By denying river water data to us, Beijing is using the resource as a tool of coercive diplomacy
While international attention remains on China’s recidivist activities in the South China Sea’s disputed waters, Beijing is also focusing quietly on other waters — of rivers that originate in Chinese-controlled territory like Tibet and flow to other countries. China’s new obsession is freshwater, a life-supporting resource whose growing shortages are casting a cloud over Asia’s economic future. It is aiming to become the upstream controller by re-engineering trans-boundary river flows through dams and other diversions.
Its unilateralism has fostered increasing tensions with India, many of whose important rivers originate in Tibet. In 2017, in violation of two legally binding bilateral accords, China refused to supply hydrological data to India, underscoring how it is weaponising the sharing of water data on upstream river flows. It shared the Brahmaputra data with Bangladesh but punitively denied India the data on the Brahmaputra and Sutlej.
China’s data denial during the monsoons undermined India’s flood early-warning systems. In Assam, which suffered record flooding despite below-normal rainfall, many deaths were preventable.
Even as Beijing has yet to indicate if it will resume sharing hydrological data in 2018, a major new issue has cropped up in its relations with India — the waters of the main artery of the Brahmaputra river system, the Siang, have turned dirty and grey when the stream enters India from Tibet. This has spurred downstream concern that China’s tunnelling, mining and damming activities could be threatening cross-border river ecosystems in the way it has polluted its own domestic rivers, including the Yellow, the cradle of the Chinese civilisation. The Siang’s contamination has been a double whammy for Assam.
After staying mum on the contamination for many weeks, despite a growing furore in India’s northeast, Beijing claimed on December 27 that an earthquake that struck southeastern Tibet in mid-November “might have led to the turbidity” in the river waters. But the flows of the Siang, one of the world’s most pristine rivers, turned virtually black much before the quake of magnitude 6.3 (as measured by the US Geological Survey) struck Tibet’s Nyangtri (Nyingchi) prefecture on November 18. Another factor apparently caused the contamination.
China has been engaged in major mining and dam-building activities in southeastern Tibet, a region rich in both mineral and water resources. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries are a huge magnet for China’s dam builders. The reason is that the Brahmaputra system’s combined cross-border annual discharge of 165.4 billion cubic meters into India, according to United Nations figures, is greater than the collective trans-boundary flows of the three key rivers running from the Tibetan Plateau to Southeast Asia — the Mekong, the Salween and the Irrawaddy.
As China quietly works on a series of hydro-projects in Tibet that could affect the quality and quantity of downstream flows in South and Southeast Asia, it is apparently still toying with the idea of rerouting the upper Brahmaputra system. An officially blessed book published in 2005 championed the Brahmaputra’s rerouting to the Han heartland. Recently a Hong Kong newspaper reported that China now plans to divert the Brahmaputra waters to Xinjiang.
Beijing has denied such a plan — just as President Xi Jinping denied in 2015 that China had any plan to turn its seven man-made islands in the South China Sea into military bases.
China is already home to more than half of the globe’s large dams. To deflect attention from its continuing dam-building frenzy and its refusal to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any neighbour, China has bragged about its hydrological-data sharing accords. Yet it showed in 2017 that it can breach these accords at will. The denial of hydrological data to India actually underscores how China is using transboundary water as a tool of coercive diplomacy.
Such is China’s defiant unilateralism that, to complete a major dam project, it cut off the flow of a Brahmaputra tributary, the Xiabuqu, in 2016 and is currently damming another such tributary, the Lhasa River, into a series of artificial lakes.
The cause of the Siang River’s contamination can be known only if China agrees to a joint probe with India, including a scientific survey of the river’s upper reaches in Tibet. That is the only way to get to the bottom of the serious contamination that has choked aquatic life.
Make no mistake: China, by building increasing control over cross-border water resources through hydro-engineering structures, is dragging its riparian neighbours into high-stakes games of geopolitical poker over water-related issues. In waging water wars by stealth, China seeks to hew to the central principle enunciated by the ancient military theorist Sun Tzu — “all wars are based on deception”.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author
The views expressed are personal