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Beijing Boosts its Position as a “Himalayan Hegemon” Through Hydropower

Introduction

China’s building of ambitious hydropower and water diversion projects, and increasing focus on the Himalayan ecosystem as a critical developmental resource, has increased tensions with its regional neighbors, particularly India. The Chinese state contractor PowerChina in November 2020 announced plans for a 60-gigawatt dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo (雅鲁藏布, yalu zangbu) (Global Times, November 29, 2020). The “historic” hydropower project was also included in the “14th Five-Year Plan (FYP, 2021-25) and Long-Range Objectives Through 2035”  (国民经济和社会发展第十四个五年规划和2035年远景目标纲要, guomin jingji he shehui fazhan di shisi ge wunian guihua he 2035 nian yuanjing mubiao gangyao), which listed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s near and long-term goals for “socialist modernization” (Global Times, March 13; Gov.cn, March 13). More recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to a symposium on follow-up projects to the South-North Water Transfer Project (南水北调, nanshui beidiao) on May 14 also underscored the central government’s dedication to water resources development; the CCP’s pursuit of large-scale and prestigious water projects has been closely tied to the party’s legacy as it prepares for centennial celebrations in a month’s time (People’s Daily, May 15).

The Yarlung Tsangpo also passes through India (where it is known as the Brahmaputra) and Bangladesh (where it is called Jamuna), and news of China’s proposed dam on its lower reaches sparked outcry from downstream countries (Benar News, December 7, 2020; The Hindu, January 31). With water being a critical shared resource between the upper and lower riparian countries, what are the implications of China’s hydropower project for other Himalayan countries, particularly India and Bangladesh? Furthermore, considering the drastically changed dynamics between India and China since the 2020 border standoff, what are the potential implications for a transboundary water resource conflict?

Hydropower Politics

Alongside other hydropower projects, the proposed Yarlung Tsangpo dam is intended to support China’s national environmental objectives to peak carbon emissions before 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060 (South China Morning Post, April 1). Unofficial media reports have also claimed that the impetus for the new dam is driven by increased regional energy demands in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) due to the imminent completion of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway (163.com, December 4, 2020). It will be the first to tap the downstream section of the Yarlung Tsangpo and could potentially “provide 300 billion kWh of clean, renewable, and zero-carbon electricity annually” to China (Hindustan Times, November 29, 2020), generating potential “income of 20 billion yuan ($3 billion) annually for the Tibet Autonomous Region” (Global Times, November 29, 2020).

Beijing has touted the Yarlung Tsangpo dam as an opportunity to collaborate between China and South Asian nations, suggesting that these countries can use the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism to advance the more efficient use and improvement of water assets (Global Times, November 29, 2020). It took 26 years for China to announce the full completion of the 22.5-gigawatt Three Gorges Dam, currently the world’s largest hydropower project (Xinhua, November 2, 2020). The Yarlung Tsangpo dam’s inclusion in the 14th FYP, amidst Beijing’s focus on increasing the TAR’s economic and energy output, hints at a much faster completion timeline. The 16-gigawatt Baihetan Dam project in Sichuan Province, which is due to begin operation on the day of the CCP’s centennial celebrations on July 1, was completed in a comparatively rapid four years (Inkstone, March 18).  

China hopes that the mega-dam will serve as an example of its leadership in tackling climate change and its active efforts in reducing reliance on coal. Details for the proposed construction are limited, but independent analysts have warned that the dam’s proposed location in a remote and geologically volatile area could make it “the world’s riskiest [hydropower] project…technically the most difficult to build, ever, and it’s the most expensive project ever undertaken on any river anywhere in the world” (ABC, May 24). Increasing tensions with India also play a role in Beijing’s growing strategic focus on the Himalayan region—and its desire to increase its physical footprint in the region. It seems that China intends to act as a regional ‘hegemon’, dictating both resource allocation and its political relationships with neighboring countries in the Himalayan region.

Beijing’s Emergence as Himalayan Hegemon

Historically, the Himalayan mountains served as a buffer between pre-modern China and British India, but China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet changed this dynamic.[1] Since then, China has made increasingly assertive claims over “Greater Tibet” and adjacent regions, including the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and territories in Ladakh.[2]Last year’s Galwan Valley clash marked the first violent border conflict between India and China since 1975 (Hindustan Times, June 17, 2020), and China’s trans-Himalayan territorial claims have also resulted in growing border tensions with neighboring countries such as Nepal and Bhutan (Business Standard, May 20; The Tribune, May 22).

China’s foreign policy in the Himalayan region has been called an “invisible incursion,” with culture, language, religion, and ideology serving as a means to expand China’s political and economic influence even as it simultaneously pursues a rapid policy of infrastructure development that challenges historic borders.[3] In the past several decades, Beijing has emerged as a major economic partner for Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal; some of these countries historically fell under New Delhi’s sphere of influence. China’s soft power approach has been largely unchallenged by trans-Himalayan countries that have prioritized access to Chinese investment for strengthening military control and pursuing state-driven infrastructure development in the region (China Brief, November 12, 2020).

The trans-Himalayan states have invested heavily in hydropower dams, including India, China, Nepal, Bhutan, and Pakistan. The pursuit of hydropower has economic drivers, while also serving as a mechanism for state-making and territorialism.[4] A China-India dam race has also played out in third party countries: for instance, one of India’s largest foreign-aid projects is the Mangdechhu hydro-project with Bhutan, representing almost Rs 4,500 crore ($695 million) of investment (Economic Times, April 26, 2019). China, under the aegis of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) foreign policy and infrastructure project, has funded multiple dams in Nepal, including projects like Budhigandaki and West Seti (The Wire, June 22, 2018).[5]

Beijing’s Water Conflict with New Delhi

New Delhi has long worried that the upstream damming of the Yarlung Tsangpo in China could cut off water supply downstream in the Brahmaputra. After news of the new Yarlung Tsangpo project sparked concerns in India late last year, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said, “it is China’s legitimate right to carry out hydropower station development in the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River” (PRC Foreign Ministry, December 3, 2020). Similarly, the Embassy of China in India clarified that Beijing “has always taken a responsible attitude towards the development and utilization of cross-border rivers…Any project will undergo scientific planning and demonstration with full consideration for the impact on the downstream and the interests of both upstream and downstream countries…There is no need to over-interpret it” (Embassy of the PRC in the Republic of India, December 2, 2020).

Nevertheless, New Delhi remains concerned (Hindustan Times, December 3, 2020). The Brahmaputra is necessary both for India’s agricultural economy and renewable energy supplies; managing its flow is critical for the country’s development. New Delhi’s concerns over China’s water management practices date back to the South-North Water Diversion Project (SNWDP), a long-term effort to redirect water from China’s water-rich south to drier regions in the north, first envisaged under Mao Zedong in 1952 and implemented with the promulgation of the State Council’s “Regulations on the Water Supply Management of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project” (南水北调工程公用水管理条列, nanshui beidiao gongcheng gongyong sui guanli tiaolie) in 2014 (Gov.cn, February 16, 2014). New Delhi is anxious that the diversion of substantial volumes of water from the Tibetan plateau watershed could strain India’s agricultural needs in its northeastern provinces; conversely, Chinese mismanagement could lead to overflows and floods in India. Such concerns are not unfounded. In 2000, a Tibetan dam burst resulted in massive flooding in India. India and Nepal have also suffered flash floods amidst a consistent lack of adequate data-sharing on Tibetan glacial lakes and rivers from China (Rediff, July 10, 2000; Harvard Political Review, October 16, 2020).

China’s lack of clarity and communication only add to India’s worries. New Delhi and Beijing share several Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) on hydrological data sharing (see Table 1), and an India-China MOU on data sharing for the Yarlung Zangbo/Brahmaputra was signed in 2002 and renewed in 2008, 2013, and 2018 (Firstpost, January 12, 2020). However, this MOU is primarily focused on providing flood warnings during the monsoon season (May 15 to October 15), and the sharing of critical hydrological data has become politically charged. For instance, during the 73-day-long standoff between the Indian and Chinese militaries at Doklam in 2017, China unilaterally stopped the practice of sharing hydrological data (ORF, December 4, 2019), and only resumed sharing data in May 2018, after meetings between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping along the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) (The Wire, May 17, 2018).

Table: India-China Hydrological Data Sharing MOUs/Mechanisms

MOU/Mechanism Date Key Issue Current Status
MOU on Brahmaputra/Yalu Zangbu River  April 24, 2002 To share hydrological information for flood forecast on Nugesha, Yangcun and Nuxia stations located on Yaluzangbu and Brahmaputra rivers China has been providing flood risks and water level information to India during flood season and the MOU is periodically renewed, most recently in 2018.
MOU on Sutlej/Langquin Zangbo River April 11, 2005 For supply of hydrological information about Sutlej and Langquin Zangbo rivers China has been providing information of any abnormal rise/fall of water level, which could lead to floods. The MOU  was renewed in December 2010 for five years.
MOU on Brahmaputra/ Yalu Zangbu River June 5, 2008 To share hydrological information for flood forecast on Yalu Zangbu and Brahmaputra rivers China shares data of water level of Brahmaputra during flood season (June 1 to October 15), including data from Nugesha, Yangcun and Nuxia stations to India. In exchange, India shares the details of data utilization. The MOU was renewed in May 2013.
MOU on Sutlej/Langquin Zangbo River December 16, 2010 For provision of hydrological information of Sutlej and Langquin Zangbo rivers in flood season by China to India with a validity of five years. Renewed MOU, China has been sharing flood risk data from its Tsada station during flood season (June 1 until end of October) every year.
MOU on Sutlej/Langquin Zangbo River April 2011, 5th ELM meeting Technical details of provision of hydrological information, data transmission method and cost settlement. The 5th Expert Level Mechanism (ELM) meeting discussed technical and implementation details of the renewed MOU.
MOU on Brahmaputra/Yalu Zangbu River October 23, 2013 To strengthen cooperation on trans-border rivers and enhance the provision of hydrological information. Extension of previous MOU. The data sharing dates were changed: China previously provided data from June 1, but after this agreement, China agreed to share flood data from May 15 to October 15.
Implementation Plan of MOU on Brahmaputra/Yalu Zangbu River June 30, 2014 For provision of hydrological information during flood season China shares data of water level of Brahmaputra during flood season i.e. May 15 to October 15 every year, including data from Nugesha, Yangcun and Nuxia stations to India. In exchange, India shares the details of data utilization. The MOU is renewed.
MOU on Sutlej/Langquin Zangbo River November 6, 2015 For provision of technical and hydrological information on Sutlej and Langquin Zangbo River.  Renewed MOU. China has been sharing flood and water level rise related information with India from June 1 to the end of October every year, along with any other abnormalities that it senses during the rest of the year.
Implementation Plan of MOU on Sutlej/Langquin Zangbo River April 13, 2016, 10th ELM meeting For provision of hydrological information on Sutlej and Langquin Zangbo River. Details of the above-mentioned MOU discussed during the ELM meeting. 
11th Meeting of India-China ELM on Trans-border Rivers May 26-27, 2018 For provision of hydrological information on Sutlej and Langquin Zangbo River  Meeting discussed technical and implementation details of the existing MOU.

Source: Author’s research.

The Doklam incident made clear that China views water as a sovereign political tool. Now, with the Galwan Valley clash bringing the India-China ties to a new low, the competition over cross-border water resources has once again become a contentious issue. For China, the dam is also a way to assert its control over the contentious Tibetan region, where it has touted its infrastructure projects and economic development as a means of asserting the legitimacy of its control (Xinhua, May 21). The Yarlung Tsangpo was a crucial determinant in the CCP’s decision to take control of Tibet in 1950 and become an upper riparian country (Lowy Institute, July 23, 2020). Amid China’s more recent aims to develop an “ecological civilization” and become a resource-independent economy, exploiting the TAR’s water resources has gained significance as a matter of national security. Hydrological information pertaining to the Yarlung Tsangpo has become linked to state policy planning and secrecy. For its part, India increasingly sees China as an authoritarian and non-cooperative actor in the contested Himalayan valley.

Mapping Four Future Scenarios

With China’s massive new hydropower project on the politically contentious Yarlung Tsangpo now a strategic priority under the 14th FYP, water politics in the Himalayas requires more acute attention than ever before. There are four possible future scenarios for water cooperation and competition.

First, India and China may forge a cooperative scenario as part of the normalization of ties after the Galwan Valley incident. This would require both countries to build on their current bilateral apparatus and channels —the MOUs and the Expert Level Mechanism (ELMs)—ideally leading to concrete agreements. These could span matters like collaborating on hydropower infrastructure projects, treating the Yarlung Tsangpo river water as a joint transnational energy resource, and initiating a joint action plan for a flood management system that enables early warnings and regular data sharing. This best-case scenario is unlikely under the current conditions: India-China ties have taken a significant downturn, and New Delhi’s trust in Beijing is all but eroded. Although both sides are still engaged in an ongoing border disengagement following the outbreak of violence last year, the larger bilateral relationship remains incredibly distrustful, particularly situated in the broader context of India’s increasing synergy with like-minded allies in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) (i.e., the U.S., Japan and Australia) regarding the need to balance (if not counter) China in the Indo-Pacific.

Second, India and China could enter a consultative scenario wherein they attempt to navigate the water issue through regular consultations, possibly via a multilateral forum with other critical Himalayan stakeholders such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Such a mechanism could be dictated under the United Nations 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Use of International Watercourses (United Nations, August 17, 2014). This is perhaps the best scenario that India could hope for. China has not shown any inclination to enter into consultations and has outright rejected the 1997 UN Convention, but Beijing might be persuaded to start informal stakeholder talks that could eventually be elevated to regular formal talks with concrete outcomes. China has displayed a cooperative outlook towards the Mekong River Basin, likely due to the prominent position Southeast Asia occupies in its foreign policy (RSIS, February 2016). As South Asia becomes an increasing focal point for Beijing (Hindu Business Line, December 17, 2020), there is a chance that China could also be encouraged to act more cooperatively over the Yarlung Tsangpo water sharing issue.

Third, China’s refusal to enter into any kind of dialogue could push both states into a confrontational scenario, in which tensions over the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra water resource will continue to increase. This scenario best describes the current state of affairs. Should such tensions continue, however, India and China could move rapidly towards the fourth scenario, entering a full-fledged water war. This would entail a complete breakdown of communication and arrangements between both states on water issues, potentially alongside a similar decline in security and trade relations.

Conclusion

How the situation plays out will invariably be tied to not only the outcome of the India-China border dispute but also larger regional power dynamics and geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific. For India, the priority must be to maintain open communication and push for negotiations for a water-sharing treaty between China and other South Asian neighbors, particularly involving Bangladesh. Ultimately, the outcome will depend on China’s approach: whether it wants to emerge as a cooperative country or remain tied to its authoritarian, non-cooperative, and hegemonic outlook, solidifying its position of acting as a de facto ‘Himalayan Hegemon’.

Dr. Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. He is the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia,” as well as co-editor/author of the book “Chinese Politics and Foreign Policy under Xi Jinping: The Future Political Trajectory” (Routledge, 2020). He is also the author of “India-China Relations: Politics of Resources, Identity and Authority in a Multipolar World” (Routledge, 2017), and “China’s Path to Power: Party, Military and the Politics of State Transition” (Pentagon Press, 2010).

Notes

[1] See: Hussain Haqqani, “An Integrated Approach to the Himalayas: Report of the Working Group on the Himalayan Region,” Hudson Institute, September 2017,https://s3.amazonaws.com/media.hudson.org/files/publications/HimalayasWorkingPaperFINAL.pdf; and Karunakar Gupta, “The McMahon Line 1911-45: The British Legacy,” The China Quarterly, No. 47 (July-September 1971),https://www.jstor.org/stable/652324?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.

[2] See: Tsering Topgyal, “Charting the Tibet Issue in the Sino-Indian Border Dispute,” China Report, Vol 47, Issue 2,https://www.researchgate.net/publication/241644832_Charting_the_Tibet_Issue_in_the_Sino-Indian_Border_Dispute.

[3] Haqqani, September 2017.

[4] See: Ruth Gamble, “How dams climb mountains: China and India’s state-making hydropower contest in the Eastern-Himalaya watershed,” Thesis Eleven, Vol. 150, Issue 1, February 15, 2019,https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0725513619826204.

[5] See: Galen Murton and Austin Lord, “Trans-Himalayan power corridors: Infrastructural politics and China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Nepal,” Political Geography, Vol. 77, March 2020,https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S096262981930040X.

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