Water Is the New Weapon in Beijing’s Armoury

While China’s fondness for epic hydro-engineering projects has enormous repercussions within its own borders, the consequences are further complicated when dams are built upstream of other countries. Hundreds of millions of people from Afghanistan to Vietnam depend on rivers originating within the PRC, a reality to which Chinese policy makes little concession, and one which raises the possibility of aggressive interference in river flows in the future. From Brahma Chellaney in the Financial Times:

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 ….

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.

The Financial Times has also reviewed Chellaney’s book, ‘Water: Asia’s New Battleground‘, alongside two others on China’s rise and its international context. Chellaney regards Indian recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet as a strategic error in terms of water security, warning that strong diplomacy is vital to avoiding conflict over water resources in the future.

For details of Chinese proposals to dam upstream of the Indian border (which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denied are part of official plans), see Chinese Engineers Eye Tibetan Rivers.