, China is waging creeping, covert warfare in Asia while keeping the U.S. at bay. Washington, far from coming to the aid of its allies and strategic partners, has chartered a course of neutrality on sovereignty disputes so as to protect its deep engagement with China.

In practice, the strategy of extended coercion translates into salami slicing. This involves a steady progression of small steps, none of which is dramatic enough to become a cause of war by itself, yet which cumulatively lead over time to a strategic transformation in China’s favor. By creating new facts on the ground by stealth, China seeks to grab the “salami” it covets in slices as part of a plan to bamboozle and outwit the opponent.

By moving slowly and quietly but inexorably, China undercuts the relevance of U.S. security assurances to allies and the value of building countervailing strategic partnerships between and among Asian states and America. More importantly, this salami-slice approach seriously limits the military options of rival states by confounding their deterrence plans and making it difficult for them to devise proportionate or effective counteractions.

China’s strategy seeks to ensure the initiative remains with it. Take India: It is locked in a very defensive and militarily challenging posture vis-à-vis China along what is the world’s longest and most-forbidding disputed border. Whether Beijing wishes to keep India under sustained pressure through cross-frontier incursions or catch India militarily by surprise through a Depsang-style deep but localized encroachment or a 1962-type multipronged invasion, it has ample leeway and capability.

In recent years, China has been pressing steadily outwards on its borders, intimidating its neighbors in a relentless territorial creep. The pace at which China’s bit-by-bit strategy proceeds depends on the extent to which its opponents marshal political will and the capability to resist it. The strategy, for example, has run into stiffer obstacles vis-à-vis an unyielding Japan than with a weaker Philippines.

Nearly 65 years after the communist takeover in China, the country is still seeking to expand its political frontiers, even though Han territorial power is now at its historical zenith. China has never been as large as it is today, except when it was ruled by the foreign Mongol and Manchu dynasties.

Yet China remains territorially a revolutionary power bent on upending the status quo in Asia. Its assertive claims springing from revisionist history — along with its unilateralist approach to international law and its penchant for brinkmanship — threaten Asian peace and stability.

Let’s be clear: Changing the territorial status quo has remained the unfinished business of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since its founding in 1949, when it set out to forcibly absorb the sprawling Xinjiang and Tibetan plateau — actions that increased the landmass of China by 44 percent.

An emboldened PRC then went on to seize the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin plateau of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in the 1950s, the Paracel Islands in 1974, the Johnson South Reef in 1988, the Mischief Reef in 1995 and, most recently, the Scarborough Shoal (2012) and the Second Thomas Shoal (2013). Its growing military might has strengthened its expansionist impulse.

Yet the apologists for China in India — as elsewhere — are still seeking to whitewash its record of aggression. Belgian scholar Pierre Ryckmans — publishing under the pen name of Simon Leys — coined the phrase the “100 percenters” to describe the PRC fan club members who support whatever China does or says 100%.

The “100 percenters” in India have actually gone to the extent of blaming their own country for “inviting” the 1962 Chinese attack. These inveterate appeasers do not deny that it was China that attacked India, a historical fact beyond the pale of controversy. However, their thesis — relying on a controversial 1970 book by the Australian journalist Neville Maxwell, whose Marxist orientation and deep-seated prejudice against India colored his writings — is that China was provoked into attacking India to defend its honor and dignity and to stop further Indian provocations.

Blaming the victim for inviting the aggression echoes the argument of warped minds that rape victims often invite the assault. It is a thesis that only the true “100 percenters” could have propounded. The historical fact is that the PRC launched a forward policy of aggression from 1950 onwards, gobbling up Tibet and then nibbling at Indian territories, prompting India to belatedly forward deploy some ill-equipped and ill-trained forces.

How could India, with a ragtag military and no robust defense (let alone offensive capability), have itched to take on China in 1962? The Harvard scholar Roderick MacFarquhar has rightly dubbed 1962 “Mao’s India War,” detailing how the Chinese carefully planned the invasion and cleverly used Jawaharlal Nehru’s unguarded remarks (“our instructions are to free our territory”) to brand India as the aggressor.

Offense as defense has remained a core element in the PRC’s strategic doctrine. A Pentagon report published in 2010 has specific cases where China carried out military preemption in the name of a strategically defensive act. These examples include its intervention in the Korean War (1950), the 1962 attack, its initiation of a border conflict with the Soviet Union through a military ambush (1969), the Paracel Islands’ capture, and its invasion of Vietnam (1979).

Even in the more recent acts of aggression involving its seizure of the Johnson South Reef, the Mischief Reef, the Scarborough Shoal and the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, China claimed it was provoked into carrying out those actions by Vietnam and the Philippines.

Changing facts on the ground is a strategy the PRC first honed at home by staging demographic aggression against ethnic-minority homelands, such as the Tibetan plateau, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, and gerrymandering Tibet. Today, China’s navy and new coast guard assert territorial and maritime claims in the South and East China Seas, while its army flexes its muscles in the high-altitude borderlands with India.

The pattern of Chinese territorial creep has become familiar: Construct a dispute, initiate a jurisdictional claim through periodic incursions, and then increase the frequency and duration of such intrusions, thereby establishing a military presence or pressuring a rival to cut a deal on China’s terms. This is in keeping with the PRC’s approach to territorial disputes: What is ours is ours and what is yours is negotiable. If an opponent refuses to give in, China employs punitive instruments from its diplomatic toolbox, including economic warfare.

Along land frontiers, rodent-style surreptitious attacks usually precede salami slicing. The aim is to start eating into enemy land like giant rodents and thereby facilitate the slicing. This strategy is particularly focused on the two strategic Buddhist regions located on opposite ends of the Himalayan frontier — Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.

Consider another provocative action: China’s new ADIZ covers territories it claims but does not control, setting a dangerous precedent in international relations. If China prevails in the game of chicken it has started against Japan, India will likely come under greater Chinese pressure.

Japan has asked its airlines to ignore China’s demand for advance notification of flights even if they are merely transiting the new zone and not heading toward Chinese territorial airspace. This demand, unusual by international ADIZ standards, impinges on the principle of freedom of navigation of the skies. Yet Washington has advised U.S. carriers to respect China’s ADIZ, opening a rift with Tokyo.

President Barack Obama’s administration has responded to China’s ADIZ with words of cautious criticism but no castigatory step. Indeed, Washington is urging restraint also on Japan’s part, lest any escalation force it to take sides, undermining its policy to manage China’s rise without trying to contain it.

One handicap Washington faces in seeking to combat the Chinese hegemonic strategy is American consumerism and the U.S. debt to China that has now reached $1.3 trillion. Inflows of cheap Chinese capital remain critical for the U.S. to finance its supersized budget deficits.

The U.S. is not willing to defend its allies’ territorial claims by acting in ways that could damage its relations with China, now central to its economic and political interests. Take the Chinese seizure of the Scarborough Shoal, located barely 200 kilometers west of the Philippines’ Subic Bay.

After lengthy negotiations, the U.S. in June 2012 brokered a deal for a mutual withdrawal of Chinese and Philippine maritime vessels from the area. The Philippines withdrew first on Chinese insistence but on a clear understanding that China will follow suit. China instead pursued a game of deception, giving the indication that it was withdrawing, only to reinforce its muscle power in the area and occupy the Scarborough Shoal.

In this light, Japan faces a deepening security dilemma. To rely on the security treaty with the U.S. in the event of a war with China would be risky for Japan, given America’s strategic compulsions. It would not be the first time that the U.S. failed to honor a treaty with another country. In fact, the U.S., despite a Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines that obligates the two nations to defend each another in the case of an attack, has done precious little in response to China’s occupation of the Scarborough Shoal.

The Obama administration’s actions on the world stage have been marked not by resolute leadership but by hesitation and doubt. Its stance not to challenge China directly only aids the Chinese incremental aggression in Asia.

In the absence of any geopolitical blowback, an emboldened China will continue to subvert the status quo to create a hegemonic Middle Kingdom. China’s key neighbors must overcome their differences and collaborate strategically.  Separately, they are outclassed by China but, collectively, they have the potential to rein in its expansionism.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research.

(c) Mint, 2013.

Do international rules apply only to weaker states?

By Brahma Chellaney

On the face of it, there is nothing in common between China’s Nov. 23 declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) extending to territories it does not control and America’s Dec. 12 arrest, strip-search and handcuffing of a New York-based Indian diplomat for allegedly underpaying a nanny she had brought with her from India. Still, these actions epitomize these powers’ unilateralist approach to international law.

A just, rules-based global order has long been touted by powerful states as essential for international peace and security. Yet there is a long history of major powers using international law against other states but not complying with it themselves, and even reinterpreting or making new multilateral rules to further their interests. The League of Nations failed because it could not punish or deter some powers from flouting international law.

Today, the United States and China serve as prime examples of a unilateralist approach to international relations, even as they aver support for strengthening international rules and institutions.

Take the U.S.: Its refusal to join a host of critical international treaties — ranging from the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses to the 1998 International Criminal Court Statute — has set a bad precedent. Add to the picture its international “invasions” in various forms, including cyber warfare and Orwellian surveillance, drone attacks, and regime-change interventions.

Unilateralism has remained the leitmotif of U.S. foreign policy, regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican is in the White House. Forget international law, President Barack Obama bypassed even Congress when he militarily effected a regime change in 2011 in Libya — an intervention that has backfired, sowing chaos and turning that country into a breeding ground for Al Qaeda-linked, transnational militants, some of whom assassinated the American ambassador there.

Carrying out foreign military interventions by cobbling coalitions together under the watchword “you’re either with us or against us” has exacted — as Iraq and Afghanistan attest — a staggering cost in blood and treasure without advancing U.S. interests in a tangible or sustainable manner.

Meanwhile, China’s growing geopolitical heft has emboldened its muscle-flexing and territorial nibbling in Asia, in disregard of international norms. China rejects some of the same treaties that the U.S. has declined to join, including the International Criminal Court Statute and the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses — the first law that lays down rules on the shared resources of transnational rivers, lakes and aquifers.

China has established a hydro-supremacy unparalleled in the world by annexing the starting places of multiple major international rivers — the Tibetan plateau and Xinjiang — and working to reengineer cross-border flows by building dams, barrages, and other structures. Yet China — the source of transboundary river flows to more countries than any other hydro-hegemon — rejects the very concept of water sharing and refuses to enter into institutionalized arrangements with any neighbor.

At the same time, China has been pressing steadily outward on its borders, intimidating its neighbors through military incursions as part of a relentless territorial creep.

China has never been as large as it is today, except when it was ruled by the foreign Mongol and Manchu dynasties. Yet China remains territorially a revolutionary power bent on upending the status quo in Asia. Its assertive claims rooted in revisionist history, along with its penchant for brinkmanship, threaten Asian peace and stability.

Through a strategy of “extended coercion,” China is waging creeping, covert warfare in Asia while seeking to neutralize U.S. extended deterrence so as to keep America at bay. Washington, far from coming to the aid of its allies and strategic partners, has chartered a course of neutrality on sovereignty disputes to help protect its deep engagement with China.

America’s appeal to China to act as a “responsible stakeholder” in the global system undergirds the need for the two powers to address their geopolitical dissonance. Yet the world’s most-powerful democracy and autocracy have much in common on how they approach international law.

For example, the precedent that the U.S. set in a 1984 International Court of Justice (ICJ) case filed by Nicaragua still resonates globally, underscoring that might remains right in international relations, instead of the rule of law.

The ICJ held that Washington violated international law both by aiding the contras in their insurrection against the Nicaraguan government and by mining Nicaragua’s harbors. The U.S. — which refused to participate in the proceedings after the court rejected its argument that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case — blocked the judgment’s enforcement by the U.N. Security Council, preventing Nicaragua from obtaining any compensation.

The only important country that has still not ratified UNCLOS is the U.S., preferring to reserve the right to act unilaterally. Yet it seeks to draw benefits from this convention, including freedom of navigation of the seas.

China, for its part, still appears to hew to Mao Zedong’s belief that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” So it will not consider international adjudication to resolve its territorial claims in, say, the South China Sea, more than 80 percent of which it now claims arbitrarily.

Indeed, it ratified UNCLOS only to reinterpret its provisions and unveil a nine-dashed claim line in the South China Sea and draw enclosing baselines around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Worse still, China has refused to accept the UNCLOS dispute-settlement mechanism in order to remain unfettered in altering facts on the ground.

The Philippines, which has lost effective control to a creeping China of first the Scarborough Shoal and then the Second Thomas Shoal since 2012, has filed a complaint against Beijing with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). Beijing, however, has simply refused to participate in the proceedings, as if it were above international law.

Whatever the tribunal’s decision, Beijing will simply shrug it off. Only the Security Council can enforce any international tribunal’s judgment on a noncompliant state. But China wields a veto there and will block enforcement of an adverse ruling, just as the U.S. did in the Nicaraguan case.

Even so, Beijing has mounted punitive pressures on Manila to withdraw its case, which seeks to invalidate China’s nine-dashed line. Beijing’s precondition that the Philippines abandon its case forced President Benigno Aquino to cancel his visit to the China-ASEAN Expo in Nanning three months ago.

Beijing’s new air-defense zone, while aimed at solidifying its claims to territories held by Japan and South Korea, is provocative because it extends to areas China does not control, setting a dangerous precedent in international relations. China and Japan, and China and South Korea, now have “dueling” ADIZs, increasing the risks of armed conflict, especially between Japan and China, in an atmosphere of nationalist grandstanding over conflicting claims.

Japan has asked its airlines to ignore China’s demand for advance notification of flights even if they are merely transiting the new zone and not heading toward Chinese territorial airspace. By contrast, the Obama administration has advised U.S. carriers to obey the prior-notification demand.

There is a reason why Washington has taken a different stance on this issue than its ally Japan: Although the prior-notification rule in American policy applies only to aircraft headed for U.S. national airspace, the U.S., in actual practice, demands advance notification of all civilian and military flights through its ADIZ, regardless of their intended destination.

If other countries emulated the example set by China and the U.S. to establish unilateral claims to international airspace, a dangerous situation would result. Before every country asserts the right to establish an ADIZ with its own standards, binding multilateral rules must be created to ensure the safety of the fast-growing commercial air traffic. But who will take the lead in this direction — the two countries that have pursued a unilateralist approach on this issue?

Now consider the case of the Indian diplomat, whose treatment India’s national security adviser called “despicable and barbaric.” The 39-year-old diplomat was arrested and handcuffed as she dropped off her daughter at a Manhattan school, then stripped and cavity-searched and kept in a cell with drug addicts and prostitutes for several hours before posting $250,000 bail.

True, this consular official enjoyed only limited diplomatic immunity under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR), unlike embassy-based diplomats who have broad protection under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR). But the VCCR guarantees freedom from detention until trial and conviction, except for “grave offenses.”

Can a wage dispute between a diplomat and her nanny qualify as a “grave offense” warranting arrest and humiliation? The U.S. would not have dared to arrest a Chinese or Russian diplomat for a similar offense. In fact, just days earlier on Dec. 5, when New York prosecutors charged 49 past or present Russian diplomats and their spouses for an alleged $1.5 million Medicaid fraud, no one was arrested, let alone strip-searched and handcuffed, although some of the defendants still worked in New York at the Russian Consulate and the Russian Mission to the United Nations.

The U.S. had no legal grounds to arrest the Indian diplomat because the alleged offense — violating an agreement on the wages of a single employee — cannot pass the “grave” test. The issue was not immunity but inviolability (from arrest, strip-search, and handcuffing) as guaranteed by the VCCR. Instead of treating her as a criminal, why didn’t the U.S. simply ask India to withdraw her? Would the U.S. tolerate similar treatment of one of its consular officers?

The harsh truth is that the U.S. interprets the VCCR restrictively at home but liberally overseas so as to shield even the spies and contractors it sends. A classic case involved the CIA contractor Raymond Davis — supposedly an “adviser” at the American consulate in Lahore, Pakistan — who fatally shot two men in 2011 on a Lahore street. Claiming that Davis was a bona fide diplomat who enjoyed immunity from prosecution, Washington accused Pakistan of “illegally detaining” him, with Obama defending him as “our diplomat.”

The U.S. included the name of Davis on the list of its diplomats serving in Pakistan only after he committed the double murder, according to Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s then ambassador to the U.S. The U.S. ultimately secured his release by paying “blood money” of about $2.4 million to the relatives of the men he killed.

When the U.S. invokes immunity for one of its diplomats, it is never for a trifling offense, such as underpayment to a nanny. In a case last July, the U.S. spirited out a diplomat from Kenya barely 24 hours after he rammed his speeding SUV into a full minibus, killing one and wounding eight others.

China, for its part, has not ratified even the U.N. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It persists with gross human-rights abuses.

Despite a widely held belief that the present international system is pivoted on rules, the fact is that major powers are rule makers and rule imposers, not rule takers. They have a propensity to violate or manipulate international law when it is in their interest to do so.

Given the innately self-calculating and self-aggrandizing human nature, nations — like individuals — have all through history sought to gain dominance over the weaker ones. The advent of new technologies and reduced transportation costs has made the world increasingly interdependent in trade and capital flows, with the interdependencies extending to technological, public-health, environmental, and climate spheres. Globalization, in turn, has spurred new international treaties and rules.

Yet the more the world has changed, the more it has remained the same in one basic aspect — the stronger still dominate the weaker.

While the weak remain meek, strength respects strength. The U.S. and China are careful not to tread on each other’s toes. Neither is willing to challenge the other directly.

China’s assertiveness has been largely directed at its neighbors. It did not veto the U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya that NATO used as a cover to oust the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. The U.S., for its part, has not only refused to take sides in the sovereignty disputes between China and its neighbors, but also failed to honor its Mutual Defense Treaty obligations with the Philippines despite China’s effective seizure of the Scarborough Shoal and the Second Thomas Shoal. Indeed, Washington has looked the other way as Beijing — in defiance of the guidelines of the U.S.-led Nuclear Suppliers Group (of which China is a member) — launched work on two new nuclear-power reactors in Pakistan in November 2013, in addition to the two reactors already in advanced stage of construction.

Universal conformity to a rules-based international order thus is still not on the horizon. Indeed, the real issue is as to who will guard the supposed guardians of the international system.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist. You can follow him on Twitter: @Chellaney.

Bridge between Europe and Asia — Strategic Challenges in the Indian Ocean

Brahma Chellaney, Körber Policy Brief No. 1

  • Geopolitical rivalry in the Indian Ocean has increased. Several boundary, sovereignty and jurisdiction disputes threaten freedom of navigation. China has become the most active power in the region and is challenging the existing balance of power.
  • With interstate competition over resources in the Indian Ocean sharpening, the EU should assist in creating a predictable regulatory regime and contribute to monitoring and enforcement of internationally agreed rules.
  • The EU is already playing a limited security and political role in the Indian Ocean region, where it has important economic interests at stake. It should support regional cooperation to reduce the risks of unilateral action by any side and to help build long-term regional crisis stability.

The Indian Ocean, which links Europe with Asia, is becoming the new global center of trade and energy flows. Spanning more than 73 million square kilometers, this critical ocean region is likely to determine the wider geopolitics, maritime order, and balance of power in Asia and beyond. In fact, in no part of the world is the security situation so dynamic and in such flux as in the Indian Ocean. This region, extending from Australia to the Middle East and Southern Africa, promises to become the hub of global geopolitical competition.

indian-oceanThe challenges in this region extend from traditional security threats to nontraditional and emerging challenges. The challenges are linked to its vast size: It is home to a third of the global population, with the littoral states there also accounting for 25 percent of the world’s landmass, 55 percent of its proven oil reserves, and 40 percent of its gas reserves. As symbolized by the 2004 Christmas-eve tsunami and by recurrent cyclones, the region is regularly battered by natural disasters. According to one estimate, 70 percent of the world’s natural disasters occur in this region alone.

The region’s littoral states are linked by a common history of sea faring. Yet, given that it has the world’s largest concentration of fragile or failing states, as exemplified by Somalia, Pakistan and the Maldives, this region represents the symbolic center of the global challenges of the 21st-century world — from terrorism and extremism to piracy and safety of sea lanes of communication. The Indian Ocean indeed covers the entire arc of Islam — from the Horn of Africa and the Saudi Arabian desert to Malaysia and the Indonesian archipelago — and is racked by the world’s highest incidence of transnational terrorism.

The region is on the frontlines of climate change. It thus has states whose future is imperiled by global warming. Such states extend from the island-nations of Mauritius and the Maldives to Bangladesh, whose land area is less than half the size of Germany but with a population more than double. Because it is made up largely of low-lying floodplains and deltas, Bangladesh risks losing 17 percent of its land and 30 percent of its food production by 2050 due to saltwater incursion resulting from the rising ocean level, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If, in the future, states like the Maldives and Mauritius were submerged, what would be the legal status of their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and the mineral wealth that these zones hold?

In the Indian Ocean region the old world order coexists uneasily with the new order.

The Indian Ocean illustrates other nontraditional security challenges as well — from environmental pollution, as exemplified by the brown cloud of sooty haze hanging over South Asia, and degradation of coastal ecosystems to a mercantilist approach to energy supplies and the juxtapositioning of energy interests with foreign-policy interests. Put simply, this is the region where old and new security challenges converge. In this region, the old order — as epitomized by the Anglo-American military base at Diego Garcia and the French-administered Réunion and other islands — coexists uneasily with the new order.

Because of the Indian Ocean’s importance to global trade and energy flows and the potential vulnerability of the chokepoints around it, sea-lane security has become a pressing concern. Important regional and extra-regional powers have sought to build maritime security by forging strategic partnerships with key littoral states in the Indian Ocean rim. The partnerships, principally aimed at safeguarding the various “gates” to the Indian Ocean, incorporate trade accords, naval training and joint exercises, counter-piracy operations, energy cooperation, and strategic dialogue.

The chokepoints, and the states adjacent to them, include the Strait of Malacca (Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia), the Strait of Hormuz (Iran and Oman), the Horn of Africa (Djibouti, Eritrea and Yemen), as well as the Cape of Good Hope and the Mozambique Channel (South Africa, Mozambique and Madagascar).

There are, however, a range of other strategic concerns in the Indian Ocean. Some players, including Iran and the United States, are not yet party to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China, although a party, has sought to unilaterally interpret UNCLOS’s provisions in its favor to assert maritime claims, while refusing to accept the Convention’s dispute-settlement mechanism. The Philippines, with apparent U.S. support, has filed a complaint against China with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), but China has simply declined to participate in the proceedings. Iran seized an Indian oil tanker in the autumn of 2013, holding it for nearly a month, but India could not file a case against Teheran with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

Boundary, sovereignty, and jurisdiction issues carry serious conflict potential.

There are outstanding boundary, sovereignty, and jurisdiction issues, some of which carry serious conflict potential. Bangladesh and Myanmar have set an example by peacefully resolving a dispute over the delimitation of their maritime boundaries in the Bay of Bengal. They took their dispute to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for adjudication. The Tribunal’s verdict, delivered in 2012, ended a potentially dangerous dispute that was fuelled in 2008 when, following the discovery of gas deposits in the Bay of Bengal, Myanmar authorized exploration in a contested area, prompting Bangladesh to dispatch warships to the area.

The threats to navigation and maritime freedoms in the Indian Ocean, including in critical straits and exclusive economic zones (EEZs), can be countered only through adherence to international rules by all parties as well as through monitoring, regulation, and enforcement. Significantly, several states in the region have sought to deny other powers freedom of navigation in their EEZs when they are engaged in military activity, such as surveillance by ship.

Deep seabed mining has emerged as a major new strategic issue.

Deep seabed mining has emerged as a major new strategic issue, given the region’s mineral wealth. Interstate competition over seabed minerals is sharpening. From seeking to tap sulfide deposits — containing valuable metals such as silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt, and zinc — to phosphorus nodule mining for phosphor-based fertilizers used in food production, the competition is underscoring the imperative for creating a predictable regulatory regime, developing safe and effective ocean-development technologies, finding ways to share benefits of the common heritage, and ensuring environmental protection. Even China, an extra-regional power, has secured an international deep-seabed block in southwestern Indian Ocean from the International Seabed Authority to explore for polymetallic sulphides.

Great-power rivalries, meanwhile, are complicating maritime-security issues. The rivalries are mirrored in foreign-aided port-building projects along vital sea lanes; attempts to assert control over energy supplies and transport routes as part of a 21st-century-version of the Great Game; the building of inter-country energy corridors involving the construction of pipelines to transport oil or gas sourced by sea from third countries, as China is doing in Myanmar and Pakistan; and strategic plans to assemble a “string of pearls” in the form of listening posts and special naval-access arrangements along the great trade arteries.

China has become the most active power in the Indian Ocean and is challenging the existing balance of power.

Of all the powers, China has become the most active in the Indian Ocean, as underscored by the new port it has built in Pakistan at Gwadar (which sits strategically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz) and in Sri Lanka at Hambantota; a Chinese container facility in Chittagong (Bangladesh); and Chinese port projects in Myanmar, including developing a deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu as its international gateway. Such developments have sharpened China’s geopolitical rivalry with India, which enjoys an immense geographic advantage in the Indian Ocean.

With this region having the most-adverse ratio between land size, population, and natural resources, environmental degradation has emerged as an important challenge. The degradation is extending to coastal ecosystems, which sustain diverse species of marine life and are the source of livelihood for many people. The increasing role of external states in overexploiting the region’s marine resources has underscored the need for conservation and management of the biological diversity of the seabed in areas that are beyond national jurisdiction. There is also need for enforcing coastal-protection regulations and for surveillance and policing to stop illegal fishing and to protect structures for deep-sea mining.

Against this background, it is apparent that maritime-security challenges in the Indian Ocean need to be addressed in a holistic strategic framework. Nontraditional issues — from energy security and climate security to transnational terrorism and environmental degradation — have become as important as traditional issues, such as freedom of navigation, security of sea lanes, maritime boundary and domain security, arms proliferation, and challenges to law and order (including piracy and sea robbery, criminal activities like drug, people, and arms smuggling, illicit fishing, illegal immigration, and maritime terrorism).

The Indian Ocean is the maritime center of the world and of critical importance to the European Union’s economic and energy interests. The flow of trade through the maritime Silk Road of the Indian Ocean follows the same route and pattern from which the littoral states drew wealth and strength in history.

Europe could serve as a guide on how to build institutionalized cooperation in this region, where, with maritime boundaries still to be finalized, jurisdictional “creep” threatens to impede freedom of navigation. Seabed mining, for its part, is presenting both new challenges and opportunities on the high seas.

Europe has a role to play on environmental protection and resource sustainability. Environmental degradation in the Indian Ocean, after all, can influence climatic patterns and atmospheric general circulation in the entire Northern Hemisphere. Good governance, built through interstate cooperation and collaboration, can help stem the threats to maritime security and ecosystems.

France and Britain, through their military presence in the Indian Ocean, are promoting their own geopolitical interests in the region. European states, however, can collectively play a role to support peace and stability and environmental sustainability in the Indian Ocean. After all, the Indian Ocean, which accounts for 50 percent of the world’s container traffic and 66 percent of its seaborne trade in oil, is of critical importance to European trade.

The EU should help promote rules-based cooperation in the Indian Ocean region.

The European Union, by citing its own efforts to resolve maritime-boundary questions and other issues in Europe, can lend a helping hand to create a regulatory regime and to promote environmental protection in the Indian Ocean region. In this endeavor, the EU must collaborate with the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), which consists of 20 diverse member-nations ranging from India, Indonesia, and Australia to small island-countries such as the Comoros and Seychelles.

Given its own institutionalized framework of cooperation, the EU, more than any other institution in the world, can help promote rules-based cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. The threats to navigation and maritime freedoms, including in critical straits and EEZs in the Indian Ocean region, can be countered only through adherence to international rules by all parties, as well as through monitoring, regulation and enforcement. In this context, NATO is already playing a limited security and political role in the region, with its contribution to combating piracy in the Horn of Africa.

The EU can also encourage collaborative projects between regional states so that they adopt new technologies and best practices to protect environmental security and build maritime cooperation. Collaborative projects will yield significant peace dividends by helping to reduce the risks of unilateral action by any side and by contributing to building regional crisis stability. European wealth is dependent on peace and stability in the Indian Ocean. This region serves as a test case of Europe’s ability to translate its economic heft into political influence to help shape regional developments in a positive direction.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

© Körber Foundation, Hamburg 2013. All rights reserved

Körber Policy Briefs solely reflect the author’s views.

Rising Powers, Rising Tensions: The Troubled China-India Relationship

Brahma Chellaney

From: SAIS Review
Volume 32, Number 2
pp. 99-108 | doi: 10.1353/sais.2012.0030

Abstract: Half a century after China and India fought a bloody Himalayan war, the two demographic titans have gained considerable economic heft and are drawing increasing international attention. Their rise highlights the ongoing shifts in global politics and economy. This growth has been accompanied by rising bilateral tensions, with Tibet remaining at the core of their divide and India’s growing strategic ties with the U.S. increasingly rankling China. Even as old rifts persist, new issues have started to emerge in the relationship, including China’s resurrected claim to the sprawling northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, almost three times larger than Taiwan. Booming bilateral trade has failed to subdue their rivalry. Although in 1962 China set out, in the words of Premier Zhou Enlai, to “teach India a lesson,” the real lesson that can be drawn today is that the war failed to achieve any lasting political objectives and only embittered bilateral relations. China has frittered away the political gains it made by decisively defeating India on the battleground—the only war it has won under communist rule despite involvement in multiple military conflicts since 1950. In fact, as military tensions rise and border incidents increase, the China-India relationship risks coming full circle. World history attests that genuine efforts at political reconciliation and bridge building can achieve more than war. This essay argues that the future of the Asian economic renaissance and peace hinges on more harmonious relations between the important powers, especially China and India.

A fast-rising Asia has become pivotal in global geopolitical change. Asian policies and challenges now actively shape the international security and economic environments, while Asia’s rise serves as an instigator of global power shifts. Asia, paradoxically, bears the greatest impact of such power shifts. Consequently, the specter of a power imbalance looms large in Asia. At a time when it is politically in transition, Asia is also troubled by growing security challenges, apparent from the resurfacing of Cold War-era territorial and maritime disputes.

Against this background, the tense relationship between the world’s two most-populous countries holds significant implications for international security and Asian power dynamics. As China and India gain economic heft, they are drawing ever more international attention. However, their underlying strategic dissonance and rivalry over issues extending from land and water to geopolitical influence usually attract less notice.

The importance of this relationship in international relations can be seen from the fact that China and India make up nearly two-fifths of humanity. They represent markedly dissimilar cultures and competing models of development. However, they freed themselves from colonial powers and emerged as independent nations around the same time. Today, both seek to play a global role by reclaiming the power they enjoyed for many centuries before going into decline after the advent of the industrial revolution. In 1820, China and India alone made up nearly half of the world’s income, while Asia collectively accounted for 60 percent of the global GDP.[1]

Neither China nor India has ever in history been in a position to dominate the other, yet today each views the other as a geopolitical rival. Booming bilateral trade has failed to moderate their rivalry. In fact, as part of their broader geopolitical contest, China and India are becoming active in each other’s strategic backyard in a game of encirclement and counter-encirclement, thereby fostering tensions and mistrust. Borders incidents have markedly increased along the Himalayas in recent years, even as China has faced growing unrest in Tibet, a core underlying issue in Sino-Indian relations. New Delhi’s expanding strategic ties with the United States have actually encouraged China to try and strategically squeeze India. Yet Washington has refrained from taking sides in the Sino-Indian disputes.

Origins of the Indian-Chinese Disputes

The  vast Tibetan plateau separated the Indian and Chinese civilizations throughout history, limiting their interaction to sporadic cultural and religious contacts, with political relations absent. It was only after Tibet’s 1950-1951 annexation that Han Chinese troops appeared for the first time on India’s Himalayan frontiers. Tibet’s forcible absorption began within months of the 1949 Communist victory in China. In one of his first actions after seizing power, Mao Zedong confided in Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin that Chinese forces were “preparing for an attack on Tibet.”[2] The Chinese military attack on Tibet began in October 1950, when global attention was focused on the Korean War. The rapid success in seizing eastern Tibet emboldened China to enter the Korean War soon thereafter.

As new neighbors following Tibet’s annexation, India and China began their relationship on what seemed a promising note. In fact, India was one of the first countries to recognize the legitimacy of communist China. Even when the Chinese military began eliminating India’s outer line of defense by occupying Tibet, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru continued to court China, seeing it as a benign neighbor that had emerged from the ravages of colonialism like India. Consequently, New Delhi rebuffed then-independent Tibet’s appeal for international help against Chinese aggression, and even opposed its plea for a discussion in the United Nations General Assembly in November 1950.

By 1954, Nehru surrendered India’s British-inherited extraterritorial rights in Tibet and recognized the “Tibet region of China” without any quid pro quo — not even Beijing’s acceptance of the then-prevailing Indo-Tibetan border. He did this by signing a pact with Tibet’s occupying power that was mockingly named after the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine of Panchsheela, or the five principles of peaceful coexistence.[3] This treaty was designed to govern India’s relationship with the “Tibet Region of China” — an implicit, if not overt, recognition of China’s annexation of Tibet a few years earlier.

The pact recorded India’s agreement to both fully withdraw within six months its “military escorts now stationed at Yatung and Gyantse” in the “Tibet Region of China” as well as “to hand over to the Government of China at a reasonable price the postal, telegraph and public telephone services together with their equipment operated by the Government of India in Tibet Region of China.”[4]  Up to its 1950 invasion, China had maintained a diplomatic mission in Lhasa, as did India, underscoring Tibet’s independent status.

Nehru’s intense courtship of Beijing was such that he rejected a U.S. suggestion in the 1950s for India to take China’s place in the United Nations Security Council. The officially blessed selected works of Nehru quote him as stating the following on record: “Informally, suggestions have been made by the U.S. that China should be taken into the UN but not in the Security Council and that India should take her place in the Council. We cannot, of course, accept this as it means falling out with China and it would be very unfair for a great country like China not to be in the Council.”[5] The selected works also quote Nehru as telling Soviet Premier Marshal Nikolai A. Bulganin in 1955 on the same U.S. offer: “I feel that we should first concentrate on getting China admitted.”[6]

Yet when China sprung a nasty surprise by invading India in 1962, Nehru publicly bemoaned that China had “returned evil for good.”[7] A more realistic leader would have foreseen that war and taken necessary steps to repulse the invasion. After all, using the 1954 friendship treaty as a cover, China had started furtively encroaching on Indian territories, incrementally extending its control to much of the Aksai Chin, a Switzerland-size plateau that was part of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Sino-Indian relations, in fact, became tense after the Dalai Lama fled across the Himalayas to India in 1959, with Beijing using its state media to mount vicious attacks on India. Nehru, however, still believed that China would not stage military aggression against India. The Indian army remained undermanned and ill-equipped.

Just as Mao had started his invasion of Tibet while the world was occupied with the Korean War, he chose a perfect time for invading India, in the style recommended by the ancient treatise, The Art of War, written by Sun Tzu — a general believed to have lived in the sixth century B.C. and said to be a contemporary of great Chinese philosopher Confucius. The launch of the attack, spread over two separate rounds, coincided with a major international crisis that brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union within a whisker of nuclear war over the stealthy deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba. A little over a month after launching the invasion of India, Mao announced a unilateral ceasefire that, significantly, coincided with America’s formal termination of Cuba’s quarantine. Mao’s premier, Zhou Enlai, publicly said that the 42-day war was intended “to teach India a lesson.”[8] India suffered a humiliating rout — a defeat that hastened Nehru’s death, but set in motion India’s military modernization and political rise.

Fifty years after that war, tensions between India and China are rising again amid an intense geopolitical rivalry. Their entire 4,057-kilometer-long border — one of the longest in the world — remains in dispute, without a clearly defined line of control in the Himalayas separating the rival armies. This situation has persisted despite regular talks since 1981 to settle their territorial disputes. In fact, these talks constitute the longest and most-futile negotiating process between any two nations in modern world history. During a 2010 New Delhi visit, Premier Wen Jiabao bluntly stated that sorting out the Himalayan border disputes “will take a fairly long period of time.”[9] If so, what does China (or India) gain by carrying on the border negotiations?

As old rifts fester, new political, military, and trade issues have started roiling relations. For example, since 2006 China has publicly raked up an issue that had remained dormant since the 1962 war — Arunachal Pradesh, a resource-rich state in India’s northeast that China claims largely as its own on the basis of the territory’s putative historical ties with Tibet. In fact, the Chinese practice of describing the Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh as “Southern Tibet” started only in 2006. A perceptible hardening of China’s stance toward India since then is also manifest from other developments, including Chinese strategic projects and military presence in the Pakistani-held portion of Kashmir. Kashmir is where the disputed borders of India, Pakistan, and China converge.

Indian defense officials have reported that Chinese troops, taking advantage of the disputed border, have in recent years stepped up military intrusions. In response, India has been beefing up its military deployments in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim state, and northern Ladakh region to prevent any Chinese land-grab. It has also launched a crash program to improve its logistical capabilities through new roads, airstrips, and advanced landing stations along the Himalayas.

China’s strategic projects around India are sharpening the geopolitical competition, including new ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, new transportation links with Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan, and China’s own major upgrades to military infrastructure in Tibet. American academic John Garver describes the Chinese strategy in these words: “A Chinese fable tells of how a frog in a pot of lukewarm water feels quite comfortable and safe. He does not notice as the water temperature slowly rises until, at last, the frog dies and is thoroughly cooked. This homily, wen shui zhu qingwa in Chinese, describes fairly well China’s strategy for growing its influence in South Asia in the face of a deeply suspicious India: move forward slowly and carefully, rouse minimal suspicion, and don’t cause an attempt at escape by the intended victim.”[10]

One apparent Chinese objective is to chip away at India’s maritime dominance in the Indian Ocean — a theater critical to fashioning China’s preeminence in Asia. China’s strategy also seeks to leverage its strengthening nexus with Pakistan to keep India under strategic pressure. Indeed, given China’s control of one-fifth of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir and its new military footprint in Pakistani-held Kashmir, India now faces Chinese troops on both flanks of its portion of Kashmir.  Moreover, by building new railroads, airports, and highways in Tibet, China is now in a position to rapidly move additional forces to the border to potentially strike at India at a time of its choosing.

As the aforementioned territorial and maritime issues fester, water is becoming a new source of discord between the two water-stressed countries. India has more arable land than China but much less water. Compounding the situation for a parched India is the fact that most of the important rivers of its northern heartland originate in Chinese-controlled Tibet. The Tibetan plateau’s vast glaciers, huge underground springs, and high altitude make it the world’s largest freshwater repository after the polar icecaps. Although a number of nations stretching from Afghanistan to Vietnam receive waters from the Tibetan plateau, India’s direct dependency on Tibetan waters is greater than that of any other country. With about a dozen important rivers flowing in from the Tibetan Himalayan region, India gets almost one-third of all its yearly water supplies of 1,911 billion cubic meters from Tibet, according to United Nations data.[11]

China is now pursuing major inter-basin and inter-river water transfer projects on the Tibetan plateau. These projects threaten to diminish international-river flows into India and China’s other co-riparian states. Whereas India has signed water-sharing treaties with both the counties located downstream to it — Bangladesh and Pakistan — China rejects the very concept of water sharing. It does not have a single water-sharing treaty with any neighbor, although it is the source of river flows to multiple countries, including Russia, Kazakhstan, Nepal, and Myanmar.  One environmentally and politically dangerous idea China is toying with is the construction of a dam of unparalleled size on the Brahmaputra River, known as Yarlung Tsangpo to Tibetans. The proposed 38,000-megawatt dam — almost twice as large as the Three Gorges Dam — is to be located at Metog, just before the Brahmaputra enters India, according to the state-run HydroChina Corporation.[12] In fact, an officially blessed book, Tibet’s Waters Will Save China, has championed the northward rerouting of the Brahmaputra.[13]

With water shortages growing in its northern plains, owing to environmentally unsustainable intensive irrigation and heavy industrialization, China has increasingly turned its attention to the abundant water reserves that Tibet holds. China’s hydroengineering projects and territorial disputes with India serve as a reminder that Tibet is at the heart of the Sino-Indian divide. Tibet ceased to be a political buffer when China annexed it more than six decades ago. But unless Tibet becomes a political bridge, there can be no enduring peace — a fact also underscored by the growing Tibetan unrest and self-immolations on the Tibetan plateau.

An Uneasy Triangle: China, India, United States

The India-China relationship has entered choppy waters. The more muscular Chinese stance toward New Delhi — highlighted by the anti-India rhetoric in the state-run Chinese media — is clearly tied to the new U.S.-India strategic partnership, symbolized by the nuclear deal and the deepening military cooperation. As U.S. President George W. Bush declared in his valedictory speech, “We opened a new historic and strategic partnership with India.” But will Washington take New Delhi’s side in any of its disputes with Beijing?

The fundamental U.S. strategic objective in Asia has remained the same since 1898 when America took the Philippines as spoils of the naval war with Spain — to establish a stable balance of power in order to prevent the rise of any hegemonic power. Yet the United States, according to its official National Security Strategy, is also committed to accommodating “the emergence of a China that is peaceful and prosperous and that cooperates with us to address common challenges and mutual interests.”[14] Thus, America’s Asia policy has in some ways been at war with itself.

In fact, the United States has played a key role in China’s rise. One example was the U.S. decision to turn away from trade sanctions against Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and instead integrate that country with global institutions — a major decision that allowed China to rise. By contrast, the opposite policy approach was pursued against Myanmar after it similarly crushed pro-democracy protests in 1988 — escalating U.S.-led sanctions, which are only now beginning to be relaxed after 24 years.  China’s spectacular economic success — illustrated by its emergence with the world’s biggest trade surplus and largest foreign-currency reserves — actually owes much to the continuation of supportive U.S. polices since the 1970s. Without the significant expansion in U.S.-Chinese trade and financial relations since then, China’s growth would have been much slower and harder.

U.S. economic interests now are so closely intertwined with China that they virtually preclude a policy that seeks to either isolate or confront Beijing. Even on the democracy issue, the United States prefers to lecture some other dictatorships rather than the world’s largest and oldest-surviving autocracy. Yet it is also true that the United States views with unease China’s not-too-hidden aim to dominate Asia — an objective that runs counter to U.S. security and commercial interests and to the larger U.S. goal for a balance in power in Asia. To help avert such dominance, America has already started building countervailing influences and partnerships, without making any attempt to contain China. Where its interests converge with China, the United States will continue to work closely with it.

In this light, China’s more aggressive stance poses a difficult challenge for India. Until mid-2005, China was eschewing anti-India rhetoric and pursuing a policy of active engagement with India, even as it continued to expand its strategic space in southern Asia, to New Delhi’s detriment. In fact, when Premier Wen Jiabao visited India in April 2005, the two countries unveiled an important agreement identifying six broad principles to govern a border settlement. But after the unveiling of the Indo-U.S. defense framework accord and nuclear deal separately in mid-2005, the mood in Beijing perceptibly changed. This gave rise to a pattern that has become commonplace since: Chinese newspapers, individual bloggers, security think-tanks, and even officially blessed websites ratcheting up an “India threat” scenario.  Indeed, the present pattern of border provocations, new force deployments, and mutual recriminations is redolent of the situation that prevailed in the run-up to the 1962 war.

A U.S.-India military alliance has always been a strategic nightmare for the Chinese, and the ballyhooed Indo-U.S. global strategic partnership, although it falls short of a formal military alliance, triggered alarm bells in Beijing. That raises the question whether New Delhi helped create the context, however inadvertently, for the new Chinese assertiveness by agreeing to participate in U.S.-led “multinational operations,” share intelligence, and build military-to-military interoperability (key elements of the defense framework accord) and to become America’s partner on a new “global democracy initiative” — a commitment found in the nuclear deal.[15] While Beijing cannot hold a veto over New Delhi’s diplomatic or strategic initiatives, could not India have avoided creating an impression that it was potentially being primed as a new junior partner (or spoke) in America’s hub-and-spoke global alliance system?

India — with its hallowed traditions of policy independence — is an unlikely candidate to be a U.S. ally in a patron-client framework. But the high-pitched Indian and American rhetoric that the new partnership represented a tectonic shift in geopolitical alignments apparently made Chinese policymakers believe that India was being groomed as a new Japan or Australia to the United States — a perception reinforced by subsequent security arrangements and multibillion-dollar defense transactions. In the decade since President Bush launched the U.S.-Indian strategic partnership, India has fundamentally reoriented its defense procurement, moving away from its traditional reliance on Russia. Indeed, nearly half of all Indian defense deals by value in recent years have been bagged by the United States alone, with Israel a distant second and Russia relegated to the third slot.

New Delhi failed to foresee that its rush to forge close strategic bonds with Washington could provoke greater Chinese pressure and that, in such a situation, the United States would offer little comfort to India. Even as Beijing calculatedly has sought to badger India on multiple fronts, President Barack Obama’s administration — far from coming to India’s support — has shied away from even cautioning Beijing against any attempt to forcibly change the existing territorial status quo. Indeed, on a host of issues — from the Dalai Lama to the Arunachal Pradesh issue — Washington has chosen not to antagonize Beijing. That, in effect, has left India on its own.

President Obama had stroked India’s collective ego by inviting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for his presidency’s first state dinner, leading to the joke that while China gets a deferential America and Pakistan secures billions of dollars in U.S. aid periodically, India is easily won over with a sumptuous dinner and nice compliments. The mutual optimism and excitement that characterized the warming U.S.-Indian ties during the Bush years, admittedly, has given way to more realistic assessments as the relationship has matured. Geostrategic and economic forces, however, continue to drive the two countries closer. Indeed, to lend strategic heft to the Obama-declared U.S. “pivot” toward Asia, closer U.S. strategic collaboration with India has become critical.

While the geostrategic direction of the U.S.-India relationship is irreversibly set toward closer collaboration, such cooperation is unlikely to be at the expense of Washington’s fast-growing ties with Beijing. The United States needs Chinese capital inflows as much as China needs American consumers — an economic interdependence of such import that snapping it would amount to mutually assured destruction (MAD). Even politically, China, with its veto power in the United Nations and international leverage, counts for more in U.S. policy than India. Against this background, it is no surprise that Washington intends to abjure elements in its ties with New Delhi that could rile China, including, for example, holding any joint military drill in Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, Washington has quietly charted a course of tacit neutrality on the Arunachal Pradesh issue.

Yet the present muscular Chinese approach, paradoxically, reinforces the very line of Indian thinking that engendered greater Chinese assertiveness — that India has little option other than to align itself with the United States. Such thinking blithely ignores the limitations of the Indo-U.S. partnership arising from the vicissitudes and compulsions of U.S. policy. Washington is showing through its growing strategic cooperation with India’s regional adversaries, China and Pakistan, that it does not believe in exclusive strategic partnership in any region. Left to fend for itself, New Delhi has decided to steer clear of a direct confrontation with Beijing. Discretion, after all, is the better part of valor.

Concluding Observations

The strategic rivalry between the world’s largest autocracy and democracy has sharpened despite their fast-rising bilateral trade. Between 2000 and 2010, bilateral trade rose 20-fold, making it the only area where relations have thrived. Far from helping to turn the page on old disputes, this commerce has been accompanied by greater Sino-Indian geopolitical rivalry and military tensions. This shows that booming trade is no guarantee of moderation or restraint between countries. Unless estranged neighbors fix their political relations, economics alone will not be enough to create goodwill or stabilize their relationship.

How the India-China relationship evolves will have an important bearing on Asian and wider international security. China seems to be signaling that its real, long-term rivalry is not so much with America as with India. It clearly looks at India as a potential peer rival. India’s great-power ambitions depend on how it is able to manage the rise of China — both independently and in partnership with other powers. A stable, mutually beneficial equation with China is more likely to be realized by India if there is no serious trans-Himalayan military imbalance.

The larger Asian balance of power will be shaped by developments not only in East Asia but also in the Indian Ocean — a crucial international passageway for oil deliveries and other trade. Nontraditional security issues in the Indian Ocean region — from energy security and climate security to transnational terrorism and environmental degradation — have become as important as traditional security issues, like freedom of navigation, security of sea lanes, maritime security, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and ocean piracy. The Indian Ocean region indeed is becoming a new global center of trade and energy flows and geopolitics. If China were to gain the upper hand in the Indian Ocean region at India’s expense, it will mark the end of India’s world-power ambitions.

The United States can play a key role in stabilizing the India-China equation, including through U.S.-China-India trilateral dialogue and initiatives for stability and security in the vast Indian Ocean region. If Tibet is to serve as a political bridge between China and India, its strategic significance must be clearly recognized in policy. It is past time to stop treating Tibet as a moral issue and instead elevate it as a strategic issue that impinges on Asian and international security.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi; a fellow of the Nobel Institute in Oslo; and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London.


[1]Angus Maddison, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2001); and Haruhiko Kuroda, president, Asian Development Bank, “The Financial Crisis and Its Impact on Asia,” speech to a Conference in Montreal, June 9, 2008.

[2]Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005).

[3]What is popularly known as the Panchsheel Treaty is the Agreement between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China on Trade and Intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India, signed on April 29, 1954, in Beijing; ratified August 17, 1954.

[4]Item Nos. 1 and 2 in the “Notes Exchanged” concurrently with the 1954 “Agreement between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China on Trade and Intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India.” Fot full text, see Brahma Chellaney, Asian Juggernaut (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2010), appendixes.

[5]H.Y. Sharada Prasad, A.K. Damodaran and Sarvepalli Gopal (eds.), Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 29, 1 June31 August 1955 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 231.


[7]Address to the Nation on All India Radio, October 22, 1962, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Speeches, September 1957–April 1963, vol. 4 (New Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1964), pp. 226–30.

[8]Zhou Enlai’s 1962 comment cited, among others, in Asad-ul Iqbal Latif, Three Sides in Search of a Triangle: Singapore-America-India Relations (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2009), p. 117; and Chellaney, Asian Juggernaut, p. 165.

[9]Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, “Working Together for New Glories of the Oriental Civilization,” Speech at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi, December 16, 2010,

[10]John W. Garver, “The Diplomacy of a Rising China in South Asia,” Orbis (Summer 2012), p. 392.

[11]Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Aquastat online data,

[12]HydroChina Corporation, “Map of Planned Dams,”

[13]Li Ling, Xizang Zhi Shui Jiu Zhongguo: Da Xi Xian Zai Zao Zhongguo Zhan Lue Nei Mu Xiang Lu (Tibet’s Waters Will Save China), in Mandarin (Beijing: Zhongguo Chang’an chu ban she, November 2005), book sponsored by the Ministry of Water Resources.

[14]The White House, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: White House, March 2006), p. 41.

[15]Nuclear deal: Joint Statement between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Washington, DC, July 18, 2005,; and defense framework agreement: “New Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship,” Agreement signed in Arlington, Virginia, on June 28, 2005,

(c) The Johns Hopkins University Press.

A Dam-Building Race in Asia: How to Contain the Geopolitical Risks

Brahma Chellaney

A paper published by The Transatlantic Academy, Washington, DC, May 2012


Asia’s phenomenal economic rise has attracted a lot of attention in international policy circles but the sharpening water competition this growth has triggered is less well known. Water has emerged as a source of increasing competition and underlying discord between many Asian nations, spurring new tensions over the resources of transnational rivers. Asia’s fastest-growing economies are all at or near water-stressed conditions, underscoring how water shortages threaten to hamper the continent’s continued rapid economic growth. For investors, the Asian water crisis carries risks that are at least as potentially damaging as nonperforming loans, real estate bubbles, and political corruption.

Dam building on transnational rivers is at the heart of the inter-riparian tensions in Asia. Asia is already the world’s most dam-dotted continent: It has more dams than the rest of the world combined. Yet the numerous new dam projects in Asia show that the damming of rivers is still an important priority for policymakers. In the West, dam building has largely petered out. In Asia, however, the construction of new dams continues in full swing.

Like arms racing, “dam racing” has emerged as a geopolitical concern in Asia, where the world’s fastest economic growth is being accompanied by the world’s fastest increase in military spending and the world’s fiercest competition for natural resources, especially water and energy. As riparian neighbors compete to appropriate resources of shared rivers by building dams, reservoirs, barrages, irrigation networks, and other structures, the relationships between upstream and downstream states are often characterized by mutual distrust and discord.

This paper warns that just as the scramble for energy resources has defined Asian geopolitics since the 1990s, the struggle for water is now likely to define many inter-country relationships. At a time when many territorial disputes and separatist struggles in Asia are being driven by resource issues — extending from the energy-rich South and East China Seas to the water-rich Tibet and Kashmir — water indeed is becoming the new oil. But unlike oil — dependence on which can be reduced by either tapping other sources of energy or switching to other means of generating electricity — there is no substitute for water. Asian economies are the world’s leading importers of resources like mineral ores, hydrocarbons, and timber, importing them from distant lands. But they have no such import choice on water.

The paper, drawing on the author’s book on Asian water challenges published last fall by the Georgetown University Press, examines how the rising geopolitical risks arising from the dam-building competition can be stemmed. It does so by examining the broader water tensions and competition, which center on four distinct zones: China and its neighbors; South Asia; Southeast Asia; and Central Asia, where the Soviet Union’s disintegration left a still-festering water discord among the five so-called “stans” — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

The overexploitation of river resources has only promoted unbridled groundwater extraction, resulting in rapidly falling water tables across much of Asia. The scope of this paper, however, is limited to analyzing how the resources of shared rivers have become the target of rival appropriation plans, in what can be described as a silent hydrological warfare. Driving the rival dam-building plans and the accompanying water nationalism is the notion that sharing waters is a zero-sum game. The danger that the current or new riparian disputes may escalate to conflict looms large on the Asian horizon, with important implications for Asia’s continued rapid economic-growth story and for inter-riparian relations.

Different continents’ water resources

The challenges posed by the frenetic dam building, however, come with new opportunities to break with business as usual and adopt water conservation and efficiency as well as cooperative approaches in order to help sustainably manage shared water resources and underpin mutual development goals and environmental security. What Asia  needs is institutionalized water cooperation between co-riparian states, with clear rules on building dams on transnational rivers, so as to minimize apprehensions and promote greater regional cooperation.

Only cooperative water institutional mechanisms can help mitigate the risks arising from the rush to dam rivers and create an upstream hydroengineering infrastructure that could potentially arm upstream states with tremendous political and economic leverage over downriver nations. Such cooperation will need to be based on transparency, information sharing, independent environmental impact assessment, dispute-settlement mechanisms, water pollution control, and a mutual commitment to refrain from undertaking projects that could materially diminish transboundary river flows.

Download the full paper here.

The Obama Administration’s Strategy in Asia
Brahma Chellaney
in Anuario Asia-Pacific 2010, Edición 2011, published by CIDOB, Casa Asia, and Real Instituto Elcano (October 2011), pp. 69-75.
(Original in Spanish)

With the eastward movement of global power and influence, all the major actors on the international stage are defining new roles for themselves in Asia, a vast continent whose significance in international relations, in some respects, is beginning to rival that of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. As these powers seek to build new relationships and equations, the stage has been set for greater cooperation and competition. Asia, home to more than half of the global population, is likely to help mold the future course of globalization.

Yet, Asia faces major challenges. One important point is that while the bloody wars in the first half of the 20th century have made wars unthinkable today in Europe, the wars in Asia in the second half of the 20th century did not resolve matters and have only accentuated bitter rivalries. A number of interstate wars were fought in Asia since 1950, the year both the Korean War and the annexation of Tibet started. Those wars, far from settling or ending disputes, have only kept disputes lingering in Asia.

The Arrival of Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama came to office at a time when the qualitative reordering of power was already under way in the Asia-Pacific, with tectonic shifts challenging strategic stability. The impact of the still-ongoing shifts on U.S. foreign policy is being accentuated by America’s own growing challenges, including economic troubles and a faltering war in Afghanistan. That may explain why the Obama administration has been slow to develop a distinct Asia policy. Under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, America’s Asia policy was guided by an overarching geopolitical framework.

In comparison, Obama’s Asia policy thus far has appeared fragmented in the absence of a distinct strategic blueprint. The Obama team quickly developed a policy approach toward each major Asian subregion and issue, but without devising an overall strategy on how to promote enduring power equilibrium in Asia, now the pivot of global geopolitical change.

China, India, and Japan, Asia’s three main economic powers, constitute a unique strategic triangle. Obama declared soon after taking office that America’s “most important bilateral relationship in the world” is with China, going to the extent of demoting human rights and putting the accent on security, financial, trade, and environmental issues with Beijing. In fact, his administration tried to assiduously court China. The catchphrase coined by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg in relation to China, “strategic reassurance,” signaled an American intent to be more accommodative of China’s ambitions — a message reinforced earlier by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she went out of her way to downgrade human rights in America’s China policy during a visit to Beijing.

But Obama has been slow to fashion a well-defined Japan policy or India policy. While a narrow East Asia policy framework still guides U.S. ties with Japan under Obama, Washington is again looking at India primarily through the Pakistan-Afghanistan (“Af-Pak”) prism. That translates into a renewed U.S. focus on India-Pakistan engagement and preoccupation with counterinsurgency in the Afpak region, including its larger ramifications for American interests. That is in sharp contrast to Bush, who declared in his valedictory speech that, “We opened a new historic and strategic partnership with India.”

After coming to office, Obama’s choice of ambassadors said it all. While Obama named John Huntsman — the Utah state governor and a rising Republican star — as his ambassador to China, he picked an obscure former congressman Timothy Roemer as envoy to India and a low-profile internet and biotechnology lawyer, John Roos, as ambassador to Japan. Obama underlined China’s centrality in his foreign policy by personally announcing his choice of Huntsman. In contrast, Roemer and Roos were among a slew of ambassadors named in an official news release.

The U.S., of course, has every reason to engage China more deeply at a time when its dependence on Beijing to bankroll American debt has only grown. Just as America and the Soviet Union achieved mutually assured destruction (MAD), America and China are now locked in MAD — but in economic terms. The two today are so tied in a mutually dependent relationship for their economic well-being that attempts to snap those ties would amount to mutually assured financial destruction. Just as the beleaguered U.S. economy cannot do without continuing capital inflows from China, the American market is the lifeline of the Chinese export juggernaut.

From being allies of convenience in the second half of the Cold War, the U.S. and China now have emerged as partners tied by such interdependence that economic historians Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick have coined the term “Chimerica” — a fusion like the less-convincing “Chindia.” An article in China’s Liaowang magazine has described the relationship as one of “complex interdependence” in which America and China “compete and consult” with each other. But China’s expanding naval role and maritime claims threaten to collide with U.S. interests, including Washington’s traditional emphasis on the freedom of the seas. U.S.-China economic ties also remain uneasy: America saves too little and borrows too much from China, while Beijing sells too much to the U.S. and buys too little.

Obama’s Asia policy, however, began changing somewhat in the second half of 2010 in response to China’s increasingly assertive actions. With China’s defense spending having grown almost twice as fast as its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Beijing has started to take the gloves off, confident that it has acquired the necessary muscle. Rising power is emboldening Beijing to pursue a more muscular foreign policy. That was exemplified by several developments in 2010 alone — from China’s inclusion of the South China Sea in its “core” national interests on a par with Taiwan and Tibet, an action that makes its claims to the disputed Spratly Islands non-negotiable, to its bellicose reaction to the South Korean-U.S. joint anti-submarine exercises off the Korean Peninsula. China has also publicly raked up the issue of Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern Indian state that Beijing calls “Southern Tibet” and claims largely as its own. Indian defense officials have reported a rising number of Chinese military incursions across the entire 4,057-kilometer Himalayan border in recent years. That the Tibet issue remains at the core of the India-China divide is being underlined by Beijing itself by laying claim to additional Indian territories on the basis of alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links to them, not any professed Han connection.

But nothing fanned international unease and alarm more than Beijing’s disproportionate response to the brief Japanese detention of a fishing-trawler captain last September. While Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s standing at home took a beating for his meek capitulation to Chinese coercive pressure, the real loser was China. Japan’s passivity in the face of belligerence helped magnify Beijing’s hysterical and menacing reaction. In the process, China not only undercut its international interests by presenting itself as a bully, but it also precipitately exposed the cards it is likely to bring into play when faced with a diplomatic or military crisis next — from employing its trade muscle to inflict commercial pain to exploiting its monopoly on the global production of a vital resource, rare-earth minerals.

Its resort to economic warfare, even in the face of an insignificant provocation, has given other major states advance notice to find ways to offset its leverage, including by avoiding any commercial dependency and reducing their reliance on imports of Chinese rare earths. In fact, from the United States to Japan, countries are now seeking to diversify their rare-earth imports. A more tangible fallout from that episode and other developments has been that China is already coming under greater international pressure to play by the rules on a host of issues where it has secured unfair advantage — from keeping its currency substantially undervalued to maintaining state subsidies to help its firms win major overseas contracts.

With his China strategy threatening to fall apart, Obama has now started to do exactly what his predecessor attempted — to line up partners. This was best symbolized by his trip to Asia in late 2010. The very fact that Obama chose to visit Asia’s four leading democracies — India, Japan, Indonesia and South Korea — on that tour was significant. After all, the symbolism of a tour restricted to Asia’s major democracies could not have been lost on Beijing at a time when Chinese assertiveness on exchange rates, trade and security issues had upset U.S. calculations.

The Larger Challenges

The fundamental U.S. strategic objective in Asia is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the key U.S. interest in Asia remains what it has been since 1898 when America took the Philippines as spoils of the naval war with Spain — the maintenance of a balance of power. The security thrust of America’s Asia policy also is unlikely to change. The United States has been, and will continue to be, the leading security player in Asia, building and maintaining strategic ties and arrangements with more Asian states than any other player.

This reality makes America’s China policy pivotal to shaping the larger geopolitical landscape in Asia. Given that Asian security to a large extent will remain anchored in the defense alliances and arrangements that the United States has fashioned, the natural corollary is that the manner Washington deals with the rise of an assertive China will have a bearing both on the Asian security landscape and on the long-term viability of those alliances and arrangements. For the past century, or at least since the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack (which was at least partly prompted by the U.S.-British-Dutch oil embargo against Japan), the United States has clearly signaled that American security begins not off the coast of California but at the western rim of the Pacific Ocean and beyond.

The American belief that U.S. security begins in the Pacific’s western rim may explain, even if partly, why the U.S. military fought in Korea and Vietnam, why it entered into the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security (ANZUS) Treaty, why U.S. security treaties with Japan and South Korea remain critical to American forward military deployment in the Asian theater, why it made a security commitment to Taiwan, and why it has forged new strategic relationships with several Southeast Asian countries and India.

In addition to its determination to stay Asia’s security anchor, America’s balance-of-power objective remains dominant in its Asia policy. During the first part of the Cold War, the United States chose to maintain the balance by forging security alliances with Japan and South Korea and also by keeping forward bases in Asia. By the time the Cold War entered the second phase, America’s ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ led to Richard Nixon’s historic handshake with Mao Zedong in 1972 in an ‘opening’ designed to reinforce the balance by employing a newly assertive, nuclear-armed China to countervail Soviet power in the Asia-Pacific region.

Today, the United States would not want any single state to dominate the Asian continent or any region there. As part of its hedging strategy against China, the U.S. is reinforcing its existing military relationships and building new allies or partners, including roping in states that can serve as potential balancers in Asia. China too plays balance-of-power politics in Asia, but its balancing is primarily designed to keep its Asian rivals bottled up regionally.

Yet another important aspect of America’s role in Asia is the long tradition of China-friendly approach in U.S. policy. That actually dates back to the 19th century. In 1905, for example, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who hosted the Japan-Russia peace conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, argued for the return of Manchuria to China and for a balance of power to continue in East Asia. The Russo-Japanese War actually ended up making the United States an active participant in China’s affairs. In more-recent times, U.S. policy has aided the integration and then ascension of Communist China, which actually began as an international pariah state. Indeed, there has been a succession of China-friendly U.S. presidents in the past four decades — a significant period that has coincided with China first coming out of international isolation and then being on the path of ascension.

China’s rise, in fact, owes a lot to an American decision post-1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall was not the only defining event of 1989. Another defining event in 1989 was the Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protestors in Beijing. But for the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and its allies would not have let China off the hook over those killings. The Cold War’s end, however, facilitated America’s pragmatic approach to shun trade sanctions and help integrate China with global institutions through the liberalizing influence of foreign investment and trade. That the choice made was wise can be seen from the baneful impact of the opposite U.S. decision that was taken on Burma in the same period from the late 1980s — to pursue a penal approach centered on sanctions. Had the Burma-type approach been applied against China internationally, the result would have been a less-prosperous, less-open and a potentially destabilizing China today.

Therefore, China’s spectacular economic success — illustrated by its emergence with the world’s biggest trade surplus and largest foreign-currency reserves — owes a lot to the U.S. decision not to sustain trade sanctions. The limited U.S. sanctions imposed after Tiananmen were allowed to peter out by 1992. Without the expansion in U.S.-Chinese trade and financial relations since then, China’s growth would have been much harder.

The U.S.-China relationship, already underpinned by closely intertwined economic ties and four decades of political cooperation on a range of regional and global issues, is expected to acquire a wider and deeper base. In fact, the mutually interdependent relationship with China suggests that the U.S. is unlikely to pursue overt competition or confrontation with Beijing. It speaks for itself that even on the democracy issue, the U.S. prefers to lecture some other dictatorships than the world’s largest and oldest-surviving autocracy, China.

Yet, it is also true that the United States views with unease China’s not-too-hidden aim to dominate Asia — an objective that runs counter to U.S. security and commercial interests and to the larger goal for a balance in power in Asia. To help avert such dominance, the U.S. has already started building potential countervailing influences, without making any attempt to contain China. At the same time, the U.S. shares important interests with China, including maintaining peace on the Korean Peninsula, keeping oil supplies flowing from the Persian Gulf, propping up Pakistan, and seeking strategic stability in the Pacific. On issues of congruent interest, the world can expect the U.S. to continue to work closely with China.

For the United States, China’s rising power actually helps validate American forward military deployments in the Asian theater, keep existing allies in Asia, and win new strategic partners. An increasingly assertive China indeed has proven a diplomatic boon for Washington in strengthening and expanding U.S. security arrangements in Asia. South Korea has tightened its military alliance with the U.S., Japan has backed away from a move to get the U.S. to move its Marine airbase out of Okinawa, and India, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, among others, have drawn closer to the United States. But the China factor can remain handy only as long as the United States is seen by its partners as a credible guarantor of stability and security, which is a function not of military strength but political will in Washington.

Against this background, Obama has sought to strengthen U.S. ties with old and new strategic partners in Asia, while simultaneously trying to deepen engagement with China. This was exemplified by the political investment the Obama administration made to ensure the success of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s U.S. tour in early 2011. That visit was noteworthy not for Hu’s grudging admission that his country has a subpar human-rights record, with China’s state-run media promptly expurgating his comment that “a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.” Rather the visit was notable for the manner Obama bent over backward at the joint news conference with Hu to virtually rationalize China’s human-rights abuses.

Asked by a questioner to explain “how the U.S. can be so allied with a country that is known for treating its people so poorly [and] for using censorship and force to repress its people,” Obama replied that “China has a different political system than we do”; that “China is at a different stage of development than we are”; and that “there has been an evolution in China over the last 30 years” and “my expectation is that 30 years from now we will have seen further evolution and further change.” He made clear that differences over “the universality of certain rights” will not come in the way of better relations with China because “part of human rights is people being able to make a living and having enough to eat and having shelter and having electricity.”

One question that has a bearing on the future Asian security scenarios is whether U.S. policy toward Japan will change with the changed geopolitical circumstances in East Asia. Without carrying out a single amendment, Japan has lived under a U.S.-imposed Constitution for more than six decades — a period during which the Indian Constitution has been amended 114 times. Japan is the only democracy in East Asia that can balance the power of rising China in the region. While China will clearly prefer a Japan that remains dependent on America for its security than a Japan that can play a more independent role, the post-1945 system erected by the U.S. is more suited to keep Japan as an American protectorate than to allow Japan to effectively aid the central U.S.-policy objective in the Asia-Pacific: A stable balance of power. A U.S. policy approach that subtly encourages Tokyo to cut its overdependence on America and do more for its own defense can assist Japan in shaping a new strategic future for itself that directly contributes to Asian power equilibrium.

The prospect that the United States might be forced to retrench on its assets in Asia reinforces the need for such a policy shift. America faces a pressing need for comprehensive domestic renewal to arrest the erosion in its relative power and to cut its huge deficit. That imperative could prompt it to cut back on its ground capabilities it maintains in the Asia-Pacific.

The U.S. actually doesn’t need the enormous and extensive assets on the ground that it presently maintains in Asia, with Bush having used the U.S.-led war against terror to rapidly expand U.S. military presence in the Asian continent. The fact is that the U.S. can effectively advance its objectives by relying more on being an offshore balancer. But to make significant savings in defense expenditure while keeping its Asia-Pacific strategy robust, it will need to make fundamental changes in its Cold War-era hub-and-spoke system, which results in wasteful spending.

Yet another important issue is U.S. policy on Tibet. Even though the U.S. stopped doing anything for Tibet long ago, with the issue of Tibet now coming up only in relation to a presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama, the future of Tibet has become an issue that extends beyond China’s internal security to the ecological interests of much of Asia. The Tibetan plateau is a barometer of climatic conditions in southern, southeastern and central Asia, as well as in mainland China. And the degradation of its natural ecosystems, as well as accelerated thawing of its glaciers, watershed deterioration and soil erosion, hold important implications for Asian nations that depend on rivers flowing in from the Tibetan plateau. The plateau is the source of most of Asia’s great rivers. As water woes have aggravated in its northern plains owing to environmentally unsustainable intensive farming, China has increasingly turned its attention to the bounteous water reserves in Tibet, which it has cartographically dismembered. It is pursuing massive inter-basin and inter-river water transfer projects. These projects on international rivers carry seeds of interstate conflict.

In fact, the U.S. State Department in 2010 wisely upgraded water as “a central U.S. foreign-policy concern.” And it seems interested in playing a constructive role in the water issues between China and its neighbors. But on human rights in Tibet, the U.S. now pursues a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach with Beijing. When Obama grudgingly meets with the Dalai Lama, it is a low-key meeting, with no joint public appearance or photo opportunity before reporters. The White House indeed bends backward to explain that it was a private meeting, not an official meeting, and that it took place in the Map Room, where presidents stage private meetings, and not in the Oval Office.

Two questions arise in this context. If the U.S. is to remain cagey about Tibet and the Dalai Lama, what example will it set for India, the country left carrying the can on Tibet? India is the host of the Dalai Lama and the seat of his government-in-exile. Also, if downplaying human rights becomes an enduring feature of U.S. policy on China — which executes more people every year than the rest of the world combined — how acceptable will it be to beat up the small kids on the Asian bloc, the Burmas and the Kyrgyzstans, over their human-rights record? Nepal, after years of adhering to an United Nations-brokered agreement to allow Tibetan refugees safe passage to India, has now — under Beijing’s pressure — started arresting escapees from Tibet and handing them over to Chinese authorities. A more consistent U.S. human-rights policy will be able to stand up in defense of such hapless Tibetans.

While America’s continued central role in Asia is safe, the long-term viability of its security arrangements boils down to one word: Credibility. The credibility of America’s security assurances to allies and partners, and its readiness to stand by them when it comes to the crunch, will determine the long-term strength and size of its security-alliance system in Asia. For their part, Asian states, in keeping with Asia’s growing role in world affairs, need to pursue policies that break free from history and are pragmatic, growth-oriented and forward-looking. China’s lengthening shadow has only reinforced the necessity to find ways to stabilize major-power relationships in Asia and promote cooperative approaches to help tackle festering security, energy, territorial and history issues. Rather than be the scene of a new cold war, Asia can chart a stable future for itself through shared security and prosperity.

References cited:

Gunnar Myrdal, Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations (New York: Pantheon, 1968).

U.S. Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2010, A Report to Congress Pursuant to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 (Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, August 2010).

Li Ling, Xizang Zhi Shui Jiu Zhongguo: Da Xi Xian Zai Zao Zhongguo Zhan Lue Nei Mu Xiang Lu (Tibet’s Waters Will Save China), in Mandarin (Beijing: Zhongguo Chang’an chu ban she, November 2005), Book sponsored by the Ministry of Water Resources.

U.S. National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World (Washington, DC: National Intelligence Council, November 20, 2008).

“PLA’s First Major Parachute Exercise on the Tibetan Plateau” (Mandarin), PLA Daily, August 13, 2010. Available at:

Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), pp. 43-71.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author of the just-published book, Water: Asia’s New Battlefield (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011). His previous book, Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India, and Japan (New York: Harper Paperback, 2010), was an international bestseller.

(c) Anuario Asia-Pacífico 2010 (edición 2011)

Official text of U.S. legislation ratifying civil nuclear deal with India


United States-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and

Nonproliferation Enhancement Act

Passed the House of Representatives September 27, 2008, and the Senate October 1, 2008.



Sec. 1. Short title and table of contents.















(a) Short Title- This Act may be cited as the `United States-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and Nonproliferation Enhancement Act’.

(b) Table of Contents- The table of contents for this Act is as follows:

Sec. 1. Short title and table of contents.

Sec. 2. Definitions.


Sec. 101. Approval of Agreement.

Sec. 102. Declarations of policy; certification requirement; rule of construction.

Sec. 103. Additional Protocol between India and the IAEA.

Sec. 104. Implementation of Safeguards Agreement between India and the IAEA.

Sec. 105. Modified reporting to Congress.


Sec. 201. Procedures regarding a subsequent arrangement on reprocessing.

Sec. 202. Initiatives and negotiations relating to agreements for peaceful nuclear cooperation.

Sec. 203. Actions required for resumption of peaceful nuclear cooperation.

Sec. 204. United States Government policy at the Nuclear Suppliers Group to strengthen the international nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Sec. 205. Conforming amendments.


In this Act:

(1) AGREEMENT- The term `United States-India Agreement for Cooperation on Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy’ or `Agreement’ means the Agreement for Cooperation Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of India Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy that was transmitted to Congress by the President on September 10, 2008.

(2) APPROPRIATE CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEES- The term `appropriate congressional committees’ means the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate.



(a) In General- Notwithstanding the provisions for congressional consideration and approval of a proposed agreement for cooperation in section 123 b. and d. of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2153 (b) and (d)), Congress hereby approves the United States-India Agreement for Cooperation on Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, subject to subsection (b).

(b) Applicability of Atomic Energy Act of 1954, Hyde Act, and Other Provisions of Law- The Agreement shall be subject to the provisions of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2011 et seq.), the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006 (22 U.S.C. 8001 et. seq; Public Law 109-401), and any other applicable United States law as if the Agreement had been approved pursuant to the provisions for congressional consideration and approval of a proposed agreement for cooperation in section 123 b. and d. of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.

(c) Sunset of Exemption Authority Under Hyde Act- Section 104(f) of the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006 (22 U.S.C. 8003(f)) is amended by striking `the enactment of’ and all that follows through `agreement’ and inserting `the date of the enactment of the United States-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and Nonproliferation Enhancement Act’.


(a) Declarations of Policy Relating to Meaning and Legal Effect of Agreement- Congress declares that it is the understanding of the United States that the provisions of the United States-India Agreement for Cooperation on Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy have the meanings conveyed in the authoritative representations provided by the President and his representatives to the Congress and its committees prior to September 20, 2008, regarding the meaning and legal effect of the Agreement.

(b) Declarations of Policy Relating to Transfer of Nuclear Equipment, Materials, and Technology to India- Congress makes the following declarations of policy:

(1) Pursuant to section 103(a)(6) of the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006 (22 U.S.C. 8002(a)(6)), in the event that nuclear transfers to India are suspended or terminated pursuant to title I of such Act (22 U.S.C. 8001 et seq.), the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2011 et seq.), or any other United States law, it is the policy of the United States to seek to prevent the transfer to India of nuclear equipment, materials, or technology from other participating governments in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) or from any other source.

(2) Pursuant to section 103(b)(10) of the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006 (22 U.S.C. 8002(b)(10)), any nuclear power reactor fuel reserve provided to the Government of India for use in safeguarded civilian nuclear facilities should be commensurate with reasonable reactor operating requirements.

(c) Certification Requirement- Before exchanging diplomatic notes pursuant to Article 16(1) of the Agreement, the President shall certify to Congress that entry into force and implementation of the Agreement pursuant to its terms is consistent with the obligation of the United States under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, done at Washington, London, and Moscow July 1, 1968, and entered into force March 5, 1970 (commonly known as the `Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’), not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce India to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.

(d) Rule of Construction- Nothing in the Agreement shall be construed to supersede the legal requirements of the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006 or the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.


Congress urges the Government of India to sign and adhere to an Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), consistent with IAEA principles, practices, and policies, at the earliest possible date.


Licenses may be issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for transfers pursuant to the Agreement only after the President determines and certifies to Congress that–

(1) the Agreement Between the Government of India and the International Atomic Energy Agency for the Application of Safeguards to Civilian Nuclear Facilities, as approved by the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency on August 1, 2008 (the `Safeguards Agreement’), has entered into force; and

(2) the Government of India has filed a declaration of facilities pursuant to paragraph 13 of the Safeguards Agreement that is not materially inconsistent with the facilities and schedule described in paragraph 14 of the separation plan presented in the national parliament of India on May 11, 2006, taking into account the later initiation of safeguards than was anticipated in the separation plan.


(a) Information on Nuclear Activities of India- Subsection (g)(1) of section 104 of the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006 (22 U.S.C. 8003) is amended–

(1) by redesignating subparagraphs (B), (C), and (D) as subparagraphs (C), (D), and (E), respectively; and

(2) by inserting after subparagraph (A) the following new subparagraph:

`(B) any material inconsistencies between the content or timeliness of notifications by the Government of India pursuant to paragraph 14(a) of the Safeguards Agreement and the facilities and schedule described in paragraph (14) of the separation plan presented in the national parliament of India on May 11, 2006, taking into account the later initiation of safeguards than was anticipated in the separation plan;’.

(b) Implementation and Compliance Report- Subsection (g)(2) of such section is amended–

(1) in subparagraph (K)(iv), by striking `and’ at the end;

(2) in subparagraph (L), by striking the period at the end and inserting `; and’; and

(3) by adding at the end the following new subparagraph:

`(M) with respect to the United States-India Agreement for Cooperation on Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy (hereinafter in this subparagraph referred to as the `Agreement’) approved under section 101(a) of the United States-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and Nonproliferation Enhancement Act–

`(i) a listing of–

`(I) all provision of sensitive nuclear technology to India, and other such information as may be so designated by the United States or India under Article 1(Q); and

`(II) all facilities in India notified pursuant to Article 7(1) of the Agreement;

`(ii) a description of–

`(I) any agreed safeguards or any other form of verification for by-product material decided by mutual agreement pursuant to the terms of Article 1(A) of the Agreement;

`(II) research and development undertaken in such areas as may be agreed between the United States and India as detailed in Article 2(2)(a.) of the Agreement;

`(III) the civil nuclear cooperation activities undertaken under Article 2(2)(d.) of the Agreement;

`(IV) any United States efforts to help India develop a strategic reserve of nuclear fuel as called for in Article 2(2)(e.) of the Agreement;

`(V) any United States efforts to fulfill political commitments made in Article 5(6) of the Agreement;

`(VI) any negotiations that have occurred or are ongoing under Article 6(iii.) of the Agreement; and

`(VII) any transfers beyond the territorial jurisdiction of India pursuant to Article 7(2) of the Agreement, including a listing of the receiving country of each such transfer;

`(iii) an analysis of–

`(I) any instances in which the United States or India requested consultations arising from concerns over compliance with the provisions of Article 7(1) of the Agreement, and the results of such consultations; and

`(II) any matters not otherwise identified in this report that have become the subject of consultations pursuant to Article 13(2) of the Agreement, and a statement as to whether such matters were resolved by the end of the reporting period; and

`(iv) a statement as to whether–

`(I) any consultations are expected to occur under Article 16(5) of the Agreement; and

`(II) any enrichment is being carried out pursuant to Article 6 of the Agreement.’.



(a) In General- Notwithstanding section 131 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2160), no proposed subsequent arrangement concerning arrangements and procedures regarding reprocessing or other alteration in form or content, as provided for in Article 6 of the Agreement, shall take effect until the requirements specified in subsection (b) are met.

(b) Requirements- The requirements referred to in subsection (a) are the following:

(1) The President transmits to the appropriate congressional committees a report containing–

(A) the reasons for entering into such proposed subsequent arrangement;

(B) a detailed description, including the text, of such proposed subsequent arrangement; and

(C) a certification that the United States will pursue efforts to ensure that any other nation that permits India to reprocess or otherwise alter in form or content nuclear material that the nation has transferred to India or nuclear material and by-product material used in or produced through the use of nuclear material, non-nuclear material, or equipment that it has transferred to India requires India to do so under similar arrangements and procedures.

(2) A period of 30 days of continuous session (as defined by section 130 g.(2) of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2159 (g)(2)) has elapsed after transmittal of the report required under paragraph (1).

(c) Resolution of Disapproval- Notwithstanding the requirements in subsection (b) having been met, a subsequent arrangement referred to in subsection (a) shall not become effective if during the time specified in subsection (b)(2), Congress adopts, and there is enacted, a joint resolution stating in substance that Congress does not favor such subsequent arrangement. Any such resolution shall be considered pursuant to the procedures set forth in section 130 i. of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2159 (i)), as amended by section 205 of this Act.


Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2153) is amended by adding at the end the following:

`e. The President shall keep the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate fully and currently informed of any initiative or negotiations relating to a new or amended agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation pursuant to this section (except an agreement arranged pursuant to section 91 c., 144 b., 144 c., or 144 d., or an amendment thereto).’.


Section 129 a. of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2158 (a)) is amended by striking `Congress adopts a concurrent resolution’ and inserting `Congress adopts, and there is enacted, a joint resolution’.


(a) Certification- Before exchanging diplomatic notes pursuant to Article 16(1) of the Agreement, the President shall certify to the appropriate congressional committees that it is the policy of the United States to work with members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), individually and collectively, to agree to further restrict the transfers of equipment and technology related to the enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

(b) Peaceful Use Assurances for Certain By-Product Material- The President shall seek to achieve, by the earliest possible date, either within the NSG or with relevant NSG Participating Governments, the adoption of principles, reporting, and exchanges of information as may be appropriate to assure peaceful use and accounting of by-product material in a manner that is substantially equivalent to the relevant provisions of the Agreement.

(c) Report-

(1) IN GENERAL- Not later than six months after the date of the enactment of this Act, and every six months thereafter, the President shall transmit to the appropriate congressional committees a report on efforts by the United States pursuant to subsections (a) and (b).

(2) TERMINATION- The requirement to transmit the report under paragraph (1) terminates on the date on which the President transmits a report pursuant to such paragraph stating that the objectives in subsections (a) and (b) have been achieved.


Section 130 i. of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2159 (i)) is amended–

(1) in paragraph (1), by striking `means a joint resolution’ and all that follows through `, with the date’ and inserting the following: `means–

`(A) for an agreement for cooperation pursuant to section 123 of this Act, a joint resolution, the matter after the resolving clause of which is as follows: `That the Congress (does or does not) favor the proposed agreement for cooperation transmitted to the Congress by the President on XXXXX .’,

`(B) for a determination under section 129 of this Act, a joint resolution, the matter after the resolving clause of which is as follows: `That the Congress does not favor the determination transmitted to the Congress by the President on XXXXX .’, or

`(C) for a subsequent arrangement under section 201 of the United States-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and Nonproliferation Enhancement Act, a joint resolution, the matter after the resolving clause of which is as follows: `That the Congress does not favor the subsequent arrangement to the Agreement for Cooperation Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of India Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy that was transmitted to Congress by the President on September 10, 2008.’,

with the date’; and

(2) in paragraph (4)–

(A) by inserting after `45 days after its introduction’ the following `(or in the case of a joint resolution related to a subsequent arrangement under section 201 of the United States-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and Nonproliferation Enhancement Act, 15 days after its introduction)’; and

(B) by inserting after `45-day period’ the following: `(or in the case of a joint resolution related to a subsequent arrangement under section 201 of the United States-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and Nonproliferation Enhancement Act, 15-day period)’.

Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Vice President of the United States and President of the Senate.

Text of the India-related waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG)

NSG Rule-Change Allowing Civil Nuclear Cooperation With India

1. At the Plenary meeting on September 6, 2008, the Participating Governments of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group decided that they:

a. Desire to contribute to the effectiveness and integrity of the global non-proliferation regime, and to the widest possible implementation of the provisions and objectives of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons;

b. Seek to avert the further spread of nuclear weapons;

c. Wish to pursue mechanisms to affect positively the non-proliferation commitments and actions of all states;

d. Seek to promote fundamental principles of safeguards and export controls for nuclear transfers for peaceful purposes; and

e. Note the energy needs of India.

2. Participating Governments have taken note of the steps that India has voluntarily taken with respect to the following commitments and actions:

a. Deciding to separate civilian nuclear facilities in a phased manner and to file a declaration regarding its civilian nuclear facilities with IAEA, in accordance with its Separation Plan (circulated as INFCIRC/731);

b. Concluding negotiations with the IAEA and obtaining approval by the Board of Governors on August 1, 2008, for an “Agreement between the Government of India and IAEA for the Application of Safeguards to Civilian Nuclear Facilities,” in accordance with IAEA safeguards, principles, and practices (including IAEA Board of Bovernors Document GOV/1621);

c. Committing to sign and adhere to an Additional Protocol with respect to India’s civil nuclear facilities;

d. Refraining from transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to states that do not have them and supporting international efforts to limit their spread;

e. Instituting a national export control system capable of effectively controlling transfers of multilaterally controlled nuclear and nuclear-related material, equipment and technology;

f. Harmonizing its export control lists and guidelines with those of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and committing to adhere to the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group guidelines; and

g. Continuing its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, and its readiness to work with others towards the conclusion of a multilateral Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty.

3. Based on the commitments and actions mentioned above, as reiterated by India on September 5, 2008, and without prejudice to national positions thereon, Participating Governments have adopted and will implement the following policies on civil nuclear cooperation with IAEA-safeguarded Indian civil nuclear program:

a. Notwithstanding paragraphs 4(a), 4(b) and 4(c) of INFCIRC/254/Rev. 9/Part 1, Participating Governments may transfer trigger list items and/or related technology to India for peaceful purposes and for use in IAEA-safeguarded civil nuclear facilities, provided that the transfer satisfies all other provisions of INFCIRC/254/Part 1, as revised, and provided that transfers of sensitive exports remain subject to paragraphs 6 and 7 of Guidelines.

b. Notwithstanding paragraphs 4(a) and 4(b) of INFCIRC/254/Rev .7/Part 2, Participating Government may transfer nuclear-related dual-use equipment, materials, software, and related technology to India for peaceful purposes and for use in IAEA-safeguarded civil nuclear facilities, provided that the transfer satisfies all other provisions of INFCIRC/254/Part 2, as revised.

c. At each Plenary, Participating Governments shall notify each other of approved transfers to India of Annexure A and B items listed in INFCIRC/254/Part 1, as revised. Participating Governments are also invited to exchange information, including about their own bilateral agreements with India.

d. With a view to intensification of dialogue and cooperation with India, the Chairman is requested to confer and consult with India and keep the Plenary informed of these consultations.

e. Participating Governments will maintain contact and consult through regular channels, including the Consultative Group and Plenary, for the purpose of considering matters connected with the implementation of all aspects of this Statement, taking into account relevant international commitments or bilateral agreements with India. In the event that one or more Participating Governments consider that circumstances have arisen which require consultations, Participating Governments will meet, and then act in accordance with Paragraph 16 of the Guidelines.

4. In order to facilitate India’s adherence to INFCIRC/254/Parts 1 and 2 and to remain current in its implementations of the Guidelines, the NSG Chair is requested to consult with India regarding changes to and implementation of the Guidelines and inform the Plenary of the outcome of the dialogue with India. Consultations with India regarding proposed amendments will facilitate their effective implementation by India. 

5. Upon request by Participating Governments, the Chairman is requested to submit this Statement to IAEA Director General with a request that it be circulated to all Member States.