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China: Superpower or Developing Country?

This illustration highlights the disparity between China’s per-capita income and its aggregate income in comparison with other countries.

China is not a superpower, said Major General Pan Zhenqiang, deconstructing one of the “myths” about his country. A retired officer from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and deputy chairman of the China Foundation for International Studies, Pan Zhenqiang talked at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich last week. He was also a guest of Vivian Fritschi of ISN Podcasts. In his talk Pan said that China is a poor developing country. Is he right? Or is China a superpower, after all? The answer to this question depends on whom you ask.

Chinese leaders themselves perceive their country as a developing one with a number of paramount domestic challenges. The largest share of China’s population lives in rural, underdeveloped areas and there is a large urban-rural income gap. And although China’s per capita income has been increasing at a remarkable pace – it grew more than threefold over the last decade – it is still comparatively low. To anyone familiar with rural China, it is obvious that this is in fact a developing country. But that’s only one side of the coin: even though China is a poor country in per-capita terms, it is a rich country in aggregate terms, due to its immense population.

From a Western perspective, China’s development is usually seen at the macro level: China is the second largest economy in the world today and might surpass the US within the next decade. » More

This Week in ISN Insights…

It's week 25 on our editorial calendar, Photo: Leo Reynolds/flickr

All this week, ISN Insights takes a closer look at China’s evolving foreign relations with key states and political and economic blocs:

  • On Monday, Harsh Pant of King’s College London explains Pakistan’s growing importance to China in its effort to offset growing Indo-US ties.
  • Eddie Walsh of Johns Hopkins’ SAIS examines China’s efforts to alter the bilateral distribution of power vis-à-vis Taiwan on Tuesday.
  • Wednesday’s article from Raffaello Pantucci, of the European Council on Foreign Relations and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, analyzes the complex nature of the strategic partnership between China and Europe.
  • On Thursday, Professor Rupak Borah discusses China’s changing role in the BRICS grouping, now that it has successfully brought South Africa into the fold.

And in case you missed any of last week’s coverage, you can read it here on: NATO and Russia’s historic opportunity for missile defense; the troubled dynamic between gender and UN peace operations; and an assessment of the western Balkans after Mladic.

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Geopolitics and Law at Sea

China is betting on energy under the ‘South China Sea.’ Photo: offshorinjurylawyer/flickr

This week in New York, the state parties to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) are meeting for the 21st time since the convention’s conclusion in 1982. Major items on the agenda are the reports of the ongoing work of the Convention’s three main organs: 1) the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLS), which interprets the Convention and adjudicates disputes 2) the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), which evaluates geological and oceanographic data, and 3) the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which organizes and controls activities related to the sea floor, which lies beyond national jurisdictions.

Three main items are currently before the Tribunal: a boundary dispute between Bangladesh and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal (of special relevance to Conoco Phillips); the M/V Louisa case, a dispute arising from Spain’s detention since 2006 of the eponymous research vessel, which was flying the flag of St Vincent and the Grenadines in Spanish coastal waters while conducting scientific surveys of the sea floor; and a request for an advisory opinion from the Tribunal on the status of state parties sponsoring private activities on the sea floors outside national jurisdictions, a case arising from commercial activities proposed by Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. and Tonga Offshore Mining Ltd.

While these are hardly the issues making international headlines – and the above two companies remain unlikely, to say the least, to ever become major global players in natural resources – the Law of the Sea can be a genuine battleground of great power politics. » More

Missing Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei Protest in New York: “1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei” in New York, 17 April 2011.

Ai Weiwei Protest in New York: “1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei”, 17 April 2011. Photo: Jason B. Chen/flickr

China’s Ai Weiwei has recently been removed from the creative scene. Absent and yet present, he is an artist whose work has become renowned all over the world in recent years.

Special attention was given to Ai particularly because of his creative criticism and involvement in social and political questions concerning China. In 2007, for example, at the Documenta 12, one of Europe’s biggest art fairs, Ai provoked his public by inviting along 1001 Chinese compatriots. His statement was simple yet powerful. Ai’s experiment raised awareness about how China is booming, but at the same time, about how it remains separated from the West.

Despite the regime’s restrictions, new art in China has found diverse channels of expression in the years since 1989, ranging from direct criticism of Western consumption, to mocking stereotypes of Maoist propaganda or to addressing the weaknesses of the communist regime. Ai Weiwei belongs to the latter group of creatives. He is one of China’s best-known artists and at the same time one of China’s most despised dissidents.

Ai’s arrest at the beginning of April 2011 was met with consternation by the international public. Yet the most recent wave of repression affected not only Ai, but the entire Songzhuang art district, in the eastern suburbs of Beijing. This community of artists had elected a suggestive name for their latest exhibition: Sensitive Zone. The exhibition was in itself a provocation, a powerful collection of sensitive subjects, which were not only expected but also surely intended to lead to consequences. » More

How Are the World’s Children Doing?

Children have the right to learn, photo: D Sharon Pruitt/flickr

A UNICEF report titled “The Children Left Behind”, to be released today, examines the level of inequality in the education, well-being and health of children in the world’s richest countries. The countries with the least inequality were the usual lot: Iceland, Finland, the Netherlands and Norway.

While Finland, for example, tops the list in terms of having the most equal education system, it fares less well on the health front. Despite free and healthy school meals, Finnish media decried, Finnish children are still not eating enough vegetables and fruit. Switzerland, somewhat unsurprisingly, tops the list as the country with the highest level of material well-being for kids. While Canadian authorities and media reacted with shock at how badly off Canadian children are in terms of material well-being and health, the US ranks even far below its northern neighbor (near the bottom of 24 OECD countries under scrutiny). This should ruffle some feathers in the US and show how vulnerable children in particular are to societal inequality. Sadly, given the intensely polarized political environment, this important report is likely to get buried under a myriad of apparently much more urgent policy concerns.

Yet, the US, like any other wealthy nation not only owes its children a good standard of living from a moral standpoint, but also has to provide it in order to compete in tomorrow’s increasingly crowded knowledge economy in which a pool of healthy, smart and motivated young people is a prerequisite for success. Inequality, ill-health and resentment will hamper growth and make countries less dynamic and less competitive, regardless of their relative ranking in the world today. » More

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