The Illusion of a Rules-Based Global Order

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

International law today is powerful against the powerless, and powerless against the powerful. As long as this is true, a rules-based global order will remain a fig leaf for the forcible pursuit of national interests.

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When the Cold War ended, many pundits anticipated a new era in which geo-economics would determine geopolitics. As economic integration progressed, they predicted, the rules-based order would take root globally. Countries would comply with international law or incur high costs.

Today, such optimism looks more than a little naive. Even as the international legal system has ostensibly grown increasingly robust – underpinned, for example, by United Nations conventions, global accords like the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and the International Criminal Court – the rule of force has continued to trump the rule of law. Perhaps no country has taken more advantage of this state of affairs than China.

Consider China’s  in the Mekong River, which flows from the Chinese-controlled Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. By building 11 mega-dams near the border of the Tibetan Plateau, just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia, China has irreparably damaged the river system and wreaked broader environmental havoc, including saltwater intrusion in the Mekong Delta that has caused the delta to retreat.

Today, the Mekong is running at its lowest level in 100 years, and droughts are intensifying in downriver countries. This gives China powerful leverage over its neighbors. And yet China has faced no consequences for its weaponization of the Mekong’s waters. It should thus be no surprise that the country is building or planning at least eight more mega-dams on the Mekong.

China’s actions in the South China Sea may be even more brazen. This month marks the sixth anniversary of the country’s launch of a massive land-reclamation program in the highly strategic corridor, which connects the Indian and Pacific oceans. By constructing and militarizing artificial islands, China has  the region’s geopolitical map without firing a shot – or incurring any international costs.

To be sure, in July 2016, an international arbitral tribunal set up by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea lacked legitimacy under international law. But China’s leaders simply disregarded the ruling, calling it a “farce.” Unless something changes, the United States-led plan to establish a “free and open Indo-Pacific” will remain little more than a paper vision.

China’s open contempt for the PCA’s ruling stood in sharp contrast with India’s response to a 2014 ruling by a PCA-established tribunal awarding Bangladesh nearly 80% of 25,602 square kilometers (9,885 square miles) of disputed territory in the Bay of Bengal. Although the decision was split (unlike the South China Sea tribunal’s unanimous verdict) and included obvious flaws – it left a sizable “gray area” in the bay – India accepted it readily.

In fact, between 2013 and 2016 – while the Philippines-initiated proceedings on China’s claims in the South China Sea were underway – three different PCA-established tribunals ruled against India in disputes with Bangladesh, Italy, and Pakistan. India complied with all of them.

The implication is clear: for large and influential countries, respecting the rules-based order is a choice – one that China, with its regime’s particular character, is unwilling to make. Against this background, Vietnam’s possible legal action on its own territorial disputes with China – which has been interfering in Vietnam’s longstanding oil and gas activities within its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea – is unlikely to amount to much. Vietnam knows that China will ignore any ruling against it and use its trade leverage to punish its less powerful neighbor.

That is why an enforcement mechanism for international law is so badly needed. Disputes between states will always arise. Peace demands mechanisms for resolving them fairly and effectively, and reinforcing respect for existing frontiers.

Yet such a mechanism seems unlikely to emerge anytime soon. After all, China is not alone in violating international law with impunity: its fellow permanent members of the UN Security Council – France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the US – have all done so. These are the very countries that the UN Charter entrusted with upholding international peace and security.

Nowadays, international law is powerful against the powerless, and powerless against the powerful. Despite tectonic shifts in the economy, geopolitics, and the environment, this seems set to remain true, with the mightiest states using international law to impose their will on their weaker counterparts, while ignoring it themselves. As long as this is true, a rules-based global order will remain a fig leaf for the forcible pursuit of national interests.

Brahma ChellaneyBrahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

Why India-Japan ties matter more than ever

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Whereas India-China and Japan-China ties are unlikely to become non-adversarial in the near future, the forthcoming summit between prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi will cement the Japan-India relationship as Asia’s fastest growing relationship, and open the path to a military logistics pact to allow access to each other’s bases. Indeed, the deepening relationship between Asia’s richest democracy and the world’s largest democracy serves the goal of forestalling the emergence of a Sino-centric Asia.

Recently, the Indian and Japanese foreign and defence ministers held their first joint meeting in a so-called “two plus two” format. India has set up such a “two plus two” dialogue with all the other Quad members. The Quad offers a promising platform for strategic maritime cooperation and coordination. But there is no guarantee that it will fulfil that promise.

The India-Japan entente is a central pillar of the U.S.-led strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — a concept authored by Abe. Today, Japan and India serve as the linchpins for establishing a rules-based Indo-Pacific order. However, US President Donald Trump’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, like his predecessor’s pivot to Asia, hasn’t been translated into a clear policy approach with any real strategic heft. It is thus important for Japan and India to contribute their bit.

The evolving paradigm shift in Washington’s China policy, however, has put pressure on Chinese President Xi Jinping to improve his country’s relations with India and Japan. Xi is expected to visit Japan in the spring. Xi’s informal summit with Modi in October yielded few tangible results. But India’s commitment at Mamallapuram to enter into bilateral talks over its lopsided trade relationship with China represented a diplomatic win for Beijing. It allows China to initiate what it is good at — endless negotiations, as its 38-year-long border talks with India illustrate.

In fact, Xi, seeking to shield his country’s burgeoning trade surplus with India, sought at Mamallapuram to rope India into the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). India already has free trade agreements (FTAs) with 12 of the other 15 RCEP member-states, and is negotiating an FTA with Australia. In this light, India’s entry into the RCEP would have effectively established a China-India FTA via the backdoor.

India’s recent withdrawal from the RCEP, like the earlier US pullout from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), has created a dilemma for Japan. While Japan took the lead to establish the TPP without the US, Tokyo does not want the RCEP negotiations to conclude without India, because it would build a China-led trading bloc. This suggests Japan may not join the RCEP without India reversing its withdrawal.

Taking advantage of its considerable assets — the world’s third-largest economy, substantial high-tech skills, and a military freed of some legal and constitutional constraints — Japan is boosting its geopolitical clout. Japan’s world-class navy has already begun operating far beyond the country’s waters in order to establish its position in the region. Abe has explained why Japan and India are natural allies, “A strong India benefits Japan, and a strong Japan benefits India.”

Against this background, the Modi-Abe summit will witness the Indian and Japanese militaries clinching a logistics sharing agreement, formally known as the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA). A logistics sharing accord has become imperative for the two militaries, given the number of joint manoeuvres they hold, including three-way exercises involving the US navy in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

The plain fact is that Japan and India, in the absence of any historical baggage or major strategic disagreement, share largely complementary strategic interests. In fact, Japan has the distinction of being the only foreign power that has been allowed to undertake infrastructure and other projects in India’s sensitive northeast (bordering Myanmar, Tibet, Bhutan and Bangladesh), as well as in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

If Japan and India continue to add concrete security content to their relationship, their strategic partnership could potentially be a game changer in Asia. The emphasis on boosting trade and investment must be balanced with greater strategic collaboration. Their first joint fighter aircraft exercise will be held in the new year in Japan.

The Abe-Modi summit offers an opportunity to discuss how the Tokyo-New Delhi duet can contribute to the larger effort to build strategic equilibrium, power stability and maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. Besides deepening defence and maritime security cooperation, Japan and India must collaborate on infrastructure and other projects in third countries, including Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and in Africa, to help enhance strategic connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.

India and Japan have forged a special relationship, which is set to strengthen and deepen in the coming years. At a time of global geopolitical flux, the two are among the important countries that have taken up the baton to champion freedom, international norms and rules, inclusivity, and free and fair trade.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

China’s dam-building programme must take neighbours into account

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  • Since China began damming the Mekong, droughts have become more frequent and intense in downriver countries
  • By diverting river water to its mega-dams, China has emerged as Asia’s upstream water controller, giving it great leverage

Japan’s RCEP Dilemma

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times 

India’s pullout from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), like the earlier U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), has created a dilemma for Japan. But whereas Japan took the lead to establish the TPP without the United States, Tokyo does not desire a RCEP without India because it would create a China-led trading bloc.

The 16-nation RCEP was supposed to establish the world’s largest trading bloc covering half of the global population. But India’s withdrawal from the RCEP has undercut that objective. It now seems likely that China would dominate the RCEP, which is set to be opened for signature next year.

The other 15 participating countries in November concluded text-based negotiations and sent the agreement to the legal scrubbing team for cleanup. A joint statement following the conclusion of the negotiations in Bangkok said, “India has significant outstanding issues, which remain unresolved. All RCEP participating countries will work together to resolve these outstanding issues in a mutually satisfactory way. India’s final decision will depend on satisfactory resolution of these issues.”

Japanese Trade Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama told his Indian counterpart, Piyush Goyal, last week in New Delhi that Japan was ready to take the lead to help resolve the “outstanding issues” so that India can rejoin the RCEP.

The main factor behind India’s pullout from the RCEP was China, which Harvard’s Graham Allison has called “the most protectionist, mercantilist and predatory major economy in the world.” At a time of slowing Indian economic growth, India’s entry into the RCEP could exacerbate the country’s problems by opening the floodgates to the entry of cheap Chinese goods.

China, while exploiting India’s rule of law to engage in large-scale dumping and other unfair practices, keeps whole sectors of its economy off-limits to Indian businesses, including India’s $181-billion information technology industry. Beijing has also dragged its feet on dismantling regulatory barriers to the import of Indian agricultural and pharmaceutical products.

Since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, China’s trade surplus with India has more than doubled to over $60 billion annually. Modi’s 2015 removal of China as a “country of concern,” instead of encouraging major foreign direct investment (FDI) from that country, has only spurred greater dumping.

In the list of countries with which China has the highest trade surpluses, India now ranks second behind America. China’s surplus with the U.S., of course, is massive. But as a percentage of total bilateral trade or as a percentage of national gross domestic product (GDP), India’s trade deficit with China is greater than America’s. India’s trade deficit with China in 2018 accounted for 2.2% of its GDP.

China’s unfair trade practices are systematically undermining Indian manufacturing and competitiveness, with the result that Modi’s vaunted “Make in India” initiative has yet to seriously take off. In fact, China’s annual trade surplus with India is significantly larger than India’s total defense spending, underscoring the extent to which India is underwriting Chinese hostility.

India already has free trade agreements (FTAs) with 12 of the other 15 RCEP participating countries, and is negotiating an FTA with Australia. The main beneficiary of India’s entry into the RCEP would be Beijing, because it would effectively establish a China-India FTA via the backdoor.

The two “informal” summits Chinese President Xi Jinping has held with Modi since April 2018 have yielded little progress on the trade, border and political issues that divide the world’s two most-populous countries. Indeed, at the second summit, held in the Indian coastal town of Mamallapuram about two months ago, Xi sought to rope India into the RCEP in an effort to shield his country’s burgeoning trade surplus with New Delhi.

When the Mamallapuram summit concluded, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said, “President Xi has assured us that India’s concerns over the RCEP will be duly discussed. Although both Modi and Xi emphasized on the importance of having a rules-based global trading system, the Indian prime minister clarified to China that a deal should be balanced and equitable. China said it has heard India’s concerns and has agreed that there are still issues that need addressing.”

At the summit, Modi agreed to the holding of talks between the Chinese vice premier and the Indian finance minister over India’s lopsided trade relationship with China. The Indian commitment represented a diplomatic win for Beijing, allowing it to initiate what it is good at — endless negotiations, as its 38-year-long border talks with India illustrate. Ever since the talks to settle the border disputes began in 1981, China has taken India round and round the mulberry bush.

However, barely three weeks after the summit, India pulled out of the RCEP. And the bilateral trade talks that were agreed upon at the summit have yet to begin.

Let’s be clear: Unlike most other participating countries in the RCEP, India is not an export-driven economy. Rather, like the U.S., it is an import-dependent economy whose growth is largely driven by domestic consumption.

The U.S. and India have big trade deficits in goods with the rest of the world. Through bilateral or trilateral trade deals, they can leverage outsiders’ access to their huge markets to help shape trade norms and practices. This is already the approach of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

Make no mistake: India needs to become more competitive in its own right, because no barrier can be high enough to protect it from China’s trade prowess. But it also true that India cannot become more competitive without curbing China’s dumping and other rapacious trade practices.

Against this background, Japan has a challenging task to get India back into the world’s largest free-trade arrangement. Whenever Prime Minister Shinzo Abe undertakes his postponed visit to India, he will seek to impress on Modi that India’s — and Japan’s — interests in the Indo-Pacific region would be better served with New Delhi being part of the RCEP.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”

© The Japan Times, 2019.

America’s Feeble Indo-Pacific Strategy

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US President Donald Trump’s administration wants to build a rules-based and democracy-led order in the Indo-Pacific, but seems to have no idea how. If it doesn’t find the answer soon, and imbue its Asia policy with strategic heft, constraining Chinese aggression will only become more difficult.

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

HANOI – With the global geopolitical center of gravity shifting toward Asia, a pluralistic, rules-based Indo-Pacific order is more important than ever, including for America’s own global standing. So it was good news when, two years ago, US President Donald Trump began touting a vision of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific, characterized by unimpeded trade flows, freedom of navigation, and respect for the rule of law, national sovereignty, and existing frontiers. Yet, far from realizing this vision, the United States has allowed Chinese expansionism in Asia to continue virtually unimpeded. This failure could not be more consequential.

Like Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia, the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific hasn’t been translated into a clear policy approach with any real strategic heft. On the contrary, the US has continued to stand by while China has broken rules and conventions to expand its control over strategic territories, especially the South China Sea, where it has built and militarized artificial islands. China has redrawn the geopolitical map in that critical maritime trade corridor without incurring any international costs.

To be sure, the US has often expressed concern about China’s activities, including its ongoing interference in Vietnam’s oil and gas activities within that country’s own exclusive economic zone. More concretely, the US has stepped up its freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, and engaged with the region’s three largest democracies – Australia, India, and Japan – to hold “quadrilateral consultations” on achieving a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific. Though the “Quad” has no intention of forming a military grouping, it offers a promising platform for strategic maritime cooperation and coordination, especially now that its consultations have been elevated to the foreign-minister level.

Yet there is no guarantee the Quad will fulfill that promise. While the grouping has defined vague objectives – such as ensuring, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has put it, that “China retains only its proper place in the world” – it has offered little indication of how it plans to get there.

America’s wider Indo-Pacific strategy has the same problem. The Trump administration wants to build a rules-based and democracy-led regional order, but seems to have no idea how. And instead of trying to figure that out, it has placed strategic issues on the back burner – for example, it downgraded its participation in the recent Asia-Pacific summits in Bangkok – and focused on bilateral trade deals.

Not surprisingly, this approach has done nothing to curb China’s territorial revisionism, let alone other damaging Chinese policies, including its appalling violations of the human rights of the Uighur ethnic group in Xinjiang. The Chinese government has reportedly detained more than a million Muslims, mostly Uighurs, in so-called reeducation camps – the largest mass incarceration on religious grounds since World War II.

Although a bipartisan US commission recommended sanctions over these internment camps last year, the Trump administration only recently imposed export and visa restrictions on camp-linked entities and officials, respectively. China expressed anger at the decision, insisting that its actions in Xinjiang are intended to “eradicate the breeding soil of extremism and terrorism,” but it is unlikely to be deterred by the relatively restrained US measures.

The Trump administration has also shown caution in its implementation of the Taiwan Travel Act and the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, both of which were enacted last year. Bipartisan legislation intended to support the people of Hong Kong, who have been protesting China’s increasingly blatant violations of their rights under the “one country, two systems” regime for months, is likely to face a similar fate.

China has vowed to retaliate if the US enacts the new laws, including one that would require the Secretary of State to certify each year whether Hong Kong is “sufficiently autonomous” to justify its special trading status. More broadly, Chinese President Xi Jinping has warned that anyone “attempting to split China” will end up with “crushed bodies and shattered bones,” and “any external forces backing such attempts” will be “deemed by the Chinese people as pipe-dreaming.”

That mentality – reinforced by years of breaking rules with impunity – will not be changed by economic measures alone. Yet economic measures remain Trump’s weapon of choice. While US sanctions and tariffs have exacerbated China’s economic slowdown, thereby undermining its ability to fund its expanding global footprint, real progress will also require strategic maneuvers These would send a clear message to both China and America’s regional allies.

Such a message is crucial because even the Quad members that were supposed to serve as the pillars of free and open Indo-Pacific have lately been hedging their bets on the US. Japan – whose prime minister, Shinzo Abe, originated the concept – has quietly dropped the term “strategy” from its policy vision for the Indo-Pacific. Australia has forged a comprehensive strategic partnership with China. And Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently hosted Xi.

The longer the US fails to act as a convincing counterweight to China, the more strategic space Xi will have to pursue his neo-imperialist agenda, and the less likely he will be to submit to US pressure, economic or otherwise. To prevent that, the US must provide strategic weight to its Indo-Pacific policy, including by establishing a clear plan for resisting China’s efforts to alter the status quo in the South China Sea. If the US oil company ExxonMobil exits Vietnam’s largest gas project, as seems likely, this will become even more urgent, given China’s interest in shutting extra-regional energy firms out of the South China Sea.

Trump once described Obama’s South China Sea strategy as “impotent.” But today, it is Trump’s approach to Chinese expansionism that looks weak. As China’s aggression continues to increase, that impotence will only become more apparent – and more damaging.

Brahma ChellaneyBrahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

Stuck in a haze: New Delhi’s smog is the cost of environmental neglect

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Brahma Chellaney, The Globe and Mail

Just as German Chancellor Angela Merkel reached New Delhi last week on a state visit, noxious smog blanketed the Indian capital, forcing a shutdown of schools for five days and a temporary ban on construction activity and millions of private vehicles. Indeed, Ms. Merkel’s two-day visit coincided with the declaration of a public health emergency in the city, prompting her to pitch for green urban transportation, including electric buses.

New Delhi’s buses are already green: They run on compressed natural gas. The city’s seasonal smog problem, which comes with cooler temperatures and slower winds in the post-monsoon period, is largely linked to a deleterious agricultural practice in nearby states — after harvest, farmers burn crop stubble to clear their fields.

The fumes from the stubble burnings mix with New Delhi’s vehicle emissions, construction dust and smoke from fireworks set off during Diwali, the festival of light. This creates an annual toxic haze that lingers for days or even weeks, partly due to topography. The cool air with its pollutants gets trapped by the hills that surround the Indian capital on three sides.

At the beginning of this month, New Delhi had the dubious distinction, in terms of the air quality index (AQI), of topping the list of the world’s most-polluted capital cities, with levels of deadly particulate matter reaching multiple times the global safety threshold. The opaque haze reduced visibility to such an extent that even some planes could not land at the international airport.

Add to the picture the gloom and doom on which Indian newspapers and opposition politicians thrive, which made the smog situation appear worse. “Capital Punishment,” screamed the front-page banner headline in the Hindustan Times, a leading English-language newspaper. The Indian capital’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, who belongs to a small regional party, claimed the city had turned into a “gas chamber.”

Since Tuesday, New Delhi’s AQI has significantly improved following light showers and strong breeze. (Wind, rain and snow act as pollution scrubbers.) More rain fell on Thursday. With the thick haze dissipating, a blue sky is again visible daytime and the moon at night. But the city’s environmental crisis is far from over.

Commercially available satellite imagery shows many crop-burning fires still raging in parts of northern India, especially Punjab state. This means air pollution levels remain high in the agricultural regions and cities of northwestern India.

Burning of crop stubble has long been an expedient way for Asian farmers to prepare fields for the next crop. While China has employed its authoritarian system in recent years to forcefully crack down on this polluting practice, thereby significantly reducing Beijing’s air contamination, democratic India has failed to stop the crop-stubble burnings.

Farmers, constituting the largest voting constituency in numbers, are politically powerful in India. State governments have recoiled from levying fines on stubble-burning farmers.

India’s Supreme Court this week ordered state governments to incentivize an end to stubble burnings by doling out cash rewards to farmers that do not burn their fields. “It has become a question of life and death for the common people,” the justices said while seeking accountability from federal and state governments over the smog.

The modest dole-outs the highest court has recommended, however, might not suffice to end the stubble-burning practice. Authorities also need to encourage farmers to buy machinery that helps turn stubble into mulch. This means subsidizing their machinery purchases.

Here’s the paradox: An environmentally conscious Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who initiated a “Clean India” campaign soon after coming to office in 2014, confronts a smog problem that has become acute on his watch.

India is one of the few countries trying to ban single-use plastic items. It has implemented a complete ban on import of plastic waste. And to control air pollution in New Delhi, a nearby coal-fired plant was shut down last year and the use of private vehicles restricted to alternating days during the pollution season, with cars with odd-number license plates allowed to drive only on odd dates and cars with even-numbered plates on even-numbered dates.

More fundamentally, New Delhi’s recurrent smog problem underscores the mounting costs India is paying for years of environmental neglect. According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, India has the majority of the world’s most polluted cities, a fact that holds important consequences for public health in the country.

The WHO defines health as not merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a state of complete physical, social and mental well-being. A sound natural environment is central to such well-being.

The Indian establishment, with its ostrich-like mindset, acts only when a problem turns into a crisis. As a result, the deteriorating air quality in New Delhi and other major northwestern Indian cities has became a national crisis, drawing international attention and affecting the flow of tourists to India.

In fact, unprecedented pressures on natural resources and ecosystems are triggering a broader range of adverse environmental impacts. Rapid development, breakneck urbanization, large-scale irrigated farming, lifestyle changes and other human impacts have resulted in degraded watersheds, watercourses and other ecosystems, as well as in shrinking forests and swamps. The illicit diversion of sand from riverbeds for the construction boom has damaged rivers and slowed the natural recharge of aquifers.

To be sure, India’s environmental challenges mirror those of many other developing countries, from Mexico and Peru to Indonesia and the Philippines. The imperative to develop environmentally friendly policies and practices, however, transcends the developing world. Wealthier countries with disproportionally large environmental footprints — from the United States to Australia — also need to embrace environmental protection in earnest.

Environmental protection, in the long run, is cheaper than environmental cleanup and restoration. If India’s national planners were more forward-looking, the country could avoid repeating the mistakes of other countries, instead of investing resources in tackling air, soil and water pollution and other environmental degradation. The degradation adversely affects climate, ecosystems, biodiversity and public health.

The fact that China’s environmental-contamination problems are worse than India’s, despite Beijing’s improved air quality, can give Indian authorities no comfort. As the world’s factory floor and largest exporter, including of coal-fired power plants, China is exacerbating the global environment crisis. India, with a services-led, import-dependent economy that relies largely on domestic consumption for growth, can scarcely defend its levels of air, soil and water pollution.

India needs a more holistic and integrated approach to development that places environmental protection at the center of strategic planning. Without such an approach, the linkages between a healthy natural environment and human health could trap India in a vicious cycle in which environmental degradation contributes to public health issues, and vice versa.

The New Delhi smog is a reminder that human health is inextricably linked to nature’s wealth, which we must cherish and protect.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”

© The Globe and Mail, 2019.

China is weaponizing water and worsening droughts in Asia

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Its dams are provoking regional tensions, so Beijing needs to reconsider its policy.

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A night view of China’s Three Gorges Dam: Asia can build a harmonious, rules-based water management regime only if China gets on board, which does not seem likely.   © Visual China Group/Getty Images

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Asia, the world’s driest continent in per capita terms, remains the global center of dam construction, boasting more than half of the 50,000 large dams across the globe. The hyperactivity on dams has only sharpened local and international disputes over the resources of shared rivers and aquifers.

The focus on dams reflects a continuing preference for supply-side approaches, which entail increased exploitation of water resources, as opposed to pursuing demand-side solutions, including smart water management and greater water-use efficiency. As a result, nowhere is the geopolitics over dams murkier than in Asia, the world’s most dam-dotted continent.

Improving the hydropolitics demands institutionalized cooperation, transparency on projects, water-sharing arrangements and dispute-resolution mechanisms. Asia can build a harmonious, rules-based water management regime only if China gets on board. At least for now, that does not seem likely.

This past summer, water levels in continental Southeast Asia’s lifeline, the 4,880-kilometer Mekong River, fell to their lowest in more than 100 years, even though the annual monsoon season stretches from late May to late September. Yet, after completing 11 mega-dams, China is building more upstream dams on the Mekong, which originates on the Tibetan Plateau. Indeed, Beijing is also damming other transnational rivers.

China is central to Asia’s water map. Thanks to its annexation of the water-rich Tibetan Plateau and the sprawling Xinjiang province, China is the starting point of rivers that flow to 18 downstream countries. No other country in the world serves as the riverhead for so many other countries.

By erecting dams, barrages and other water diversion structures in its borderlands, China is creating an extensive upstream infrastructure that arms it with the capacity to weaponize water.

To be sure, dam-building is also roiling relations elsewhere in Asia. The festering territorial disputes over Kashmir and Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley are as much about water as they are about land. Across Asia, states are jockeying to control shared water resources by building dams, even as they demand transparency and information on their neighbors’ projects.

A serious drought presently parching parts of the vast region extending from Australia to the Indian peninsula has underscored the mounting risks from the pursuit of dam-centered engineering solutions to growing freshwater shortages.

Asia’s densely populated regions already face a high risk that their water stress could worsen to water scarcity. The dam-driven water competition is threatening to also provoke greater tensions and conflict.

The rich, fertile soil in Asia’s food bowls — the lower basins of the major river systems — owes much to nature’s yearly gift of silt. But the heavy damming of rivers is impeding the movement of nutrient-rich silt, which rivers bring from the mountains. The flooding cycle of rivers helps to refertilize farmland naturally by spreading silt. But this cycle is also being disrupted by dams.

In the West, the building of large dams has largely petered out. The construction of large dams is also slowing in Asia’s major democracies, such as Japan, South Korea and India, because of increasing grassroots opposition.

For example, Japan’s Yamba Dam and the Narmada Dam in India have been in the making for decades, yet are still not complete because of delays caused by protests and controversies.

It is the construction in non-democracies that has made Asia the global nucleus of dam-building. China remains the world’s top dam-builder at home and abroad. In keeping with its obsession to build the tallest, largest, deepest, longest and highest projects, China completed ahead of schedule the world’s biggest dam, Three Gorges, touting it as the greatest architectural feat in history since the building of the Great Wall.

It is currently implementing the most ambitious inter-basin and inter-river water transfer program ever conceived in human history. Among its planned new dams is a massive project at Metog (or “Motuo” in Chinese) on the world’s highest-altitude major river, the Brahmaputra. The proposed dam, close to the disputed, heavily militarized border with India, will have a power-generating capacity nearly twice that of the Three Gorges Dam, the length of whose reservoir is longer than the largest of North America’s Great Lakes.

Several of the Southeast Asian dam projects financed and undertaken by Chinese companies, like in Laos and Myanmar, are intended to generate electricity for export to China’s own market.

Indeed, China has demonstrated 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.

Every since China erected a cascade of giant dams on the Mekong, droughts have become more frequent and intense in the downriver countries. This has created a serious public-relations headache for Beijing, which denies that its upriver dams are to blame.

Indeed, seeking to play savior, it has promised to release more dam water for the drought-stricken countries. But this offer only highlights the newfound reliance of downriver countries on Chinese goodwill — a dependence that is set to deepen as China builds more giant dams on the Mekong. By diverting river waters to giant dams, China has emerged as the upstream water controller.

With water woes worsening across Asia, the continent faces a stark choice — stay on the present path, which can lead only to more environmental degradation and even water wars, or fundamentally change course by embarking on the path of rules-based cooperation.

The latter path demands not only water-sharing accords and the free flow of hydrological data but also greater efficiency in water consumption, increased use of recycled and desalinated water, and innovative conservation and adaptation efforts.

None of this will be possible without the cooperation of China, which thus far has refused to enter into water-sharing arrangements with any downstream neighbor. If China does not abandon its current approach, the prospects for a rules-based order in Asia could perish forever. Getting China on board has thus become critical to shape water for peace in Asia.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.