If the history of border agreements between India and China is anything to go by, the test of any significant pact between the two, especially when signed after many negotiations, lies in its implementation. But apart from the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), the other significant achievement of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to China is the agreement on strengthening bilateral cooperation on trans-border rivers. In a first for Beijing, the Chinese leadership has agreed to expand the current mechanism of expert-level cooperation on sharing hydrological data to an exchange of views “on other issues of mutual interests”. Effectively, this would involve the discussion of New Delhi’s concerns about hydroelectric projects planned upstream along the Brahmaputra as well as the exchange of more detailed seasonal flood data over a longer time-period.
These have been pressing matters for India for years and it is a feat of Indian diplomacy that Beijing has finally been persuaded to come on board. The recognition of India’s lower riparian concerns—vis-a-vis a river as important to India’s Northeast as the Brahmaputra—is unprecedented, since Beijing had hitherto declined from formally acknowledging any neighbouring country’s lower riparian rights. The diversion of trans-border rivers upstream by the Chinese is a long-standing problem for Delhi, and the Union water resources and power ministries had earlier made there reservations public, especially about the $62 billion Chinese south-north water diversion scheme on the Brahmaputra. Although India played down this issue last month, Delhi could not wish away its fears about restricted flows down the river due to diversion and dams. For its part, China has assured India that its dams will not hold water. It’s too early to draw parallels between trans-border water cooperation and older border agreements between Delhi and Beijing that have preceded the BDCA, but Beijing’s signing on the line that trans-border rivers are “assets of immense value to the socio-economic development of all riparian countries” certainly provides scope for hope.