While the Chinese acquisition of military hardware has received much attention of the world, it’s possession of immense power to control the flow of rivers to its neighbours did not receive attention till recently. Dragon is making use of all geographical features for its expansionist designs by introducing man-made changes to its advantage. It created artificial islands turned them into militarised out-posts. For Dragon, water is a strategic weapon to manipulate the behaviour of lower riparian states and a key instrument of its hegemonic game-plan. This is clear from the manner it has built a large number of dams and dikes to control the flow of rivers on the Indus, Brahmaputra and Mekong. It is using for two purposes-first to strengthen its hold in the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) routes and second to use it as a weapon to control the policies of lower riparian states.
China after the occupation of Tibet acquired the starting points for rivers that flow into 18 countries. China recognising this, began to build dams to have the power to control the routes of the flow of rivers and how much water is to be released to the lower riparian states. A report of 2016 mentioned that China had built as many as 87000 dams. These could have included reservoirs and dikes. With these dams and dikes, China could create floods by suddenly releasing water or could create droughts by turning off the tap. It could destroy the river ecosystem as also disrupt the normal course of life of mankind. Indeed, an immense power to control the lower riparian states.
The construction of the Diamer-Bhasha and Buji dams in the Gilgit-Baltistan, an area that belongs to India, is aimed at enhancing its influence on the CPEC region. These two huge dams are part of the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) to bolster the Chinese economic and geopolitical footprints across the swathe of nations. The political context in which the construction is taking place is important. While people there have started a movement against Pakistan, the latter at the behest of China is converting that territory into its province. A part of the Gilgit-Baltistan has already been acquired by China by an illegal agreement with Pakistan in 1963.
China’s plans to have four dams on the Brahmaputra river that would affect the river flows and could turn it into a seasonal river. The Zangmu dam was completed in 2010 on this river. Three more dams at Dagu, Jiacha and Jeixu are at various stages of completion. The Three Gorges Dam has been built to divert water to Xinjiang and the Gansu. India had been getting reports on several dams on Brahmaputra and had lodged complaint to China on this issue in 2013. In the post-Dokalam period, China refused to share hydrographic data with India while it did so with Bangladesh the lowest riparian state. This resulted in huge destruction because of floods in Assam subsequently for which India was not prepared. In the Galwan Valley, the PLA tried to block the flow of water to India. These illustrate China’s open-and-close tap policy used for coercion and ‘punishment’.
This policy is worrying the lower riparian states of the Mekong River in the South-East Asia. The long Mekong River has its origin in the Tibetan Plateau and flows through China into Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. It carries precious silt, making the lower Mekong basin incredibly fertile and the rice bowl of Southeast Asia. The river provides sustenance to approximately 60 million people living in its lower basin.
China has already built eleven huge dams on the Mekong River. There are number of dikes as well. Last year, the Mekong River began to dry. This immensely harmed the lower riparian states. Thailand experience its worst drought in forty years. Thailand’s sugar output touched the lowest level in the decade. Vietnam’s rice-fields suffered with the lack of water flow in the river. However, the satellite photographs revealed the Chinese machination. China used its dams and dikes to stop the water flow down below. There was ample water at the origin of the Mekong River and its reservoirs were full of water. Another dam on the Mekong, Nuozhadu dam didn’t have any water in May 2019 but by April this year, even its reservoir was full.
Crucially, it coincided with the Chinese belligerence in the SCS. Vietnam, which is the most vocal among the disputants and vociferously has rejected the nine -dashed-line of China, is the main victim of the Chinese aggressiveness. Vietnam’s assumption of the ASEAN Chair and UNSC membership has enhanced its influence in the regional and international affairs. It is also seen closer to US, Japan and India which are pushing for the implementation of the PCA Ruling. Thailand has shown interest in the vision for Indo-Pacific. China through this power has harmed substantially Vietnam and Thailand. That the Chinese action of stopping the flow of the river was deliberate and intentional cannot be doubted. It is using it as the key instrument of its expansionist policy and designed to put its rivals on knees.
At a seminar organised “Students For a Free Tibet” on the theme of “Tibet’s Rivers, Asia’s Lifeline” campaign that was started in March 2015 by “Students For a Free Tibet-India”, experts and activists said that by either blocking or releasing water, Chinese dams in Tibet are already directly or indirectly affecting over two billion Asians who are dependent on those rivers.
Some experts assessed that China’s coercive water actions intended to cause division in the ASEAN countries by allowing China to have an iron grip over SCS littoral states. According to them, China is the only country that manipulates river flow with more than its own economic development in mind; to play politics with water-control capability. None can disagree with their assessment.
It is said that the 21st century would witness wars on water, China has in fact initiated it. This demands that an empowered international authority should ensure that the lower riparian states get their due share and the upper riparian states do not mis-utilised their control over the starting points of rivers. The upper riparian states have to behave in a responsible manner. It may be mentioned that India has honoured the terms of the Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan and has never reduced the flow of rivers despite Pakistan’s continued use of terrorism against India.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.