Brahma Chellaney is the author of Water: Asia's New Battleground, which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.
While international attention remains on China's recidivist activities in the South China Sea's disputed waters, Beijing is also focusing quietly on other waters – of rivers that originate in Chinese-controlled territory such as Tibet and flow to other countries. As part of its broader strategy to corner natural resources, China's new obsession is freshwater, a life-creating and life-supporting resource whose growing shortages are casting a cloud over Asia's economic future.
By building cascades of large dams on international rivers just before they leave its territory, China is re-engineering cross-border natural flows. Among the rivers it has targeted are the Mekong, the lifeline of Southeast Asia, and the Brahmaputra, the lifeblood for Bangladesh and northeastern India.
With the world's most resource-hungry economy, China has gone into overdrive to appropriate natural resources. On the most essential resource, freshwater, it is seeking to become the upstream controller by manipulating transboundary flows through dams and other structures.
Just as the Persian Gulf states sit over immense reserves of oil and gas, China controls vast transnational water resources. By forcibly absorbing Asia's "water tower," the Tibetan Plateau, in 1951, it gained a throttlehold on the headwaters of Asia's major river systems. Its actions in more recent years have sought to build water leverage over its downstream neighbours.
For example, China has erected eight mega-dams on the Mekong just before the river leaves its territory, and is building or planning another 20. The dams give China control over the flow of water and nutrient-rich sediment essential to the livelihoods of 60 million people in Southeast Asia. With its clout, Beijing has rejected the treaty-linked Mekong River Commission and instead co-opted the vulnerable downstream nations in its own Lancang-Mekong Cooperation initiative, which lacks binding rules.
Similar unilateralism by China has fostered increasing water-related tensions with India, many of whose important rivers originate in Tibet.
In 2017, in violation of two legally binding bilateral accords, China refused to supply hydrological data to India, underscoring how it is weaponizing the sharing of water data on upstream river flows. The data denial was apparently intended to punish India for boycotting China's Belt and Road summit and for last summer's border standoff on the remote Himalayan plateau of Doklam.
The monsoon-swollen Brahmaputra River last year caused record flooding that left a major trail of death and destruction, especially in India's Assam state. Some of these deaths might have been prevented had China's data denial not crimped India's flood early-warning systems.
Even as Beijing has yet to indicate if it would resume sharing data this year, a major new issue has cropped up in its relations with India – the water in the main artery of the Brahmaputra river system, the Siang, has turned dirty and grey when the stream enters India from Tibet. This has spurred downstream concern in India and elsewhere that China's upstream activities could be threatening the ecosystem health of the cross-border rivers in the way it has polluted its own domestic rivers, including the Yellow, the cradle of the Chinese civilization.
After staying quiet over the Siang's contamination for many weeks, Beijing claimed on Dec. 27 that an earthquake that struck southeastern Tibet in mid-November "might have led to the turbidity" in the river waters. But the flows of the Siang, one of the world's most pristine rivers, had turned blackish grey before the quake struck.
China has been engaged in major mining and dam-building activities in southeastern Tibet. The Tibetan Plateau is rich in both water and minerals.
As China quietly works on a series of hydro-projects in Tibet that could affect the quality and quantity of downstream flows in South and Southeast Asia, it is apparently still toying with the idea of rerouting the upper Brahmaputra river system. An officially blessed book published in 2005 championed the Brahmaputra's rerouting to the Han heartland. Recently, a Hong Kong newspaper reported that China now plans to divert the Brahmaputra waters to Xinjiang by building the world's longest tunnel.
Beijing has denied such a plan – just as President Xi Jinping denied in 2015 that China had any plan to turn its seven man-made islands in the South China Sea into military bases.
China is already home to more than half of the globe's large dams. To deflect attention from its continuing dam-building frenzy and its refusal to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any neighbour, China has bragged about its hydrological-data sharing accords.
Yet it showed in 2017 that it can breach these accords at will. The denial of hydrological data to India actually underscores how China is using transboundary water as a tool of coercive diplomacy.
Such is China's defiant unilateralism that, to complete a major dam project, it cut off the flow of a Brahmaputra tributary, the Xiabuqu, in 2016 and is currently damming another such tributary, the Lhasa River, into a series of artificial lakes.
The cause of the Siang River's contamination can be known only if China agrees to a joint probe with India, including a scientific survey of the river's upper reaches in Tibet. That is the only way to get to the bottom of this contamination that has choked aquatic life.
Make no mistake: China, by building increasing control over cross-border water resources through hydro-engineering structures, is dragging its riparian neighbours into high-stakes games of geopolitical poker over water-related issues. In waging water wars by stealth, China seeks to hew to the central principle enunciated by the ancient military theorist Sun Tzu – "all wars are based on deception."