By Neeraj Singh Manhas and Hari Yadav G
The relations between India and China show signs of a long-awaited peace settlement. The military standoff along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, amid the conflict at the Galwan Valley in June 2020, and the 16th round of talk is considered a significant normalisation between the two Asian superpowers. But admittedly, it may take some time for the status quo to recover. Still, after nearly two years of deep freeze, both countries don’t want to engage with their military strength as it could lead them to economic disadvantage, so it’s important to relook at the non-traditional threat of water concerns between India and China.
India and China don’t have negotiated treaties or joint statements with regard to transboundary river sharing. Still, both countries recognised that Transboundary Rivers, related natural resources, and the environment are assets of immense value to the socio-economic development of all riparian states. China is an upper riparian state that has asserted express ownership over waters flowing from the Tibetan Plateau. The Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Yangtze, and Mekong are only a few of South Asia’s most powerful rivers.
Major Treaties Signed
In the past 70 years of bilateral relations, despite political upheavals and border dispute stand offs both the countries have managed to sign only two Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) once in 2002, to share the Hydrological information on the Brahmaputra / Yarlung Tsangpo river, The purpose of the Memorandum of Understanding is to enable early warning for floods in India during the monsoon season and another MOU in 2015 on sharing water flow data on Sutlej River / Zangbo.
India-China Water Disputes
Among the rivers that crossed their disputed border, the Brahmaputra is the significant water resource both countries share. The Brahmaputra originates from Tibet and crosses the border into Arunachal Pradesh, which lies in the Indian Territory, but China claims it has Southern Tibet. India and even Bangladesh rely on these water sources for agricultural purposes. In 2002, the MoU was signed between India and China to share the data during the monsoon and non-flood seasons when the authorised stations are on the verge of surpassing the danger level. For that part, India is obligated to purchase the data for that portion at a mutually agreed-upon price
India has to pay a mutually agreed sum of money for the data. The exchange works established between the countries, known as India-China expert level mechanism on Transborder Rivers.
During the political upheaval between India and China, it weaponises water usage as political and strategic leverage against India. For example, in the recent Galwan Valley clash in June 2020, during the border standoff, China blocked the water flow of the Galwan River, which crosses from the disputed Chinese-administered Aksai Chin Region into Ladakh in India.
China is an upper riparian state, and in an advantageous position, there is the possibility of building infrastructure to intentionally prevent water from flowing downstream. However, the Chinese government has used assuaging rhetoric to reduce perceptions of its dams as a threat; for example, Dams are run off the water, meaning they cannot store or divert large bodies of water.
A Major Concern?
The most significant concern for India is China’s announcement of mega-dam projects and hydropower construction on the section of the Brahmaputra basin closest to India. Although both countries have MoU, there is a source of tension that China is building dams across the region and water division plans along the Brahmaputra region. Since India and other countries rely majorly on Brahmaputra’s water for agriculture purposes, it would be difficult for them to carry on their day-to-day activities. It also creates tension if Beijing diverts stormwater in times of political crisis.
Water disputes are never only about water resources; they often involve political issues and border disputes. When two countries share water resources for different purposes, the strongest country uses water as the pretext for war between countries whose overall relations have deteriorated to the point of hostility.
Due to the lack of institutional mechanisms between the countries in managing their shared water resources. As long as there are no institutional arrangements, India’s position depends on how china agrees by doing us a favour, and that is not the position India should be in. “The issue between India and China is that there is no understanding, no agreements on International rivers,” says Brahma Chellaney, Strategic Affairs Expert, Centre for Policy Research.
The Future development of India-China relations is uncertain, with the puzzling questions surrounding potential water disputes, which are a significant source of tension and a driving force behind regional insecurity. So far, India and China haven’t signed any joint declarations or treaties on transboundary river water sharing; it is suggested that they do so by beginning with water diplomacy. The two critical factors of this diplomacy, particularly the nature and results, are the power relations and the relationships between countries’ economic development. These circumstances directly impact the likelihood of successful diplomatic collaboration over shared water resources.
(Disclaimer: Neeraj Singh Manhas is a Director of Research in the Indo-Pacific Consortium at the Raisina House, New Delhi. Hari Yadav G is a ICSSR Doctoral Fellow at Pondicherry University. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.)