The Role of Infrastructure in China-SAARC Relations: Moving Towards a Partnership of Common Prosperity

Bhaskar Koirala August 10, 2012

China’s inclusion into the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as Observer in 2006 (along with Japan, South Korea, the US and EU) creates some very interesting and compelling avenues of thinking and many options for long-term planning in respect to cooperative infrastructure development



Bhaskar Koirala

Director, Nepal Institute of International and Strategic Studies and Doctoral Scholar, School of International Studies, Peking University, China




China’s inclusion into the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as Observer in 2006 (along with Japan, South Korea, the US and EU) creates some very interesting and compelling avenues of thinking and many options for long-term planning in respect to cooperative infrastructure development that can serve to enhance ties between China and the South Asian region by way of greater physical connectivity, facilitate more widespread economic development, stanch the deleterious effects of global climate change by promoting innovative and dynamic solutions in this area and even help mitigate the possibility of any future conflict between states of the region. The role of infrastructure in China-South Asia relations is a relatively unexplored subject, yet the need to begin conceptualizing this issue in more broad and concrete terms is now vital as part of any future efforts to jointly address a range of issues encompassing expanding trade relations, sustaining economic growth, climate change, poverty alleviation, food shortages and rising costs, energy issues, and most importantly perhaps, to fashion a new development agenda or model that would impact more than a third of the population of the world. There is an acute need to map out in comprehensive fashion infrastructure cooperation between China and South Asian countries, particularly in the area of roads, railways and wider exploration plus diffusion of renewable energy technologies encompassing wind and solar power. How such efforts can be institutionalized within the framework of SAARC-China relations must be analyzed closely. Successful cooperation between China and the South Asian region in infrastructure development would be a major hall-mark in the ongoing power shift of international politics to greater Asia. The present discussion is merely a cursory evaluation--a sort of thematic sketch--and by no means an expert or systematic treatment of the subject. 


At the outset it should be stressed that for all states concerned, new methods of strategic thinking and development planning will be required to move forward successfully with cooperative infrastructure development between China and South Asia. Historical animosities between countries and over-arching geo-strategic considerations, while they cannot be completely ignored, should be set aside to the extent possible. In a fundamental sense, the logic under-girding infrastructure development is that leaving certain areas and populations “unconnected” (physically, socially, intellectually and so on) and therefore isolated makes scant sense from an economic point of view and gives rise to numerous strategic vulnerabilities such as the likelihood of social discontent leading to violent insurgencies and separatist activities that “spill-over” and exert a region-wide effect. We have already witnessed this sort of phenomena. Indeed, the function of infrastructure in essence is to bridge gaps in physical terrain (bridging intellectual gaps along the way) and thereby to inject economic stimuli to produce a variety of new opportunities. On a more practical level, with the “emergence of global and regional production networks, transport and logistics aspects [that presume the existence of physical connectivity and other sound infrastructure support] have become important” (Kuroda, 2006). It is true that in Asia, “barring a few examples from the Greater Mekong Sub-region, efforts to improve the region’s connectivity have mostly been made through national infrastructure projects and national policy actions” (ibid). Taken together, China and the South Asia region are currently experiencing (historically) dynamic transformations that render it imperative that we jointly embark in concerted fashion towards the achievement of common prosperity through the medium of infrastructure.    


SAARC needs to Rethink Sequencing

One of the key features of cross-border infrastructure, based on the fact that it can generate entirely new possibilities, is its ability to promote greater economic and social development and therefore create conditions that promote peace and stability. This must be recognized more explicitly at the policy level, nationally and bilaterally, in an effort to converge this recognition at the multilateral space, by analyzing closely how cooperation in infrastructure can be institutionalized within SAARC, especially in a manner that subsumes the participation of important new Observers such as China and Japan who also possess the capability to provide capital and technology to help initiate this process. Indeed, the importance attached to infrastructure is highlighted in Paragraph 4 of the Declaration of the 14th SAARC Summit held in New Delhi in April 2007: “The Heads of State or Government recognized the importance of connectivity….It was vital to first have better connectivity within South Asia and then with the rest of the world..” I would however argue that we should reconsider proposals that appear to set out this kind of “artificial” sequencing which is in fact out of sync with current developments on the ground. Infinitely better would be the idea of forging infrastructure connectivity within South Asia alongside such connectivity with areas outside the region, as the latter process is already occurring very rapidly if we look at developments in the west, east or north of the South Asian region as I shall explain. Such connectivity is particularly compelling in the context of China and South Asia, in view of the fact that China shares borders with South Asia totaling approximately 5,700km, much greater for example than the lengthy border separating Russia and China (3,605km) or the border separating the United States from Mexico (3,141km). The problem is that physical connectivity and cooperation in other aspects of infrastructure development have lagged between China and the South Asian region relative to such cooperation between China and ASEAN or for that matter between India and ASEAN or the Southeast Asian region, the benefits of which I would like to briefly highlight below. So really the urgency for China and South Asian states in forging cooperation in infrastructure stems from the extremely low base of existing partnerships and programs in this key area upon which we must resolve to build much more vigorously in future.  


South Asia already Connecting with External Regions

The India-Myanmar land network is an example of South Asia already having physically connected with an “external” region whereby Myanmar and India--which shares a land boundary of approximately 1,643km connecting Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, and Mizoram with mainland Southeast Asia through the Myanmarese states of Kaschin, Sagaing and Chin--have been able to forge wide-ranging road linkages. In an effort to explore land connectivity to reach Southeast Asia, India began to initiate land and rail links from its restive Northeastern region. In this regard, the 160km India-Myanmar Friendship road was completed in 2001 which likely spurred another initiative in 2005, namely the Trilateral Highway between India, Myanmar and Thailand under the Mekong-Ganga cooperation initiative. The 1360km Trilateral Highway, which cost about US$700 million to construct, runs from Moreh in India to Maw Sot in Thailand through Bagan in Myanmar. Incidentally, this highway project also undertook the task of constructing a road from Kanchanburi in Thailand to Dawei in Myanmar, and the development of the deep seaport at Dawei (in other words, one infrastructure project can ostensibly lead to many others). In this context, developments underway in India’s rail corridor with Myanmar must also be mentioned, because there has been some talk of possibly connecting this corridor to the anticipated 1,350km railway track from Kunming (China) to Myanmar, Laos and onwards to Bangkok. The Northeastern Indian states mentioned above have been politically restive for some time now, and indeed one “of the primary motives behind India’s connectivity diplomacy with the Southeast Asian region is to cultivate Northeastern India. The development deficit in the Northeast remains a challenge for the Indian government. However, this challenge can be addressed by integrating the Northeast with the Southeast Asian region, thereby ushering in prosperity of the entire region” (Bhattacharya, 2008). The direct and indirect benefits, for example, of the India-Myanmar Friendship road and other road networks straddling the Northeast with Myanmar, have been enormous: between 1991-92 and 2001-02 bilateral trade between India and Myanmar and India expanded from US$74.8 million to around US$428 million (McAteer, 2005). We can just imagine what this increase in trade has done to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Yet, despite such achievements, there is still a sense of inadequacy on the part of Indian policy makers such as Indian Minister for the Development of Northeastern Region, Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyar, who commissioned a concept paper in 2007 that calls for reinvigorating India’s look-east policy by inculcating more intensely India’s Northeast in this entire process. India’s look-east policy (via the Indian Northeast) dates in earnest to Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao from the early 1990s. In the context of currently glacial forward movement in infrastructure connectivity between China and South Asia (the fastest growing parts of the world) what is instructive is that it would take such a considerable amount of time to put into place sound and adequate infrastructure that renders extensive benefits which then naturally draws wide popular support. The point is that while infrastructure connectivity between any two regions can be incredibly advantageous, it takes time to put such infrastructure (along with the concomitant soft-infrastructure such as an appropriate cross-border legal framework etc) into operation and hence it is disappointing to witness such apparently slow momentum and inadequate resolve on this front between China and South Asia. The much celebrated Nathu-La trading point along the China-India border is a case in point: a senior Chinese customs official remarked that “figures show that border trade has been uninspiring since the re-opening [of the Nathu La Pass in 2006]” (The Sikkim Times, 2007). Acknowledging this, the Indian Minister of State for Commerce, Jairam Ramesh, indicated that “the real issues inhibiting trade were upgrading of infrastructure on the Indian side and negotiating a new protocol with China which will enable cross-border trade” (ibid). 

(The India-Myanmar Friendship Road and map of the Trilateral Highway connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand)


Just as in the eastern or north-eastern flank of South Asia, developments in Afghanistan, the newest member of SAARC, demonstrate the “outward projections” already taking place at the western edge of South Asia. Cooperation between Afghanistan and countries in the Central Asian region in the establishment of common infrastructure projects can serve as tangible evidence of how similar partnerships between China and South Asian states have the potential to deliver sizeable benefits to all parties. A couple of noteworthy examples are in order here. For instance, August 2007 saw the opening of a new bridge just 700 meters long over the Pyanj River that connects the ports of Nizhny Pyanj on the side of Tajikistan with Shir Khan Bandar on the Afghan side (RadioFreeEurope/Radio Liberty, 2007). I will highlight the particular benefits of this bridge below as an exercise to extrapolate for advantages of similar projects that can be initiated between China and South Asia. Going back even earlier to 2005, the 120 km Dogharoun-Herat road was inaugurated that year connecting Afghanistan with Iran, with some estimates indicating that about 60% of Afghan imports and exports will travel through this highway, and that eventually it will extend to all of Asia (Business Intelligence, 2005). Afghanistan, of course, as a part and parcel of South Asia, has been at the crossroads of the Middle East and Asia, Europe and Asia, and between Northern Europe, Russia and the Indian Ocean. Trade had taken place across this area for over two thousand years with a halt in commerce beginning in the early twentieth century when the Soviet Union’s southern borders sliced through the region. Recent transformations in Afghanistan have led to the reopening of historical trade routes that will render feasible much more voluminous trade between countries of Central Asia, China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the South Asian region. The tremendous potential deriving from Afghanistan’s pivotal position, as a link for South Asia to Central and West Asia, should serve as an excellent example of how promising it will be for South Asia (strategically abutting the People’s Republic) to forge more extensive infrastructure linkages with China as a worthy objective in itself and as a way for the region to reach into East Asia and possibly even Russia.


(Bridge across the Pyanj River that connects Tajikistan and Afghanistan)


With respect to infrastructure connectivity in the case of Afghanistan, the bridge over the Pyanj River referred to above “will provide the [entire] region with inter-connectivity by cutting the distance between Dushanbe (in Tajikistan) and seaports almost by half. It also facilitates access to a warm water port in Karachi, Pakistan, for the countries to the north. This should spur increased trade and economic development throughout the region (US Department of State, 2007)”. Prior to the operation of the bride across the Pyanj river, transport across the river equaled approximately 40 trucks on ferry per day; subsequent to the inauguration of the bridge, 1000 trucks began plying over the bridge per day, with unofficial estimates of trade having risen from US$6 million in 2006 before the bridge was in place to about US$30 million in 2007 (ibid). What is significant for the South Asian region and China as a result of the Pyanj river bridge is that it opens up Tajikistan to cement from Pakistan, pharmaceutical from India, consumer goods from China, cement, citrus fruits, vegetables, perfume oils and products, and textiles from Afghanistan. On the other hand, Afghanistan, as the newest member of SAARC, will gain access to a host of products: wheat, vegetable oil, fertilizers, carpet materials, wood, clothing, shoes, black metals, mechanical equipment, electrical equipment and vehicles from Tajikistan, Russia and Kazakhstan. The benefits of South Asia connecting with outside regions are indeed impressive as I have tried to show. It is therefore rather puzzling that South Asia has not yet made focused attempts to physically connect with the only SAARC Observer that is contiguous to our region, namely the People’s Republic of China, a country that has incidentally registered consistently high GDP growth for more than a decade and is projected in 2008 to overtake Germany as the world’s second largest trading country (Xinhua News Agency, 2005). According to Chinese Vice-Minister for Commerce Gao Hucheng, “China’s output of 172 sorts of commodities ranks first in the world, with the output of tractors and containers accounting for above 80 percent of the world’s total, and that of watches and radio cassettes, 60 percent”(ibid). A Chinese Ministry of Commerce’s report on foreign trade “estimated that China’s foreign trade volume will surpass 1400 billion US dollars this year, up 20 percent from the previous year, with exports to grow 26 percent, and imports around 18 percent” (ibid). There is really no other long-term alternative but for SAARC to take account of such facts and prepare for an institutional mechanism that will plan and execute physical connectivity with China, in which infrastructure development will obviously acquire a central role.       

To shift attention now to the “North section” of South Asia, namely to the entire northern mountainous regions of Nepal (but equally those areas along the Sino-Indian and Sino-Pakistani borders), the opening in 2006 of the Qinghai-Tibet railway of course represents a huge milestone in Chinese engineering and scientific achievement, but the implications for Nepal itself and for the rest of South Asia from this incredible feat of infrastructure development have not become fully evident as yet. In 2006 itself, the chairman of the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Mr. Qiangba Puncog, had indicated to the visiting Nepalese Foreign Minister Mr. K.P. Oli that “Tibet is a remote place that is looking forward to being connected to South Asia [and that] the railway extension will promote business exchanges” (Zhu, 2006) Towards that end, the next segment of railway extension will happen in the Xigaze Prefecture in Tibet which borders not only Nepal but India and Bhutan as well and it is very promising that according to currents plans, a branch line of the railway will be built from Lhasa to the city of Xigaze covering a distance of some 270 kilometers in the next three years. The coming decade will almost certainly witness the Tibet railway extended to the borders of Nepal itself, and what is significant is that this will happen at a time when Nepal is undergoing monumental state restructuring with a very strong likelihood of a federal system emerging in Nepal, which means that those Nepalese provinces or districts that border the Tibet Autonomous  Region will have to carefully begin planning for ways in which the Tibet railway may connect with Nepalese territory, not to mention planning for multiple highways connecting Nepal with the existing East-West highway in Tibet. Nepal should of course actively and continuously consult on a bilateral basis with China on these important issues, but it would be just as relevant for Nepal to seek a more multilateral approach in this regard as well by placing this issue to a certain extent within the ambit of a (possible) future SAARC-China cooperation framework.


(The Qinghai-Tibet Railways, expected to reach Nepal’s borders approximately in 2013)



SAARC-China Cooperation in Infrastructure: Looking at Railway Connectivity

In this context it would be germane to mention plans between India and Nepal to establish direct rail links that connect Rauxal in Bihar with Kathmandu and Nautanwa in Uttar Pradesh with Lumbini (the birth place of Lord Buddha) in Nepal. Currently there is only one railway track between the two countries linking Janakpur in Nepal with Jainagar in Bihar. The plans to connect Rauxal and Kathmandu by way of an 80km rail link would also incorporate Birgunj and Hetauda in Nepal which are important industrial and trading centers of Nepal, while the distance to be covered between Uttar Pradesh and Lumbini would be only about 25 kilometers (Das, 2004). This may be significant because during the recent visit of India Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh to China, it will be recalled that India and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for cooperation and development of rail related programs between the two countries. “The agreement includes programs of mutual interest, consultations, training and visits to each others facilities” (iGovernment Bureau, 2008). It seems there may be potential implications of this agreement for Nepal, not the least of which is the proposition that Nepal--as some analysts have already suggested--can serve as a transit state between India and China, and the other very promising tourism implication on account of Chinese, Indian, and international tourists or pilgrims deriving from the special Buddhist train, or Mahaparinirvan Express, launched last year by the Indian Railways (especially relevant given the great resurgence of Buddhism in China). So Nepal, perhaps as part of a wider SAARC effort for regional railway connectivity stitching together specific sites of Buddhist history and culture, and obviously as an over-arching measure to substantially enhance commercial and economic transactions, can at some point become integral to any relevant cooperation between Indian and Chinese Railways. Such an effort would be timely, as discussions will also soon commence between India and Nepal on the proposed expansion of the broad-gauge railway from Jogbani (in Bihar, India) to Biratnager (in eastern Nepal), a short distance of some 8 kilometers (South Asian Media Net, 2008), while both official and unofficial discussions have continued to take place between Nepal and China on the Tibet railways extension to the border of Nepal itself.   

departure Janakpur Dham

(Above, Indian Railways near Janakpur Dham, Nepal, and a basic rendition of a railway line that connects China-Nepal-India which would be an extraordinary development in the history of Nepal)


According to media reports, Indian Railways is “keen on cooperation with its [China] counterpart for raising speed on existing routes, development of world-class stations, heavy haul operations, development of multimodal logistics parks and research and development”(iGovernment Bureau, 2008). China Railways has vast experience being the carrier of the highest volume of freight traffic in the world, and the substantial network expansion it has undertaken combined with impressive modernization and technological up-gradation seen in the last 10 years in the areas of signaling and telecommunications, traction supply, high axel load operation, design and maintenance and multimodal transport, makes it an invaluable resource for not only India but other relevant South Asian countries as well (ibid). With respect to railway extensions to take place between India and Nepal--and in the context of the Tibet railway’s expansion to the Nepal border in the near future--I believe Nepal should carefully study the recently inked MoU between India and China railways to understand how it may seek the assistance of its two neighbors, each with its own long history in railroad transportation, to develop its own railway system, initially in such a manner that will link China’s railway to India’s via Nepalese territory in a way that a solid foundational framework for Nepal railways can be established fairly soon upon which ancillary networks across Nepal can be built over time. This will achieve a feat the vision for which dates back to 1885 or perhaps earlier to efforts and explorations of the British Royal Geographical Society for establishing a railway connection between India and China (Hallett, 1885). There is no doubt the idea of such a connection would be still more intriguing and truly historic if its execution could be ensconced within the parameters of a China-SAARC cooperation for common prosperity initiative.        


Cooperation in Infrastructure Development must be People-Focused

A section of the commentary on existing infrastructure cooperation between China and specific South Asian states is cast in sort of global geo-strategic terms, but the problem with this line of approach is that it fails to address ways in which actual people on the ground may be positively ( or negatively) affected. Whether the overall sovereign interests of a particular state are achieved or enhanced by the development of infrastructure across two (or a group of) states is certainly a valid line of inquiry in real-politic terms, but the limitations of such traditional strategic assessments maybe be understood more clearly by identifying the deficiencies of an analysis that merely takes into account the interests of states per se. Positive results of cooperation between multiple states in infrastructure development have been witnessed very recently close to the South Asian region itself, with the inauguration on March 31st 2008 of the spectacular “North-South Economic Corridor” that will connect by highway the southern Chinese city of Kunming to Bangkok in Thailand, spanning a distance of some 1800 kilometers. This highway and its ancillary network of roads that fed into it are “breaking the isolation of the thinly inhabited upper reaches of Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, areas in recent decades [that] languished because of wars, ethnic rivalries and heroin trafficking” (Fuller, 2008). This highway will now provide further impetus to the increased trade between China and the Southeast Asian countries of Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand that has risen from $5.7 billion a decade ago to $53 billion in 2007 (ibid). The North-South Economic Corridor has been a remarkable Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) flagship program. In thinking about future joint infrastructure initiatives between China and South Asian states, we must recognize how this particular GMS program has benefited (and will continue to benefit) so many people on the ground as a result of other initiatives that have followed (and will follow) because of the way in which transportation has been dramatically enhanced. For example, consider the GMS program for improving telecommunications infrastructure in all six member countries; financing and laying down transmission lines in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam; programs for assistance in management, entrepreneurship, skills training, business development, production and marketing, and finance for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs); and cooperative arrangements for addressing health issues (such as HIV/AIDS), education and labor sector issues (Sotharith, 2007), to mention just a few examples. The laying down of roads and railways that effectively connect a region no doubt creates a multiplier affect in the range of services, initiatives and opportunities they can bring in their wake that should not be underestimated in terms of how especially poor and less-advantaged people on the ground stand to benefit. 

(North-South Economic Corridor Highway linking China and South East Asia)


In South Asia, the inauguration in Pakistan in March 2007 of the Port of Gwadar, which was constructed with substantial Chinese investment, unfortunately attracted some skeptical and negative attention in the international media, with analysis focusing heavily on geo-political ramifications, yet the full benefits of the Gwadar Port to South Asia as a whole and to China (and even Central Asia) have not been sufficiently articulated in the context of promotion of common prosperity. As a matter of fact, the potential that Pakistan has seen in the Port all along dates back decades when geo-strategic constellations were perhaps in an entirely different order than they are today: in fact, it all started with the recommendation of Worth Condrick who was deputed by the US for survey of Balochistan coast in 1954. “Realizing [the] importance of Gwadar, Pakistan paid [approximately] Pound Sterling 3 million in September 1958 to buy back the enclave from the Sultanate of Oman ending over 200 years of Omani control. Since then the history of decision making process for its development has been that of studying, planning, shelving, restudying, re-planning and waiting and hoping for some outside aid agency to finance the project”(Daily Dawn, 2008). The Gwadar Port, of course, is located on the southwestern coast of Pakistan, close to the Straight of Hormuz through which passes 30% of the world’s daily oil supply at the intersection of the oil-rich Middle East, heavily populated South Asia and the resource laden region of Central Asia. The port is expected to generate billions of dollars of revenue and generate at least two million jobs, and it has spurred the development of other infrastructure projects such as the 700km Makran Costal Highway which has reduced travel time to Karachi from 48hrs to 7hrs and is expected to connect to Iran in the near future. Moreover, the Civil Aviation Authority of Pakistan has set aside 3000 acres of land for the Gwadar International Airport and the Pakistan government is also focusing on the laying of the Havelian-Kashghar (China) and Quetta-Kandhar (Afghanistan) railway tracks. It should be mentioned that Pakistan has declared Gwadar a “Special Economic Zone” where banks, hotels, factories, and warehouses will be established. There have been concerns about the exclusion of ethnic Baluchus in the course of these developments yet it cannot be realistically implied that the establishment of such important infrastructure in Baluchistan signifies this ethnic groups’ perpetual exclusion from the derivative benefits emerging from these massive (and varied) infrastructure works. In different ways and from different channels, the Port of Gwadar (as a joint project of China and Pakistan) will undoubtedly benefit countless numbers of people across the spectrum and most significantly perhaps those at the bottom rung of society.    

The benefits of the Port of Gwadar to my own country, Nepal, especially to the northwestern parts of the country which are the most backward and poor, can be achieved by cooperation between Pakistan, China and Nepal, by way of the Karakoram Highway, via the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway and connecting by road to a number of districts such as Humla, Mugu, Dolpo and so on. This would inject massive stimuli to these destitute and marginalized areas in Nepal and thereby generate incredible transformations economically and socially. Moreover, connectivity to northwestern Nepal can simultaneously occur from India as well, so as to accelerate interaction between the Indian states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, western and northwestern Nepal, and the Tibet Autonomous Region, a proposition that is very much consistent with the notion of Nepal serving as a transit-point for rapidly expanding India-China trade. This sort of planning may even be augmented, supported or coordinated with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission’s ongoing work related to the Asian Highway project, the members of which include virtually all South Asian states with the exception of the Maldives. UNESCAP, SAARC, and China could think of ways in which to partner in this endeavor. This may also be one way of institutionalizing within the framework of China-SAARC relations, infrastructure cooperation to promote greater connectivity and common prosperity. It must be reiterated, however, that success in the achievement of a proposition such as this (which would help to uplift from poverty many thousands, even millions of people) requires a change in the mode of strategic assessment/planning by states that are accustomed to thinking more about (the safeguarding or promotion of) overall national power, sometimes at the expense unfortunately of people on the ground who would stand to benefit otherwise.


From Conventional Infrastructure to Innovative Infrastructure Projects: Wind and Solar Energy    

Infrastructure cooperation between South Asian states and China (and possibly between SAARC itself and China, encompassing other Observers as well) in the (conventional) areas of road and railway construction will in fact facilitate cooperation in other areas such as development of energy infrastructure, particularly alternative energy sources (solar and wind) in view of alarming trends in global climate change, the exponential increases in the cost of energy commodities such as oil and natural gas combined with sharply accelerating demand. More intricate road and railway connectivity between China and South Asia will open up several new supply lines for petroleum products and natural gas, making supply more abundant (especially in previously isolated regions) and thereby addressing sharply rising demand across South Asia and China. But aside from this and much more importantly, greater connectivity in this respect allows for much easier movement of ideas and knowledge and the ability to more conveniently put certain important proposal into practice. At this juncture, the South Asian region and China especially need to think jointly about alternative energy sources as the actions taken collectively by our states will have a decisive impact on climate change. By some accounts, since 2006 China has already surpassed the United States in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use and industrial processes (cement production) that are know to accelerate climate change (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, 2007). According to a World Bank study, “global carbon emissions have risen 19 percent since 1990, more than 25 percent behind goals set forth under the Kyoto Protocol…The rise has been driven by surging emissions from China (73 percent increase) and India (88 percent increase)” (World Bank, 2007). Fortunately—and even in the face of per capita emissions of China and India lagging far behind those of Europe and the United States--there has already been considerable research, development and implementation in both India and China where great initiatives are occurring for harnessing alternative energy sources such as solar energy and wind energy, both of which can very easily be developed and put in place unlike the harnessing of hydro-power, for example, which requires many years to achieve and at the cost of disruption to our already delicate ecology and to settled populations as well. 

The phenomenal growth of China and India has been a story of incredibly high demand and utilization of hydrocarbons such as oil and coal, the burning of which of course produces carbon dioxide and other dangerous greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming and a host of serious climate change issues. What is particularly alarming are suggestions such as those by the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) that by 2030, “global energy consumption will grow by over 70 percent…The strongest growth is expected in developing economies in Asia—including India and China—with growth projected to triple in that region over the next 25 years” (Bodman, 2006). And even more alarming is the following observation: “Most national economies around the world are fundamentally hydro-carbon based. And they will remain so in the near term. Though we estimate that oil’s share of total energy use will fall slightly in the coming decades (from 38 percent in 2003 to 33 percent in 2030), the demand for oil is still expected to grow strongly…The United States, China and India will account for half of the projected growth in world oil demand” (ibid). The critical question is whether this will be sustainable or not. There is global consensus that, no matter what, countries must aggressively seek alternative sources of energy to avert catastrophic consequences and simply to prepare for a situation in which there is dwindling supply. In terms of China-South Asia relations in infrastructure development, I would point out the cooperation already taking place at the private sector level between India as the largest of the South Asian states and China to address this very serious energy problem within the vital sector of wind energy. Importantly, the generation capacity world-wide from wind sources is expected to increase substantially from 73.9GW at the end of 2006 to around 160GW by 2010 according to the World Wind Energy Association, so this is really a technology that is not only viable but in which there is increasingly considerable amount of global investment. In terms of economic value, the wind energy sector has become one of the most important players in the energy markets, with the total value of new generating equipment installed in 2007 reaching US$36 billion (GWEC, 2007). Against this backdrop I wish to point out that there is a 22,500 square meter site in the Chinese port city of Tianjin which is the manufacturing base of the Indian company Suzlon. Suzlon has manufactured and sold turbines totaling a 545 MW capacity in just one quarter of 2007 with nine wind farms in China being supplied by the company. Wind power in general is growing at a phenomenal pace: Suzlon has operations in 21 countries ranging from the United States, South Korea, Australia, Denmark, Romania, Ukraine, South Africa to Turkey and so on. Currently Suzlon is in the process of developing Asia’s largest wind park in Dhule, Maharashtra (India) with a projected capacity of 1000MW (Suzlon, 2008A), in addition to just having secured major Chinese orders for wind farms in Inner Mongolia, Jilin, and Heilonhjiang provinces (Suzlon, 2008B). Given this scenario, the governments of China and India would do well to promote and encourage their own private sector players within some kind of a regional (China-SAARC) policy approach whereby a systematic/coordinated development plan can be established that targets a dramatically large-scale deployment of wind-powered technology across South Asia and China both of which also happen to face sharp energy deficits that hamper economic growth (International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2006) and stifles overall development.   




While energy deficiency in China is worsening, wherein the Chinese state media have reported in 2007 of a nationwide shortfall of 70 gigawatts, “which is equivalent to the entire generating capacity of Britain” (Ho, 2008), the energy requirements of the country are continuing to increase--in fact, China is second only to the United States in energy consumption—and coal-fired power plants provided about 83 percent of China’s electricity output in 2007 (ibid). Apart from the drastic environmental implications of burning coal for electricity, there is also the problem of shortage of coal itself which is leading to black-outs across 13 provinces in China and government concerns about possible increases in the cost of electricity in the face of already rising inflation (ibid). Similarly in the case of India with a population just as enormous as China’s, and really if we look all across the South Asian landscape, there are alarming shortages of electricity: according to the Planning Commission of India, roughly 600 million people, about half of the total population, are off the electricity grid all-together (Sengupta, 2007); only about 40 percent of Nepal’s population has access to electricity and the figure is about 30 percent in Bangladesh (Mills, 2006); and in Pakistan, the country faces a 15 percent shortfall of the capacity it requires primarily due to the country’s booming economy and rising industrialization (al-Hameed, 2008). While solutions involving hydropower, nuclear power, coal or oil and so on are all feasible, each of these is also laden with some complication or another--each presents some specific trade-off that is not easy to absorb or sustain over the long-run.

And that is where an alternative energy source such as solar power (which is fairly easy to operationalize) is so attractive across a vast land mass encompassing China and South Asia with our gargantuan populations and where radiated heat and light are so abundant. China, incidentally, has become the world’s largest consumer of solar energy, with statistics showing that China currently tops the world in production and retention of solar energy (China Daily, 2007). For instance, solar PV capacity in China “has jumped from 350 megawatts (MW) in 2005 to over 1,000 MW in 2006, with 1,500 MW expected in 2007” (People & the Planet, 2007). A single Chinese company based in Wuxi visited by this author recently was instrumental in the following: PV system for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Bird’s Nest Stadium (130 kW), grid-connected solar farm in Colorado, USA which is the largest on-grid solar power plant project in that country (12MW), San Francisco Airport Terminal 3 (450kW), on-grid Solar Park for Elecnor and Atersa in Spain which is currently the largest on-grid solar power plant project in the world (24MW). On the other hand, the application of solar technology for generating energy is comparatively less prominent in South Asia. While in the largest state of South Asia, India, solar energy produced is merely 0.5 percent compared to other energy resources, and while government-funded solar energy in India accounted for only about 6.4 megawatt-years of power as of 2005 (Roul, 2007), interestingly a new Solar Energy Commission with equal participation from the private sector has just recently been proposed by the Central Government. This Commission will “establish a solar research facility to coordinate research and development activities being carried out in the public and private sectors” (Dhar, 2008). In this regard, India can learn a great deal from China, and perhaps even partner with China in an effort to rapidly expand the application of solar technology in India itself and others areas of South Asia to address the energy deficit. Noteworthy is that since 2004/2005, China has been training approximately 10,000 technicians from Africa and other developing countries in the use of solar energy technologies (Hepeng, 2004). This is all being done using “funding from the [Chinese] central and provincial governments [whereby] the Institute of Natural Energy—part of the Gansu Provincial Academy of Sciences—has established an eight-hectare training facility powered entirely by solar power. The facility, which is the largest in Asia, has trained more than 400 people from 70 countries in Africa, Asia and Lain American since 1991” (ibid).



(Airport at Wuxi, China, where solar PVC panels can be seen overhead which provide a significant amount of the airport’s energy requirements)    



Various important (inevitable) processes and dynamics of globalization and new technologies are bringing the world much closer together in current times. China and the South Asian region are contiguous and home to over one third of humanity with so many critical and globally relevant developments occurring across our respective countries, whether we speak of agricultural issues, energy issues, trade and finance, technological matters, natural resources, politics, security and defense, a slew of social transformations, sports, religion, poverty, the middle-class, education and so on and so forth. There is today perhaps much broader understanding and awareness among South Asians and Chinese about one another than ever before yet there is still so much scope for further exchange and cooperation so that we may learn from one another and think along the lines of common prosperity. Learn from each others’ rich and textured cultural and spiritual traditions and learn about the innovative and distinctive solutions that we have espoused in the contemporary period. There must be a greater amplification in the way we share information and knowledge which are the bases of sound development. Acutely lacking in the South Asian region vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China (and vice-versa) are cross-border infrastructure projects that would facilitate this greater exchange between the diverse peoples of South Asia and China. Quite simply, more extensive road and railway connectivity would serve as great impetus towards mutually beneficial cooperation. As I have tried to argue, more advanced, sophisticated, and extensive transportation mechanisms will make possible/feasible the adoption of innovative solutions in infrastructure development across all of our countries by addressing the singularly important issue of energy by utilizing wind and solar technologies more pervasively. This would substantially improve our collective development and would be exemplary of international cooperation whereby the most heavily populated areas of the world (China and South Asia) can work jointly to address perhaps one of the most serious challenges of the 21st century, namely climate change.






Sign up for our weekly Newsletter and keep updated on the events of NIISS and more... Receive HTML? ** the subscription can be cancelled when required.