Geopolitics in India China relations is not only limited to land disputes or competition in the oceans but also river disputes such as the one associated with the Brahmaputra basin. The water dispute between the two countries traces its origin to many decades, with China intending to start projects in the Tibetan Plateau surrounding the river since 1958 when Chairman Mao giving ideas regarding the Three Gorges Dam project on Yangtse river which after many years of difficulty, was finally constructed in2006.Following the construction of this dam, the Chinese government turned its focus to the Yarlung Tsangpo river projects, likely driven by challenges of water shortage it faced.
In contemporary times, the divergence between India and China over Brahmaputra is primarily driven by construction of hydropower power projects by China as well as the lack of transparency over hydrological data by the country. As a lower riparian state, India is at a disadvantaged position vis-à-vis China, which possesses the capability constructs dams as well as change the course of the river. These possibilities have direct implications for India’s North East region, where economic opportunities are already scarce. An alteration in the course of the river that feeds large swathes of land in the region could severely impact the residents of these states. Moreover, opaque data practices by China pose additional threats to India’s North East region that is home to many flood prone areas along the Brahmaputra basin.
China at many instances, has undermined India’s interests by not sharing the hydrological data regarding its hydropower projects, where the latter has requested for it numerous times since 2002 with water sharing agreements being signed between the Water resources ministries from both sides in 2013[i] and 2018[ii] for the riparian countries to further strengthen mutual understanding regarding natural resources in the rivers, which have not yet been implemented because of geopolitical differences from both sides. The sharing of hydrological data is necessary for India for keeping a close watch on the levels of floods in vulnerable areas.
It has been observed in an IDSA report[iii] that, China basically undermines India’s reservations on various dam projects being initiated by the former in the western route of the Grand Western Water Diversion Plan. Without consulting India, it has planned to construct dams near the river. It has done so with the construction of the Zangmu dam in 2014.China has also remained non-transparent regarding construction of three dam projects- Dagu, Jiaga and Jiexu, also situated on Yarlung Tsangpo basin.
China’s Leverage In The Brahmaputra
In 2017, when the Doklam crisis took place, China didn’t share any hydrological data at that time for its own political leveraging citing reasons such as floods wiping out one of the hydrological sharing areas.
A water sharing agreement[iv] was signed between India and China in Qingdao in 2018 for the latter to share hydrological data during flood season for the Brahmaputra basin between the months of May and October. Dam construction has led to change in colours of the Siang riverwhich turned blackish grey the same year, where this portion of the river became contaminated and unsafe for consumption, therefore impacting water supplies in the region.
Always it seemed that there has been a slight positive developments in sharing hydrological data with the Indian government from the Chinese side which the latter agreed but these agreements never came into full force. A noted Indian newspaper, New Indian Express highlighted that, the three areas have agreed to share hydrological data on May 15th this year from hydrological stations- Nugesha, Yangchun and Nuxia which are located in Tibet.[v]There have been instances when China has agreed to share details about its hydrological details but for its own security and strategic interests, it has chosen to not declare any crucial details of the same.
China’s Geopolitical Strategy With The Water Flow
China through river diplomacy could put pressure on India to focus more on its national security by deterring its role in territorial claims. It could also be seen as a passive assessing tool of checking India’s strategy which means that China will play its cards when a weaker country is unprepared and the latter losing all any territory or water body. China’s selfish geopolitical ambition to claim South Tibet where the tributary –Siang flows, is another reason behind which it is highly prioritising hydrological river projects.
This policy is being given strategic importance by the Chinese government authorities under the New Foreign Policy initiated by Xi Jinping which lays emphasis on prosperity and security being important for economic development[vi] where the Grand Western Water Diversion Plan[vii] is being used as a way by China to address its water problems giving it a good reason to divert the courses of Yarlung Tsangpo, impacting India, making it difficult to address its concerns.
The water resource strategy is a good example of explaining the silent strategy which China could use for coercing India regarding sharing of waters and territories instead of using armed conflicts. China seems to benefit through this river initiative in terms of economic development and also defence. The MoU signing is process where China is trying to buy time to increase its presence and henceforth, being the main beneficiary while putting India under a period of uncertainty.
[i]“Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Water Resources, the Republic of India and the Ministry of Water Resources, the People’s Republic of China on Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-border Rivers””, Ministry Of External Affairs, October 23,2013, https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/22368
[ii]“India China sign Bilateral Agreements In Qingdao”, Ministry Of External Affairs , June 09,2018, https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/29966/IndiaChina_Bilateral_Agreements_signed_in_Qingdao_China
[iii]Shreya Bhattacharya,” China’s Hydropower Ambitions And The Brahmaputra”, IDSA Backgrounder,, July 23,2018, pp 2-8
[iv] MEA ,2018
[v]PTI,” Amid Border Tensions With India ,China starts sharing Hydrological Data For Brahmaputra River”,New Indian Express, May 16, 2020,https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/may/16/amid-border-tensions-with-india-china-starts-sharing-hydrological-data-for-brahmaputra-river-2143909.html
[vi] Nilanjan Ghosh ,Jayanta Bandopadhyay and Sayangshu Modak , “China India Data Sharing For Early Flood Warning In The Brahmaputra: A Critique”, ORF Issue Brief,Issue 328, December 2019,p. 2