Water Diplomacy and China

Water Diplomacy is the new area where the governments of various countries need to step up and work in tandem to solve the ever increasing fresh water crises. Asia has less fresh water per capita than any other continent, and it is already facing a water crisis which if continued further, will intensify into severe water shortages expected by 2050. At a time of widespread geopolitical discord, competition over freshwater resources could emerge as a serious threat to long-term peace and stability in Asia.

Already, the battle is underway, with China as the main aggressor. But how is the Chinese dragon spreading its tentacles over its Asian neighbours?

Water Diplomacy | China Front


  • Chinese territorial grab in the South China Sea has been accompanied by a quieter grab of resources in transnational river basins.
  • China enjoys a unique riparian dominance with more than 110 transnational rivers and lakes flowing into 18 downstream countries. Reengineering cross-border riparian flows is integral to China’s strategy to assert greater control and influence in Asia.
  • China has also the world’s most dams, which it has never hesitated to use to curb cross-border flows. In fact, China’s dam builders are targeting most of the international rivers that flow out of Chinese territory.
  • Most of the Chinese internationally shared water resources are located on the Tibetan Plateau, which it annexed in the early 1950s. China’s 13th Five-Year plan calls for a new wave of dam projects on the Plateau which would further regulate downstream flow of river water to neighbouring countries.
  • China recently cut off the flow of a tributary of the Brahmaputra river, the lifeline of northern India and Bangladesh, to build a dam as part of a major hydroelectric project in Tibet. It is also building another dam on a Brahmaputra tributary to create a series of artificial lakes.
  • China has built six-mega dams on the Mekong river, which flows into Southeast Asia (Indo-China region specifically), where the downstream impact is already visible. Instead of curbing its dam-building, China is hard at work building several more Mekong dams.


  • In arid regions of Central Asia, the water supplies are coming under further pressure as China appropriates a growing volume of water from the Illy River. China is also diverting water from the Irtysh, which supplies drinking water to Kazakhstan’s capital Astana and feeds Russia’s Ob river.
  • Chinese energy, manufacturing and agricultural activities are sprawling in Xinjiang province (Uyghur dominated region). This industrialisation is causing contamination of waters of the region’s transnational rivers with hazardous chemicals and fertilisers, just as China has done to the rivers in its Han heartland.

 Water Diplomacy | Way forward for India

Indian Foreign Policy 2

  • There is a strong need for the affected countries to come together at one table to discuss this serious issue and how to combat it collectively, effectively and in the least confrontational manner.
  • Sporadic and disjointed views will not serve anyone’s interests; therefore, each nation shall directly raise the matter directly at bilateral level in terms of Beijing to restrain its infrastructure building and diversion of transnational river water resources.
  • At the level of India, we should make it clear to Chinese leadership that ‘freedom of navigation’, lower riparian cause of the states should be adhered in line with the international laws and agreed upon conventions.
  • If there is a negative response in bilateral negotiations, we shall utilise multilateral forums like the United Nations, ASEAN, BRICS, SCO etc. to raise the issue without resorting to a policy of being a spoilsport to avoid resistance from other members.
  • India needs to join hands with few of its friendly countries such as Japan and OECD to work in tandem with them to ensure that the Chinese muscle flexing through its so-called water diplomacy could be circumscribed at the earliest.

 Water Diplomacy | Conclusion

The race to appropriate water resources in Asia is straining agriculture and fisheries, damaging ecosystems, and fostering dangerous distrust and discord across the region. It must be brought to an end. Asian countries need to clarify the region’s increasingly murky ‘hydropolitics’. The key will be effective dispute-resolution mechanisms and agreement on more transparent water-sharing arrangements. Asia can build a harmonious, rules-based water management system. But it needs China to get on board. At least for now, that does not seem likely.


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