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Resource Wars

How China Weaponizes Water

Brahma Chellaney

The communist Chinese government has long been willing to weaponize the leverage it acquires over other countries. Its monopoly on the global supply of rare earth minerals and its huge international lending scheme are two prominent examples. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), which now holds debt amounting to more than 5% of the global gross domestic product, has eclipsed major lenders such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and all the creditor nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development combined. 

To secure support for its strategic objectives, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has encouraged and then exploited other nations’ reliance on the PRC for trade, finance, vital medicines and medical gear, minerals, and tourism earnings. The CCP’s coercive toolkit has included unofficial export and import restrictions and other nontariff barriers, consumer boycotts, restriction of Chinese tour groups, and even blocking fishing access.

Given the CCP’s record of riding roughshod over international rules, it is scarcely a surprise that the party under General Secretary Xi Jinping has not shied away from weaponizing water, a life-creating and life-supporting resource whose growing shortages are casting a cloud over the Indo-Pacific’s economic future.

Coercive Hydro-Hegemony

Soon after founding the PRC, the CCP annexed Xinjiang and Tibet, more than doubling the country’s territory and making it the world’s fourth-largest by area. Its annexation of the water-rich Tibetan plateau was one of the most far-reaching geopolitical developments in post-World War II history, not in the least because it gave the PRC borders with Bhutan, India, Myanmar and Nepal.

Hindu devotees offer prayers during the Chhath Puja festival on the banks of the Brahmaputra River in Guwahati, India, where the People’s Republic of China plans to build a superdam to manipulate transboundary river flows. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Tibet is the source of the Indo-Pacific’s 10 major river systems, which means the annexation effectively changed the region’s water map. This development has facilitated the PRC’s rise as a hydro-hegemon with no modern parallel. 

Today, Chinese-built megadams near the international borders of the Tibetan plateau give the CCP leverage over downstream countries. More than 1 billion people in a dozen countries, including mainland China, depend on the Tibet-originating rivers for sustenance, including protein intake from the vast bounty of fish. 

The PRC’s hydro-thirst compounds freshwater challenges in the Indo-Pacific, the world’s most water-stressed region in per capita terms. Water has become a new divide in the PRC’s relations with its riparian neighbors. This divide has become apparent as the CCP has increasingly shifted the country’s dam-building focus from its dam-saturated internal rivers to transnational rivers flowing from ethnic-minority homelands.

Only three important transnational rivers — the Amur, the Ili and the Irtysh, which flow to Kazakhstan or Russia — originate in China outside the Tibetan plateau, whose wealth of water and mineral resources was a big factor in its political subjugation. The PRC’s water diversions from the Ili threaten to turn Kazakhstan’s largest lake — Balkhash, spread over about 18,000 square kilometers — into another Aral Sea, which has become a symbol of human-made environmental disaster.

The slew of giant new Chinese dams on the Tibet-originating transnational rivers carries the greatest environmental costs. The PRC, which already boasts more large dams than the rest of the world combined, has emerged as the key obstacle to building institutionalized collaboration on shared water resources in the Indo-Pacific.

The countries likely to bear the brunt of the CCP program to control the flow of transboundary waters are those farthest downstream on rivers such as the Mekong and the Brahmaputra (known to Tibetans as the Yarlung Zangbo). The Brahmaputra provides the largest source of freshwater for Bangladesh. Meanwhile, Vietnam sits downstream on two rivers flowing from the edge of the Tibetan plateau: the Red River, the main watercourse of northern Vietnam; and the Mekong, the principal river of southern Vietnam. 

In contrast to the bilateral water treaties between many of its neighbors (including a sharing pact between historic rivals India and Pakistan), the PRC rejects the concept of water sharing or joint, rules-based management of common water resources. It, therefore, refuses to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any downstream country.

The PRC asserts that standing and flowing waters are subject to the full sovereignty of the country where they are located. It claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters on its side of the international boundary, including the right to divert as much shared water as it wishes for its needs. 

This principle was originally embodied in the notorious and now-discredited Harmon Doctrine in the United States more than a century ago. The doctrine is named for then-U.S. Attorney General Judson Harmon, who introduced the concept that the U.S. owed no obligations under international law to Mexico on shared water resources and was effectively free to divert as much of the shared waters as it wished for U.S. needs. Despite that doctrine, the U.S. went on to conclude water-sharing agreements with Mexico between 1906 and 1944.

The PRC, in rejecting the 1997 United Nations convention regulating shared water resources, placed on record its contention that an upstream power has the right to assert absolute territorial sovereignty over the waters on its side of the international boundary — or the right to divert shared waters irrespective of the effects on downriver countries. 

This indicates that the Harmon Doctrine may be dead in the country of its birth but survives in the PRC.

A Dam Larger Than Three Gorges

Given its mission is to help the PRC achieve Indo-Pacific preeminence by subordinating its neighbors, the CCP preaches about equality and reciprocity in international relations but in practice does not employ either. Without a Sino-centric Indo-Pacific, the PRC cannot achieve global dominance. The CCP views India and Japan as the country’s two potential peer rivals in the region. It is in this context that it wants to play its freshwater card against India — a card that has no relevance vis-a-vis Japan, which is separated by sea from China.

Against India, the CCP is seeking to replicate its Mekong Basin strategy. By building megadams and reservoirs on the Mekong, it has acquired control over the transboundary flows of that river, which is the lifeblood for the lower-riparian states. The CCP has effectively dragged the downstream states into high-stakes games of geopolitical poker over water issues. 

The PRC’s 11 megadams on the Mekong arm the CCP with the power to turn off the tap for much of continental Southeast Asia. This has made the downstream countries dependent on Chinese “goodwill” for their continued access to freshwater.

With a similar but more multidimensional strategy, the CCP and its military wing — the People’s Liberation Army — hope to rein in India. Indirect-war elements are conspicuous in the PRC’s actions against India, including reengineering the cross-border flows of rivers, carrying out cyberattacks and nibbling away at disputed Himalayan territories. Its territorial revisionism has led to continuing Himalayan military standoffs between Chinese and Indian forces since May 2020, raising the specter of more clashes and even a full-fledged war.

This 2019 aerial view of the Mekong River at Sangkhom district in Thailand’s Nong Khai province, which abuts Laos to the right, reveals how the once swollen waterway has been reduced to a thin, grubby neck of water across northern Thailand, largely due to a series of dams built upstream in China and Laos. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Amid the military confrontation with India, the PRC’s rubber-stamp parliament in March 2021 ratified the CCP’s decision to build the world’s first superdam on the Brahmaputra. The superdam will straddle the longest and deepest canyon on Earth near the heavily militarized Tibetan border with India. 

The Brahmaputra curves around the Himalayas in a U-turn and forms Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon in Tibet while plunging from an altitude of more than 2,800 meters toward the Indian flood plains. The canyon, one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, holds the planet’s largest untapped concentration of river-water energy. 

The superdam will dwarf the PRC’s record-breaking Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River and is billed to produce roughly three times more electricity each year. 

Construction of the superdam in an area known for frequent seismic activity could make it a ticking “water bomb” for downstream communities in India. In August 2020, about 400 million Chinese were put at risk after record flooding endangered the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest.

In 2021, the CCP set the stage for dam construction by completing a strategic highway through the forbidding canyon and by starting high-speed train service to a nearby military town. The railroad and highway allow transport of heavy equipment, materials and workers to the remote region, whose treacherous terrain had previously made it inaccessible. 

The superdam will allow the PRC to manipulate transboundary river flows and leverage its long-standing territorial claim to the downstream Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Sheep graze on the resource-rich Tibetan plateau, which is the source of many of the Indo-Pacific’s major rivers. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The CCP, in seeking to wield water as a weapon against India, is willing to disregard the irreparable damage its project is likely to wreak in a region rich in biodiversity. In addition, the area is sacred territory for Tibetans, with its mountains, cliffs and caves representing the body of their guardian deity, Dorje Phagmo, and the Brahmaputra representing her spine.

Comprised largely of flood plains and deltas, densely populated Bangladesh will likely bear the brunt of the project’s devastation. The nation’s 165 million people face a future imperiled by environmental and climate change, and the havoc caused by the Chinese dam could trigger a new exodus of refugees to India, already home to millions of Bangladeshi migrants.

Larger Implications

With its reverence for nature, the Tibetan culture has served as an environmental sentinel over many centuries, helping safeguard biodiversity and pristine landscapes. But a predatory CCP, step by step, has been desecrating landscapes sacred to Tibetans. 

From its rush to mine gold in a border area captured decades ago from India to its frenzied dam-building on international rivers, the CCP has gone into overdrive to appropriate natural resources in Tibet. The Chinese name for Tibet since the ethnic-Manchu Qing dynasty — Xizang, or “Western Treasure Land” — explains why the PRC’s major water and mining projects are concentrated on that plateau. 

Having depleted its own natural resources through improvident economic growth, the PRC is greedily draining resources from the ecologically fragile Tibetan plateau. This is not only the world’s largest plateau but also the highest, earning it the name “roof of the world.” The superdam on the Brahmaputra will be at an elevation of roughly 1,520 meters — the highest of any giant dam.

Most of the big dams that the PRC is building or planning are concentrated in China’s seismically active southwest, which is largely populated by Tibetans or other ethnic minorities. Such projects are triggering ethnic tensions over displacement and submergence.

An Indian vendor walks along the banks of the Brahmaputra River as he waits for a boat. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

However, downstream countries can do little to dissuade the PRC from wreaking environmental havoc through its dam-building frenzy. India has locked horns with the PRC despite the risk of war and openly challenged Chinese capability and power. Yet it has few options to deal with the PRC’s reengineering of transboundary flows other than to spotlight the unilateral Chinese actions.

Chinese upstream activities have triggered flash floods in Indian border states and polluted the Brahmaputra’s main artery, the once-pristine Siang. The PRC’s superdam near the Indian border could unleash devastation on a scale greater than that seen in the Mekong Basin, where droughts are becoming more frequent because of the Chinese network of giant dams. The dams are also damaging biodiversity and fisheries by disrupting the Mekong’s annual flooding cycle and impeding the flow of nutrient-rich sediment from the Himalayan range. But the dams have helped the CCP to leverage its upstream water control to influence the policies of downstream nations. The PRC has no water treaties with lower Mekong countries. Although it agreed in late 2020 to share more year-round data with the Mekong River Commission, a regional governing body, the PRC has not provided the degree of transparency required or timely enough data for downstream nations to manage flows, recent reports found.

With the CCP making the control and manipulation of river flows a fulcrum of Chinese power, the Indo-Pacific has become the most likely flashpoint for water conflict. Beijing already holds significant financial, trade and political leverage over many of its neighbors. Now, by maneuvering for asymmetric control over cross-border flows, it seeks to have its grasp on the Indo-Pacific’s tap.  

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