International discussion about China’s rise has focused on its increasing trade muscle, growing maritime ambitions, and expanding capacity to project military power. One critical issue, however, usually escapes attention: China’s rise as a hydro-hegemon with no modern historical parallel.
No other country has ever managed to assume such unchallenged riparian preeminence on a continent by controlling the headwaters of multiple international rivers and manipulating their cross-border flows. China, the world’s biggest dam builder – with slightly more than half of the approximately 50,000 large dams on the planet – is rapidly accumulating leverage against its neighbors by undertaking massive hydro-engineering projects on transnational rivers.
Asia’s water map fundamentally changed after the 1949 Communist victory in China. Most of Asia’s important international rivers originate in territories that were forcibly annexed to the People’s Republic of China. The Tibetan Plateau, for example, is the world’s largest freshwater repository and the source of Asia’s greatest rivers, including those that are the lifeblood for mainland China and South and Southeast Asia. Other such Chinese territories contain the headwaters of rivers like the Irtysh, Illy, and Amur, which flow to Russia and Central Asia.
This makes China the source of cross-border water flows to the largest number of countries in the world. Yet China rejects the very notion of water sharing or institutionalized cooperation with downriver countries.
Whereas riparian neighbors in Southeast and South Asia are bound by water pacts that they have negotiated between themselves, China does not have a single water treaty with any co-riparian country. Indeed, having its cake and eating it, China is a dialogue partner but not a member of the Mekong River Commission, underscoring its intent not to abide by the Mekong basin community’s rules or take on any legal obligations.
Worse, while promoting multilateralism on the world stage, China has given the cold shoulder to multilateral cooperation among river-basin states. The lower-Mekong countries, for example, view China’s strategy as an attempt to “divide and conquer.”
Although China publicly favors bilateral initiatives over multilateral institutions in addressing water issues, it has not shown any real enthusiasm for meaningful bilateral action. As a result, water has increasingly become a new political divide in the country’s relations with neighbors like India, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Nepal.
China deflects attention from its refusal to share water, or to enter into institutionalized cooperation to manage common rivers sustainably, by flaunting the accords that it has signed on sharing flow statistics with riparian neighbors. These are not agreements to cooperate on shared resources, but rather commercial accords to sell hydrological data that other upstream countries provide free to downriver states.
In fact, by shifting its frenzied dam building from internal rivers to international rivers, China is now locked in water disputes with almost all co-riparian states. Those disputes are bound to worsen, given China’s new focus on erecting mega-dams, best symbolized by its latest addition on the Mekong – the 4,200-megawatt Xiaowan Dam, which dwarfs Paris’s Eiffel Tower in height – and a 38,000-megawatt dam planned on the Brahmaputra at Metog, close to the disputed border with India. The Metog Dam will be twice as large as the 18,300-megawatt Three Gorges Dam, currently the world’s largest, construction of which uprooted at least 1.7 million Chinese.
In addition, China has identified another mega-dam site on the Brahmaputra at Daduqia, which, like Metog, is to harness the force of a nearly 3,000-meter drop in the river’s height as it takes a sharp southerly turn from the Himalayan range into India, forming the world’s longest and steepest canyon. The Brahmaputra Canyon – twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States – holds Asia’s greatest untapped water reserves.
The countries likely to bear the brunt of such massive diversion of waters are those located farthest downstream on rivers like the Brahmaputra and Mekong – Bangladesh, whose very future is threatened by climate and environmental change, and Vietnam, a rice bowl of Asia. China’s water appropriations from the Illy River threaten to turn Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash into another Aral Sea, which has shrunk to less than half its original size.
In addition, China has planned the “Great Western Route,” the proposed third leg of the Great South-North Water Diversion Project – the most ambitious inter-river and inter-basin transfer program ever conceived – whose first two legs, involving internal rivers in China’s ethnic Han heartland, are scheduled to be completed within three years. The Great Western Route, centered on the Tibetan Plateau, is designed to divert waters, including from international rivers, to the Yellow River, the main river of water-stressed northern China, which also originates in Tibet.
With its industry now dominating the global hydropower-equipment market, China has also emerged as the largest dam builder overseas. From Pakistani-held Kashmir to Burma’s troubled Kachin and Shan states, China has widened its dam building to disputed or insurgency-torn areas, despite local backlashes.
For example, units of the People’s Liberation Army are engaged in dam and other strategic projects in the restive, Shia-majority region of Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-held Kashmir. And China’s dam building inside Burma to generate power for export to Chinese provinces has contributed to renewed bloody fighting recently, ending a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army and the government.
As with its territorial and maritime disputes with India, Vietnam, Japan, and others, China is seeking to disrupt the status quo on international-river flows. Persuading it to halt further unilateral appropriation of shared waters has thus become pivotal to Asian peace and stability. Otherwise, China is likely to emerge as the master of Asia’s water taps, thereby acquiring tremendous leverage over its neighbors’ behavior.
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research, is the author of Water: Asia’s New Battleground.