Water pincer against India

China steps up its challenge to India by signing an accord with Pakistan to fund and build two mega-dams in Gilgit-Baltistan, which the United Nations recognizes as a disputed region and part of Jammu and Kashmir.

Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India, May 16, 2017

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China, which is working to re-engineer the trans-boundary flows of rivers originating in Tibet, has taken its dam-building frenzy to Pakistan-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan, which is part of Jammu and Kashmir. In a new challenge to India, which claims Gilgit-Baltistan as its own territory, China will fund and build two Indus mega-dams at a total cost of $27 billion, according to a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed in Beijing during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit. The MoU came the same day India announced its boycott of China’s “one belt, one road” (OBOR) summit, saying no country “can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Such is the mammoth size of the planned 7,100-megawatt Bunji Dam and the 4,500-megawatt Bhasha Dam that India does not have a single dam measuring even one-third of Bunji in power-generating-capacity terms. In fact, the total installed hydropower generating capacity in India’s part of J&K currently does not equal the size of even the smaller of the two planned dams in Gilgit. Still, Pakistan disingenuously rails against India’s modest hydropower projects in J&K and has sought fresh international arbitral tribunal proceedings against India over two projects, including the tiny 330-megawatt Kishenganga.

Even more striking is China’s hypocrisy: It bellicosely protested, almost on a daily basis, the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Arunachal Pradesh, claiming it to be a “disputed territory”, although only Beijing disputes India’s control over Arunachal. It also held out threats against India jointly exploring with Vietnam for offshore hydrocarbons in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. Yet it has no compunctions about unveiling projects — under the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” (CPEC) banner — in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir, a UN-recognized disputed region.

C_6ju34UQAAiEYXCPEC — OBOR’s flagship programme, which will cement Pakistan’s status as China’s economic and security client — has become a convenient cover for Beijing to include major strategic projects, stretching from Gilgit-Baltistan to Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port. The Bunji and Bhasha dams are also claimed to be part of CPEC, which, by linking the maritime and overland “Silk Roads” that China is creating, will gravely impinge on India’s security. A grateful Pakistan has given China exclusive rights to run Gwadar port for the next 40 years.

The Bunji and Bhasha dams, which will largely benefit the dominant Punjab province, located downstream, are set to enlarge China’s strategic footprint in the restive, Shia-majority Gilgit-Baltistan. For years, China has stationed several thousand of its own troops in Gilgit-Baltistan, ostensibly to protect its strategic projects there, including upgrading the Karakoram Highway and building a new railway and secret tunnels. CPEC has spurred increased concern that Gilgit-Baltistan, like Tibet, could get overwhelmed by the Chinese behemoth.

Pakistani authorities are responding harshly to anti-CPEC protests in Gilgit-Baltistan, where the corridor is widely seen as opening the path to the region’s enslavement by China. The fact that China rules Gilgit-Baltistan’s Shaksgam, Raskam, Shimshal, and Aghil valleys — ceded by Pakistan in 1963 to cement its strategic alliance with Beijing — has only added to the grassroots resistance against Chinese projects, which extend to mineral-resource extraction.

Indeed, the Bunji and Bhasha dam projects are already facing grassroots resistance because they are viewed locally as instruments to expropriate Gilgit-Baltistan’s water resources for Punjab province. The Bhasha Dam alone will flood 200 square kilometers of Gilgit-Baltistan, displacing at least 28,000 residents and submerging some significant archaeological sites.

As China uses CPEC to turn Pakistan into a colonial outpost, its new dam projects in Gilgit promise to bring the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) under greater pressure. The paradox here is that China does not accept even the concept of water sharing but its activities in Gilgit are likely to impinge on the world’s most generous water-sharing treaty that remains a colossus among water pacts in the world.

The 57-year-old IWT has survived mainly because of India’s goodwill and full adherence, even as Pakistan violates the Simla peace treaty and canons of civilized conduct. China’s construction of dams in a disputed region is set to make Pakistan’s water relationship with India murkier. The IWT is binational but China has emerged as the third party through its Gilgit dam activities and upstream control of two of the six Indus-system rivers. The Chinese role will not only cast a pall on the IWT’s future but it could also deal a mortal blow to the treaty.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Times of India, 2017.

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