China’s New War Front

Brahma Chellaney

The Times of India, April 23, 2013

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during his recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, asked for more openness on Chinese dam building. Singh said Xi assured him that he would have his proposal for a joint monitoring mechanism “looked into”. Beijing has now conveyed its response to New Delhi, rebuffing that transparency idea.

This snub is no surprise: China, the world’s most dammed nation, does not have a single river-collaborative or transparency mechanism with any of its 12 riparian neighbours. Unlike India — which has water-sharing treaties with both its downstream neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh, with each pact establishing a distinctively unique principle in international water law — China rejects the very concept of water sharing and is assertively seeking to make water a political weapon. Indeed, as if to proclaim itself as the world’s unrivalled hydro-hegemon, China recently unveiled 11 additional dam projects on the Salween, the Mekong, and the Brahmaputra.

As with territorial and maritime disputes, China is seeking to disrupt the status quo on international-river flows. Just as it has quietly encroached on disputed territory in the past to present a fait accompli — for example, Aksai Chin (1950s), Paracel Islands (1974), Johnson Reef (1988), Mischief Reef (1995), and Scarborough Shoal (2012) — China is seeking to manipulate cross-border river flows by pursuing dam projects furtively until they can no longer be kept hidden.

Although China is the source of transboundary river flows to countries ranging from Russia to Vietnam, no nation is more vulnerable to China’s reengineering of transboundary flows than India. The reason? India alone receives nearly half of all river waters that leave China. According to UN figures, a total of 718 billion cubic meters of surface water flows out of Chinese territory yearly, of which 48.33% runs directly into India.

For Chinese dam builders, the major Tibetan rivers flowing to India directly or via Nepal are a magnet for another striking reason: Their runoff volume totals 21.5% of the aggregate river flows within China, yet these rivers support just 1.6% of China’s population and sustain only 1.8% of its arable land, according to official Chinese statistics. The main beneficiary of their flows is rival India. When Beijing has shown little regard for the interests of China-friendly downriver states like Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Kazakhstan, why would it be considerate toward India?

India should be under no illusion that diplomacy alone can deter China from significantly altering cross-border flows. In fact, at a time when China’s cartographic aggression and its efforts to nibble at Indian land through stealthy incursions persist, it seems intent on opening a major new front through hydrological aggression. There are warning signs of this.

China is damming not just the Brahmaputra, on which it has already completed several dams, but it has also built a dam each on the Indus and the Sutlej and unveiled plans to erect a cascade of large dams on the Arun (Kosi) river, which helps augment downstream Ganges flows and is thus critical to India’s ability to meet its treaty obligations vis-à-vis Bangladesh. The flashfloods that ravaged Himachal and Arunachal states between 2000 and 2005 were linked to the unannounced releases from rain-swollen Chinese dams and barrages.

The Brahmaputra is a huge attraction for China’s dam programme because this river’s cross-border annual discharge of 165.4 billion cubic meters is greater than the combined transboundary flows of three key rivers running from the Tibetan plateau to Southeast Asia — the Mekong, the Salween, and the Irrawaddy. As China gradually moves its dam building toward the Brahmaputra’s water-rich Great Bend area, it is likely to embark on Mekong-style mega-dams.

India faces difficult choices, largely because of its past mistakes, from which it has learned little. India’s unrestrained recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, coupled with Beijing’s rejection of any water-treaty arrangement, has left China with a legally unfettered foundation to control international-river flows. Just as India made the mistake in the 1950s of regurgitating empty Chinese assurances about the border, only to face first covert and then overt aggression, New Delhi has been gratuitously reciting Chinese assurances to safeguard downstream interests, even as Beijing acts unilaterally.

India is far more water-stressed than China. Yet India’s capacity to store water for dry-season release is one of the world’s lowest, ranking just above Ethiopia’s. China and even Pakistan have done a much better job on that score. The paradox is that Islamabad, despite securing the most generous water-sharing treaty in modern world history, has dragged India before international arbitral proceedings over a small Indian project, while India watches helplessly as China builds much larger dams and rejects what India does routinely with Pakistan — share project designs and permit on-site scrutiny.

India can counter China’s covert water war only by innovative means, including refocusing on the core issue of Tibet. A counter-strategy must be devised and implemented before China exploits its riparian pre-eminence to emerge as the master of the Indian heartland’s water taps.

The writer is a geostrategist.

(c) The Times of India, 2013.