By Brahma Chellaney
Financial Times, August 31, 2011
China has aroused international alarm by using its virtual monopoly of rare earths as a trade instrument and by stalling multilateral efforts to resolve disputes in the South China Sea. Among its neighbours, there is deep concern at the way it is seeking to make water a political weapon.
At the hub of Asia, China is the source of cross-border river flows to the largest number of countries in the world — from Russia to India, Kazakhstan to the Indochina peninsula. This results from its absorption of the ethnic minority homelands that make up 60 per cent of its land mass and are the origin of all the important international rivers flowing out of Chinese territory.
Getting this pre-eminent riparian power to accept water-sharing arrangements or other co-operative institutional mechanisms has proved unsuccessful so far in any basin. Instead, the construction of upstream dams on international rivers such as the Mekong, Brahmaputra or Amur shows China is increasingly bent on unilateral actions, impervious to the concerns of downstream nations.
China already boasts both the world’s biggest dam (Three Gorges) and a greater total number of dams than the rest of the world combined. It has shifted its focus from internal to international rivers, and graduated from building large dams to building mega-dams. Among its newest dams on the Mekong is the 4,200 megawatt Xiaowan — taller than Paris’s Eiffel Tower. New dams approved for construction include one on the Brahmaputra at Metog (or Motuo in Chinese) that is to be twice the size of the 18,300MW Three Gorges — and sited almost on the disputed border with India.
The consequences of such frenetic construction are already clear. First, China is in water disputes with almost all its neighbours, from Russia and India to weak client-states such as North Korea and Burma. Second, its new focus on water mega-projects in the homelands of ethnic minorities has triggered tensions over displacement and submergence at a time when the Tibetan plateau, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia have all been wracked by protests against Chinese rule. Third, the projects threaten to replicate in international rivers the degradation haunting China’s internal rivers.
Yet, as if to declare itself the world’s unrivalled hydro-hegemon, China is also the largest dam builder overseas. From Pakistan-held Kashmir to Burma’s troubled Kachin and Shan states, China is building dams in disputed or insurgency-torn areas, despite local backlash. Dam building in Burma has contributed to renewed fighting, ending a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army and government.
For downriver countries, a key concern is China’s opacity on its dam projects. It usually begins work quietly, almost furtively, then presents a project as unalterable and as holding flood-control benefits.
Worse, although there are water treaties among states in south and south-east Asia, Beijing rejects the concept of a water-sharing arrangement. It is one of only three countries that voted against the 1997 UN convention laying down rules on the shared resources of international watercourses.
Yet water is fast becoming a cause of competition and discord between countries in Asia, where per capita freshwater availability is less than half the global average. The growing water stress threatens Asia’s rapid economic growth and carries risks for investors potentially as damaging as non-performing loans, real estate bubbles and political corruption.
By having its hand on Asia’s water tap, China is therefore acquiring tremendous leverage over its neighbours’ behaviour.
That the country controlling the headwaters of major Asian rivers is also a rising superpower, with a muscular confidence increasingly on open display, only compounds the need for international pressure on Beijing to halt its appropriation of shared waters and accept some form of institutionalised co-operation.
The writer is a professor at the independent Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and author of Water: Asia’s New Battleground.