China's unique status as the source of transboundary river flows to the largest number of countries in the world and its water disputes with virtually all riparian neighbors has serious implications for its major south-westerly neighbor, India. Both China and India are major rising powers; both states have exhibited high rates of economic growth; and both states are heavily reliant on natural resources—especially water—for their sustained development. China’s control over the source of major Indian rivers, its construction of mega-dams, its ambitious water management plans, and its rejection of institutionalized water-sharing cooperation creates a potential for serious conflict with India. How can a Sino-Indian water war be averted as China seeks to disturb the status quo on international river flows?
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, and author of Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Georgetown University Press, September 2011), discussed tensions that could result from China’s control over important water sources. Ashley J. Tellis moderated the discussion.
Chellaney described several ways that China has acted as a hydro-hegemon:
Tellis noted that while the water issue remains extremely important, it transcends traditional security disputes between states. He argued that its significance stems from the fact that transboundary water problems lay at the interstice of several larger regional and international issues, including climate change, the character of the international order, and the preferences and actions of states themselves.
Tellis further added that if water was a purely private resource, then reliance on markets would provide adequate solutions in principle; however, since river flows cross borders and are not privately-owned, there is a need for institutions to assure equitable and practical solutions to any riparian rivalry. Chellaney concurred, adding that although there is a desperate need for China to respect the water-sharing status quo, a united front of China’s downstream neighbors is extremely unlikely due to internecine fighting between the downstream states over their own water issues. Both Chellaney and Tellis warned that the water conflict between China and its neighbors has real national security implications, and that it is a problem that will only become worse.
This event is the first in the "China and India: Rising Powers, Rising Risks?" series, supported by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. The next will be "China and India: How to Recognize Rivalry" on September 26th.
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