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China should not use water as a threat multiplier

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • October 23, 2009

    Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s statement is the boldest ever made by India against China’s bullying tactics in recent years. It is strange that the government had chosen to brush the Chinese threat under the carpet so far, despite Beijing’s deliberate and systematic needling of India through repeated provocative statements, border incursions and diplomatic manoeuvres at international fora. It is also strange that the government so far never taken seriously studies carried out by its own think-tanks like IDSA about the impending challenges posed by China to Indian’s security.

    Nobody should be in doubt that China had removed all bottlenecks after the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet railway in 2006 to consolidate its thrust along the Indian borders. The flow of Hans into Tibet is said to have increased to over four million tourists in 2007. Since July 2007, the PLA has achieved capabilities for quicker mobilization of infantry troops and logistics, including the transfer of tactical mobile nuclear missiles DF-31 (A) closer to the Himalayan borders. The railways seemed to have facilitated accelerated construction of link-roads to formerly inaccessible remote mountainous areas.

    India never objected when, in 2007, China’s State Council had approved 180 projects worth $10.2 billion for Tibet under the Eleventh Five-Year, which, inter alia, included construction of the Alihunsha Airport (opposite Ladakh), the Railway Line to Shigatse, Zhangmu Power Plant, Nyingchi Airport, Linzhi Airport (across the border from Arunachal Pradesh), Zhikong hydro-project, and Shiquanhe hydro-project (on Indus River). Across the border from Ladakh, China is developing the entire stretch of Menser - Gunsa and Rudog - Senge Tsangpo corridor with several high profile roads, airports, and townships. A new airport replacing the formerly tactical airstrip at Gar-Gunsa facing Demchok on the Indian side is likely to be put in operation by 2010.

    Water is likely to become a source of another tension between India and China. Judging by its latest actions, China is set to embark on a series of river diversion plans including on the Indus and Sutlej, and especially the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra River) plan. Yarlung Tsangpo project has been in the drawing boards of Chinese planners for several decades. But on October 14, 2008, Chinese engineers began digging a tunnel through Tibet’s Galung La mountain in Nyingchi Prefecture to build the most difficult highway to China’s last road-less Medog County located 30 kilometres from India’s border. The road construction to be completed by 2010 is linked to the proposed dam construction at the Great Bend of Brahmaputra. China’s increased infrastructure activities near the Great Bend were even visible on Google Maps.

    China is hard-pressed to implement the Brahmaputra project as an answer to its growing water woes arising from demographic explosion, industrial upsurge, rapid expansion of cities, and greater demand for irrigated agriculture farming. The country’s top leaders describe the situation as “an unavoidable issue threatening national security.” Climate change is triggering massive droughts, desertification and sandstorms in China. Frequent droughts in the north and rural-urban migration are worsening China’s domestic tensions. With growing incidents and clashes over the control of runoff for cities and industries, water is likely to become a potential catalyst for domestic turmoil if it is not already so.

    Tibet’s water wealth is irresistible to Chinese planners. They know that 90 per cent of Tibetan runoff flows downstream to South Asia and Southeast Asia. It is here that the Chinese are looking for a bumper solution to tap the Tsangpo and divert it to the north irrespective of the consequences. To end China’s chronic water shortages, the proposal Shuo-tian (reverse flow) was first mooted by hydrologist Guo Kai and it later received new focus when a former PLA officer Li Ling wrote a book How Tibet's Water Will Save China. The new impetus came when in May 1998 Jiang Zemin issued a memorandum detailing the proposal. The project aims to divert the Tsangpo at the Shuomatan Point or the 'Big U-turn' (a) for constructing a hydroelectric plant at the knick-zone to generate 40,000 megawatts, involving enormous engineering complexity and the use of nuclear explosives to blast a 15 kilometre tunnel through the Himalayas, and (b) for diverting 200 billion cubic meters of water annually to the arid north. Despite repeated denials, the project work is scheduled to begin in 2010. President Hu Jintao, a hydrologist by training, is said to be fully backing the project. The project has huge support among PLA officials.

    If the diversion of the only ‘male’ Indian River becomes a reality, it would pose a threat to India in terms of China being able to manipulate the Brahmaputra’s flow it did in the case of the Sutlej in 2000. Despite sparking off political controversy, the project site is in a geologically fragile zone with very rapid bedrock exhumation rates. In case of an earthquake, it may cause ominous consequences for millions living in downstream areas.

    China has been adamant on trans-border water issues and has never consulted riparian states before undertaking dam constructions upstream. No downstream country has any legal arrangements or provisions of international law to deal with China’s river manipulation. China has refused to join the Mekong River Commission, and has also not ratified the UN convention on Non-Navigable Use of International Watercourses (1997). The tallest dam construction (295 metres) at Xiaowan, upstream on the Mekong is stirring up passions across Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Environmentalists have been up in arms against China’s diversion of over 20 trans-border rivers in Central Asia. The tragedy is that most riparian states neither have the courage to challenge China nor do they have the culture of public protest. Still worst, projects in Tibet are undertaken by China’s biggest construction companies like Gezhouba Corporation and Huaneng Group, which are known for their secrecy, and lack of transparency and accountability.

    China has rarely bothered to share information with India despite the treaty signed in 2006 on exchanging trans-border flood season data. In 2000, the overflowing of Pare-Chu in Tibet had created a deluge in the Sutlej, leaving a trail of destruction. Similarly, India is yet to know what caused the floods in Arunachal Pradesh in June 2000 that originated in Tibet. A dam is now being constructed in Zhada County on a Sutlej tributary. Similarly, Shiquanhe Hydro project is coming up on the Indus River and will pose a threat to Ladakh’s water security.

    Water may not become a catalyst for a direct conflict, but China could leverage Tibet’s water as a politico-military tool vis-à-vis other riparian states. As the economies of India and China grow, both are going to treat water as a strategic commodity. In contrast to China, India has no leverage in its dealings with China. Its only option is diplomacy. But in the case of dealings with China, diplomacy fails due to contentious bilateral and international issues. Past experience shows that a denial by China cannot be taken seriously. There is also no guarantee that China will honour an agreement that is in place.

    On the positive side, however, there is a growing environmental awareness in China fuelled by the Internet revolution as well as by the 2008 earthquake disaster which has made people exert pressure on the government to rethink the country’s mega projects. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets Premier Wen Jiabao at the ASEM meeting in Thailand, he should firmly tell him that China should not use water as a threat multiplier. Both India and China should strive for setting up a water governance regime with a binding legal agreement as well as for jointly exploring prospects for ecological cooperation to save the Himalayas and to mitigate the threat posed by climate change.