“…as the recent clashes on the Sino-Indian border have made clear, India needs to assess how China might ‘weaponise’ its advantage over those countries downstream. Control over these rivers effectively gives China a chokehold on India’s economy.”
- India-China relations and the geopolitics of water; Lowy Institute, July 2020
Hydropower projects and dams have, for some time now, been speculated upon — by Sino-Indian scholars — as the next big battleground between India and China, after the contentious land boundaries and tense stand offs at the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Adding to India’s concerns, the Chinese Parliament NPC (National People’s Congress) last week, adopted the 14th Five-Year Plan, which includes the controversial hydropower project on the Brahmaputra river in Tibet close to the Arunachal Pradesh border.
Why China’s Super Dam Near Disputed Areas is Cause for Concern
New Delhi says it is studying the project and monitoring flows of the river closely, both through independent assessments and shared hydrological data, but remains officially silent as of now. The Ministry of External Affairs has so far not reacted formally to media queries on the issue. But the worry is palpable.
The national development blueprint gives the green signal to some 60 projects worth billions of dollars and was cleared with President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and other senior leaders in attendance. Strategic experts like Brahma Chellaney have argued that the ‘super dam’ near the disputed areas ‘will arm Beijing with considerable leverage over India’.
“The Chinese have been very consistent and categorical that they will begin the exercise. They say they are in urgent need of water. Whether this is a desired timing or not is the question and this is typical Chinese behaviour to assert by not respecting or considering what others-the affected parties or countries-are saying. The decision also needs to be seen in context of the Galwan violence and the LAC standoff.”Hemant Adlakha, Associate Professor at JNU and Honorary Fellow at ICS (Institute for Chinese Studies)
China’s New Dam: A ‘National Security Project’
Yarlung Tsangpo River rises in Lunpo Gangri glacier in NW Tibetan Plateau, crosses the border from Tibet into Arunachal Pradesh and flows on, to become the transboundary Brahmaputra joined by the eight tributaries that discharge into the Bay of Bengal.
Significantly, this is the first major project to exploit hydropower in the lower reaches to have received a top political clearance in China, which has one operational hydropower project and three others under development in the upper and middle parts of the river.
As per a South China Morning Post report attributed to Yan Zhiyong, Chairman of the State-owned firm Power Construction Corporation of China that is leading the development, the dams would have a combined generating capacity of 60 gigawatts . This is nearly three times more than that of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in central China.
“It is a national security project, ensuring China’s water resources security and homeland security,” the SCMP report quoted Yan Zhiyong.
Why the Proposed Dam Has Raised Eyebrows in Delhi & Dhaka
The proposed dam to be built on the lower reaches of the 2,900 kms long has raised eyebrows in Delhi and Dhaka in the recent past, but China has been dismissive of the concerns so far saying these are ‘run of the river’ projects which will not stop the water source for the lower states.
The argument has been contested by experts studying the impact of these dams, especially during periods of drought.
“China has always taken a responsible attitude towards the development and utilisation of cross-border rivers, and adopts a policy that protection goes together with development. Any project will undergo scientific planning and demonstration with full consideration for the impact on the downstream areas and the interests of both upstream and downstream countries,” Ji Rong, Counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in Delhi replied to media queries about development of hydropower projects in the downstream of the Yarlung Zangbo (also known as Yarlung Tsangpo) River in December last year. “There is no need to over-interpret it,” Ji Rong said.
Beijing’s Pushback on Allegations Over ‘Risking Downstream Countries’
Following the 73-day Doklam stand off between the two armies the previous year, India, in 2018, had complained of China not sharing hydrological data on the flow of the Yarlung Tsangpo. Beijing had then blamed it on the monsoon floods saying that the monitoring sites were washed away before the two sides eventually agreed to renew the data-sharing arrangement. So far, Indian proposals to build dams on the Brahmaputra, to mitigate the adverse impacts of the Chinese hydropower projects are yet to take any shape.
Incidentally, Beijing has also been pushing back against allegations of risking downstream countries by constructing some 450 dams, reportedly over the past years along the 4350 kms-long Mekong river (known as Lancang in China) that spills into the South China Sea.
In August 2020, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attended the third Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Leaders’ Meeting virtually.
A Reminder to All Key Stakeholders — Including New Delhi
The forum initiated by China in 2014 includes countries in the river periphery Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. In what is seen as an attempt by the United States to counter China in the South East Asia region with 60 million plus people relying on the river for resources, the State Department pledged USD 153 million to the LMC members — Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos — for a variety of collaborative projects including grants for hydrological data-sharing under the new Mekong-US Partnership in September 2020.
“’Wise men take precautionary measures when disaster is brewing, clever men make estimations about imminent catastrophe.’ We must be alert and cautious, and keep track of small changes that could lead to heavy losses.”Xi Jinping quoting historian Pen Songzhi’s annotation in his speech at a study session on 18 Jan 2016 (Xi Jinping, The Governance of China II, Page 245)
In the tensions building up over shared rivers and maritime seas, this is an important reminder for all stakeholders, including India.
(Smita Sharma is an independent journalist and tweets at @Smita_Sharma. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)