You are here

Examining China's Hydrobehaviour

  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • May 06, 2011
    Round Table

    Chair: Dr. Arvind Gupta
    Discussants: Ambassador Rajiv Sikri, Ambassador I P Khosla, Ambassador R Rajagopalan.

    Amongst the audience were officials from the Ministry of External Affairs, China branch and researchers from other think tanks.

    The discussion was initiated by a paper presentation by Dr. Uttam Kumar Sinha on “Examining China’s Hydro-behaviour”. The paper queries China’s hydro-behaviour and examines its actions on the Brahamaputra River (Yarlung Tsangpo) and the Mekong River (Lancang) to infer certain hegemonic tendencies. Narrating the hydro-relevance of Tibet as the life-line of China, he brought out the China’s policies on the Transborder Rivers, which do not comply with the peaceful rise of China. There seems to be a great deal of hydro-arrogance, hydro-aggression and hydro-egoism on part of Beijing. Beijing’s maximalist orientation towards harnessing the water resources through dams and diversions are engineering processes towards mitigating its food and energy requirements and overcoming its uneven distribution of water.

    China’s intransigence on Tibet is visibly for its vast water resources as it holds the key to sustaining China’s northwest region, revitalizing its deserts and the Yellow river itself, as well as being crucial to its Himalayan Strategy. Besides, China’s thirst for more water will leave other lower riparian countries thirsty. Therefore, a close observation enquiring the impacts of China’s action on the neighbouring states, which it considers to be rivals, is necessary. There are about 260 river basins, that cater to nearly 40 percent of the world population with roughly 145 sharing agreements/treaties that makes the international system positively busy with an array of cooperation and shared benefits. But, rivers waters treaties can never be settled permanently since the volume of water flowing never remains the same. As a consequence, interventions and diversions on rivers impacts make the political relations swing according to the changing quantitative and qualitative nature of the river.

    The paper also briefly conceptualises the role of hegemony and power in transboundary water in order to understand the power asymmetries and the hegemonic nature of transboundary water relations. China’s continued water development is now witnessing a rapid pace with successive interventions on the rivers in pursuance with its internal compulsions and is therefore self-driven. However, China does not consider the concerns of its downstream neighbours. China has roughly 10 major rivers flowing out of its territory to 11 countries and none flow into China from outside. China’s upper riparian position gives it the hydrological advantage to use and control the waters on its will, giving enormous power determining its hegemony.

    China is expected to face 25 percent supply gap as projected water demand by 2030 with two-thirds of its cities already facing difficulty in accessing water. Of late, China is facing insecurity with its water and it is related to the disproportionate availability or uneven distribution of waters within its territory. The majority of water stressed being the northern and western parts of China. The region south of the Yangtze River accounts for roughly 36 percent of the Chinese territory and has 81 percent of its water resources whereas the northern regions need more water for its 64 percent territory and 19 percent of the water resources. Without Tibet, China would have been water-dependent and that holds the strategic importance of Tibet for the control of water resources. Besides, China has no significant bilateral riparian agreement on water allocation or water utilization. In order to overcome such hydrological unevenness, in 1952 Chairman Mao first proposed the “south-to-north water diversion” to ease water shortage in cities like Beijing and Tianjin as a national priority. Since then, the Chinese leadership has thought hydrologically. At the same time, many of the top Chinese leaders are hydraulic engineers and technocrats including Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. The south-to-north project which started in 2002 and expected to be completed by 2050 was designed to take water from China’s largest river Yangtze to the arid northern region.

    Water shortage is becoming an impediment to China’s goal of meeting food production and questions the leadership which aims self-sufficiency in food grains. Nevertheless, reduced self-sufficiency is dangerous for a country with a population as large as china and therefore its search for water becomes an unending imperative, often desperate and aggressive. China has been successful in damming the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River in November 2010 and its hydropower development on the Lancang (Mekong) River is typically based on little information sharing and no transparency. As the upper riparian state, China would like the water debate in the lower Mekong basin to be intensified between the lower riparian players alone and in case of South Asia would like Pakistan and Bangladesh’s anger to be directed and contested against India. Out of the 15 dams planned, China has started work on eight dams in it territories. This has left the lower riparian countries including Laos, Thailand and Cambodia to remain suspicious of China’s power game via the upstream hydroelectricity projects.

    To counter-balance China’s hydro-hegemony, it is critically important to understand its intentions and accordingly frame policies that are not reactive but perceptive. A typical recourse is to advocate the principles of international water law, however non-biding they are. There is a high moral ground that India can take but it has to shirk off its defensive stance over China’s water development on the Tibetan rivers for which India also has a rightful use. Since India is multi-river dependent on the Brahmaputra on the east and the Indus and the Sutlej on the west, it is significant for India to draw China into a dialogue on water issues and consistently raise hydrological concerns at bilateral meetings. Besides, India has to articulate its middle riparian position to change the perception in the neighbours that India is water hegemonic. India’s counter diplomacy should also be to isolate China as an unreasonable upper riparian state at the regional and global levels.

    Comments, questions and suggested points:

    • China’s increase demand of water is related to the rapid growth of industrialization in the eastern and other regions of China.
    • Tibet is an autonomous region and should not be addressed as part of China at any instances.
    • It is debatable whether the China’s interest in Arunachal Pradesh of India has any intensions related to water.
    • Through the BIMSTEC and other regional corporations, the issues of Chinese activities in Tibet can be raised.
    • India should take the global concern about the China’s hydrological related strategies
    • What India should do if China diverts water from downwards flows toward India?
    • Any act of diverting water away from reaching towards India should be considered as an act of war.

    The discussion was summarized by Dr. Uttam Kumar with the remark that China’s privileged upper riparian position endows it strategic latitude by deploying structural power in a coercive mode. With its enormous domestic water requirement, a strategic character of trust and mistrust, cooperation and misperception in the region and at different levels are seen. Moreover, stability in the South and the Southeast Asian region would significantly depend on the stable supply of water.

    Report prepared by Shivananda.H, Research Assistant, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses