Water War: This River Could Sink China-India Relations

The Brahmaputra is the next test for Beijing and New Delhi.

Third, Chinese observers are concerned about the ramifications of planned Indian hydropower and other infrastructure development along the Brahmaputra in Arunachal Pradesh. The fear is that this development will strengthen India’s “actual control” over the region by facilitating a large influx of Indian migrants into the contested territory. This would further complicate border negotiations and make it harder for Beijing to ever regain southern Tibet. China has even taken steps to try to complicate Indian development in Arunachal by seeking to deny international financing for these types of projects. Interviews with Chinese experts suggest that Beijing does not have much hope of being able to forever forestall India’s progress in this arena, though the projects themselves will probably continue to be an irritant in broader Sino-Indian political relations.

Taken together, the Brahmaputra presents a mix of challenges that could further aggravate tensions. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which control over the river becomes bound up with a larger border conflict. Water, after all, is a strategic resource and vital to sustaining military forces in the region. Yet there are also several ways in which the two sides can work together to stabilize the LAC region by jointly addressing river issues.

At a minimum, China and India could work closely to address the risks of flooding. For instance, the two militaries might organize combined exercises based on a flooding scenario. This could build on a recent precedent of combined China-India military drills in the border region focused on disaster relief. Chinese and Indian civilian ministries might also join forces to discuss how flood control measures in the region might be strengthened, and exchange information on other topics of mutual concern, such as river safety and pollution mitigation. Although this type of cooperation will not resolve underlying tensions related to the border dispute, it could build trust at a low level and strengthen both sides’ capacity to respond to emergencies.

Another step would involve greater information sharing regarding dam building and other infrastructure development on both sides of the LAC. China, for instance, might consider allowing Indian officials to conduct site visits to the Zangmu dam, which became fully operational in October 2015. China might also provide more details on planned additional dams, to respond to Indian concerns about ulterior motives. Yet China should not be expected to provide such information unilaterally. New Delhi should reciprocate by fulfilling its agreement to provide China with information on its monitoring site on the Brahmaputra and clarify the number and types of dams it is building downstream. The best-case scenario would involve the two governments exploring joint development, which might build on the recently established Trans-Himalayan Development Forum.

At a basin-wide level, China and India should consider working together with their downstream neighbor, Bangladesh, to institutionalize cooperation. This would be a challenge, and require Beijing and New Delhi to overcome their preference for bilateral diplomacy regarding transboundary river issues. In the short term, multilateral engagement might cover such “low-hanging fruit” as pollution control and disaster relief. Over the longer term, the three states might consider forming a Brahmaputra Basin Commission on the model of the Mekong River Commission to facilitate information sharing and joint activities, such as combating transnational crime. Given tensions between all three countries (including between India and Bangladesh), such cooperation will not be easy. But, if successful, it could provide a basis for multilateral cooperation in a way that is currently sorely missing.

Joel Wuthnow is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the U.S. National Defense University. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. The CNA study on which this essay is based will be released at an event on May 4. For details, see here.

Image: Flickr/@So_P