An article in today’s FT describes another arena in the Asian Great Game: water. The writer is also the author of Water: Asia’s New Battleground, and as the article notes, China’s “construction of upstream dams on international rivers such as the Mekong, Brahmaputra or Amur shows China is increasingly bent on unilateral actions, impervious to the concerns of downstream nations.”
China already boasts both the world’s biggest dam (Three Gorges) and a greater total number of dams than the rest of the world combined. It has shifted its focus from internal to international rivers, and graduated from building large dams to building mega-dams. Among its newest dams on the Mekong is the 4,200 megawatt Xiaowan – taller than Paris’s Eiffel Tower. New dams approved for construction include one on the Brahmaputra at Metog (or Motuo in Chinese) that is to be twice the size of the 18,300MW Three Gorges – and sited almost on the disputed border with India.
These actions have put China at loggerheads with each and every one of its neighbors, but Beijing just doesn’t seem to care. China consistently rejects international water-sharing treaties and refuses to negotiate bilateral or multilateral agreements.
The looming struggle over water is not difficult to foresee. As China and South Asian countries use more and more water in urban development and agriculture, available resources will be intensely protected. China controls the vast Tibetan plateau, where most of South Asia’s rivers originate. Not only does China appropriate upstream resources, but pollution flows downstream, making what water downstream nations have available increasingly unsuitable for consumption or agriculture.
This looks less like a deliberate attempt to antagonize or intimidate neighbors than like a reflection of the economic development lobby in China compared to the power of the Foreign Ministry. One suspects that China’s diplomats couldn’t restrain local interests from exploiting water resources and building dams if they tried. Students of the Great Game will be watching attentively to see whether the advantages of faster domestic development will offset the cost of tenser relations with neighbors.