Hydro-hegemony: China’s Plans for Disrupting Regional Power Balance in Asia

Updated: Apr 15

A cartographic representation of the number of rivers flowing from Tibet to various parts of Asia.

Amidst all the talk of tech and the AI (artificial intelligence) taking over the world, there is a growing uncertainty about how the future world might look like. Speculation is rife with predictions that the country with the most advanced technology would rule the world. There is no denying that it could come true, but in the midst of all this discussion, it could feel like the basic elements that make the earth ‘earth’ are overlooked. Water, for instance.

Despite the earth being composed of more than three-fourth water, only two percent of it is freshwater. To make matters worse, with the help of medical development, the global human population is increasing at an alarming rate with the extension of average human lifespan and reduction in deaths caused by illnesses. From its current population of seven billion, the earth’s human population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100 making the shortage of freshwater even more acute.

Already, several of the world’s largest cities are grappling with a severe shortage of water. From Cape Town in South Africa to Cairo in Egypt, from Beijing in China to Bangalore in India, a combined total of one billion people lack access to freshwater and another 2.7 billion find it scarce for at least one month of the year. A 2014 survey of the world's 500 largest cities estimate that one in four cities are in a situation of water stress.

On top of this dire water crisis, the rising trend in global meat consumption has made the already grim water situation even worse, with fresh water confirmed to become the most sought-after resource in the future. As such, no state will allow its water resources to be compromised in a water stressed world. This has prompted environmentalists to predict that future world wars won’t be over land, technology, or oil, but over water.

Water, however, is an unevenly distributed natural resource. As a result, the availability of water resources such as freshwater lakes, groundwater or even glaciers, often impacts the living and economic conditions of a country or region. Places like the Middle East due to its unique geographical situation lacks cost-effective options to sources of freshwater. This has already led to tensions, and may possibly even lead to aggression in the future. Experts have also linked some of the recent humanitarian disasters like the Syrian crisis, Rwandan genocide and the war in Sudan to water.

Combining the galloping consumption to its rapidly depleting sources, water can cause societies to break down and conflicts could eventually become inevitable in the future. In such a situation, countries with significant water resources can achieve a powerful role in regional leadership.

One way of how that could happen is that countries with significant sources of freshwater like riverheads, can influence the policies of the riparian countries which are dependent on the rivers originating from that specific country. At times of war, river waters can also be weaponized to inflict casualties through sudden release of large quantities of water or incite suffering by restricting its release. Even from the perspective of soft power, water can play a dominant role. Usually, when there is a humanitarian crisis, food or economic aid is the most accepted form of correcting imbalances and garnering an image of a benevolent nation. In a future world faced with severe water crisis, aid in the form of water for irrigation as well as for consumption can help build a positive image. For instance, in 2016, the Delhi state government received a lot of goodwill after it sent a train with half a million liters of water to drought-hit Maharashtra to help the state overcome a severe water crisis which has led to a series of farmer suicides. Water also has a powerful relation to global food prices. If there is a 10 per cent decrease in global production of wheat or rice because of drought, food experts estimate that it could translate into a 50 per cent increase in global food prices. Hence, a water rich country can also impact the global economy.

The Tibetan Plateau – Water Tower of Asia

As freshwater becomes increasingly important to the world economy and security, regions with significant freshwater resources like the Tibetan plateau has become one of the most important places in the world. Situated at an average elevation of over 4000 meters, the Tibetan plateau is the highest and largest plateau in the world. With a total land area of 2.5 million square kilometres and over 46,000 glaciers covering an area of 1,05,000 square kilometres, the Tibetan plateau is often known by many names including the Snow land, Roof of the World, the Third Pole, Water Tower of Asia, among others. It is the largest source of freshwater in the world and has the highest reserves of ice sheets outside of the two poles. The Tibetan Plateau is also the source of most of Asia’s major rivers including Indus, Brahmaputra, Sutlej, Karnali, Yangtze, Yellow River, Mekong, Salween, etc. These rivers originate on the Tibetan plateau and flow into various south and southeast Asian countries such as Pakistan, Vietnam, Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia as well as India and China, the two most populous countries in the world. Over a billion people in these downstream countries depend on these rivers originating in Tibet for their livelihood and sustenance.

Historically, these rivers have played a powerful role in the cultural and societal development of many of these nations. The Yellow River, referred to as the Machu (རྨ་ཆུ་) in Tibet, is called the cradle of the Chinese civilisation. The modern Chinese nation couldn’t possibly have existed without this river flowing from Tibet into China. Similarly, the Yangtze river, known as Drichu (འབྲི་ཆུ་) in Tibetan is the longest river in Asia. Originating from the snowy peaks of Nyechen Tanglha mountain range in central Tibet, it flows through China into the East China sea. This river has also played a major role in the history, culture and economy of China. The Brahmaputra river is extremely important to both India and Tibet. In Tibet, the Brahmaputra is known as the Yarlung River (ཡར་ཀླུང་གཙང་པོ་). Originating near Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar in western Tibet, this river is referred to as the cradle of the Tibetan civilisation. It is along the banks of this river that the progenitors of the Tibetan race supposedly played and began the Tibetan people. The Yarlung river valley is also the site of the first recorded Tibetan dynasty – the Yarlung dynasty – which began with the first Tibetan king Nyatri Tsenpo (c.120 BC). For India, the Brahmaputra is crucial as it accounts for 30 per cent of the country’s freshwater resources and is important for both irrigation and local transportation. Not only is the Brahmaputra considered sacred in Hindu culture, it also has a rare male name when most rivers in the Indian subcontinent are female in nomenclature. The Karnali river also originates near Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar. Known as the Macha Khabab (རྨ་བྱ་ཁ་འབབ་) in Tibet, it is the largest tributary of the Ganga River, perhaps one of the holiest rivers in Hindu culture. The economic and security significance aside, this river has the single biggest impact on the culture and history of India, finding a mention even in the ancient Indian epic ‘Ramayana’. In Nepal, the Karnali is one of the country’s three major river systems. The river is said to be older than even the Himalayas and is known for sustaining not just the agricultural economy but also a wide variety of fauna such as the Snow Leopard, the Royal Bengal Tiger, the One Horned Rhino, the Golden Mahseer Fish, the Longfin freshwater Eel, the Gangetic river dolphin, etc. The Mekong river, known in Tibet as the Dzachu (རྫ་ཆུ་), originates in the high peaks of Dzachuka in eastern Tibet. From Tibet, it flows into six countries including China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, and is said to provide food, water and livelihoods to some 60 million people earning the nickname – the river of sixty million people. The Indus river, known in Tibetan as the Senge Tsangpo (སེང་གེ་གཙང་པོ་), flows from Tibet into Ladakh, Kashmir and then into Pakistan before entering the Arabian sea from Karachi. This river is known for sustaining one of the seven ground breaking ancient civilisations of the world namely the Indus Valley Civilisation (3300 BC to 1300 BC). The river has huge cultural, economic and historical significance in both India and Pakistan. The Salween river, known in Tibet as the Gyalmo Ngulchu (རྒྱལ་མོ་རྔུལ་ཆུ་), originates in the Nyechen Tanglha mountain ranges in central Tibet and flows into Burma and Thailand via China. The Salween river basin supports a large variety of flora and fauna including numerous ethnic groups of southeast Asia whose ancestors supposedly came from the Tibetan plateau just like the river itself.

Given the significance of the Tibetan plateau due to its location as the source of all the headwaters of these major rivers, activities on the Tibetan plateau could have serious ecological and economic impacts on the rest of the world especially the regions lying downstream of these rivers. However, despite social progress and development, the Tibetan people have lived on the fragile Tibetan plateau for thousands of years in harmony with its natural environment based on the principles of its religious traditions and cultural laws. As a result, the Tibetan plateau existed as a pure and pristine realm for millennia until Tibet’s complete invasion by Chinese Communist forces in 1959. With the illegal occupation of Tibet, China has gained control of all these rivers which have hitherto flowed freely without human interference. With the control of these rivers, China now wields enormous power over its downstream neighbours because these rivers serve as a lifeline to millions of people. However, instead of respecting the natural flow of the rivers or taking ethical responsibility as an upstream state, the Chinese government has pursued policies that have resulted in great ecological damage and economic strife. The implications of these policies are now being felt around the world far beyond the artificial boundaries of modern nations and states, which China is also exploiting to its political advantage.

Hydro-hegemony Through Damming of Asian Rivers

Rivers serve as natural lifelines to both humanity and the other co-owners of the earth such as plants and animals. Like all of nature, rivers don’t recognise artificial political boundaries. It flows from upland to lowland just as nature intended. However, since Tibet’s occupation, China has disrupted the natural flow of rivers by the pursuit of a series of ill-conceived environmental and developmental policies such as the Great Leap Forward, South-North Water Diversion project, etc. This has led to a dam-building spree on the Tibetan plateau with disastrous impacts on Asia’s major rivers. China is now home to over 30,000 dams, more than the total number of dams in the rest of the world put together.

Due to these mega dams, many countries especially those in the downstream regions have now started to express serious concerns over the geo-political implications of China’s unnatural appetite for dams. Although China has couched its dam building projects as clean energy initiatives, its downstream neighbours fear that China could use water as a political weapon to pressure them into submission and compliance on boundary, trade, and political disputes.

India, China’s southern neighbour and regional rival, is particularly concerned about China’s recent plans to build a mega dam on the Brahmaputra. This super dam that China is planning in Metok County (historically Tibet’s Pema Koe region) is expected to be much larger than the Three Gorges Dam – the world’s current largest power station. With the completion of this mega dam, China would wield enormous leverage over India and Bangladesh’s water economy and ecology, raising fears that this mega dam could cause mega problems for everyone involved. The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the Brahmaputra basin which includes the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is already the site of ongoing territorial disputes between India and China, arousing not just environmental but also serious security concerns in India.

This concern in the riparian regions over China’s building of dams for geopolitical heft is however not without precedent. In the 1990s, a series of dams built along the Mekong River in China’s Yunnan province have been a source of tension for downstream countries, especially Thailand and Vietnam. As feared by these countries, China used the dams to cut back almost 50 per cent of the Mekong’s river flow in early 2021 causing serious economic strife in Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. A 2019 study by the ecological research and consulting firm Eyes on Earth confirmed China’s use of dams to cause serious droughts along the lower Mekong by holding back large quantities of water. Similarly, there were strong public opposition in Myanmar to a series of dams planned by China on the Salween River.

The ecological and security situation caused by these dams is made even more critical by the fact that, other than India, almost all of the riparian countries in China’s neighbourhood are economically and technologically weak. These countries are also ill-equipped to deal with a sudden and severe water crisis caused by such upstream mega dams. Moreover, China already has a powerful financial and political leverage over these countries, and with its control of freshwater through dams, China now enjoys an asymmetric power over its neighbours. This not only hinders the development of a rules-based regional order in Asia, but also gives China a lot of geopolitical power through the hydro-hegemony that it has established by occupying Tibet.

In such an environmental, economic, and security context, what is happening on the Tibetan plateau is of critical importance to the rest of the world especially Asia. Taking cognizance of the critical matter, the exile Tibetan Parliament passed an official resolution during its third session last month on the situation of Tibet’s environment. It resolved to highlight China’s damming of Asian rivers and apprise world leaders including India’s diplomatic and political leadership on the significance of Tibet’s environment. As the headwater source of Asia’s major rivers, the Tibetan plateau is key to the economic, ecological and geopolitical security in Asia. However, the potential impact of the Tibetan plateau’s environment is still surprisingly unfamiliar to many, perhaps due to the fact that the remoteness, high altitude and harsh weather conditions make research on the Tibetan plateau challenging. China is clearly aware of this fact and is exploiting this challenge to establish its hydro-hegemony and skew the regional power balance in its favour.

Since the Asian continent is already water stressed, it is likely that south and south-east Asia could become the flash point for water wars in the future. In such a circumstance, China’s hydro hegemony based on the control of the Tibetan plateau could spell economic and ecological, not to mention humanitarian, disasters in the region.

{Jamphel Shonu is a recipient of the Tibetan Scholarship Program, with a Masters in International Relations from New York University (NYU). He is currently the editor of tibet.net, the official website of the Central Tibetan Administration, and theTibetan Bulletin, a bi-monthly English magazine published by the Central Tibetan Administration}

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