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Water Hegemony: Examining China’s Hydro-behaviour1 Uttam Kumar Sinha Summary

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Draft Paper. Not for Citation

Water Hegemony: Examining China’s Hydro-behaviour1

Uttam Kumar Sinha


China is a thirsty country in need of a lot of water. It is simultaneously an energy short country. In order to meet its water requirement, it is successively intervening on the rivers through dams and diversions, specifically the Tibetan rivers, which is politically and ecologically sensitive. While China is well within its territorial rights to do so, however a set of externalities involving the principles of water sharing and down riparian needs raise concern over China’s maximalist approach. Angst and anger accompany the lower riparian from Afghanistan to Vietnam forming a crescent of lower riparian countries deeply dependent on the waters flowing from Tibet. Such interventions by China on the rivers can easily trigger natural disasters, degrade fragile ecologies and divert water supplies. By controlling the rivers as it does and by manipulating the waters if it wants to, Beijing can exercise enormous strategic and diplomatic strong-arming. On the eight great Tibetan rivers alone, almost 20 dams have been built or are under construction while some 40 more are planned or proposed. Clearly the Tibetan rivers have potentially strategic implications.


China’s “peaceful rise”2, a phrase propounded with crafty ease by Chinese officials and scholars since 2003, has always intrigued the outside world. The ‘rise of China’ has become near conventional wisdom amongst IR scholars and Chinese experts resulting in a large number of high-quality work examining China’s rise and its implications for the international system. The inquiry continues.3 The questions remain familiar almost now rhetorical: How will China behave as it rises? Will it be responsible and act cooperatively or as it gains military muscle and economic power be confrontationist thereby creating challenges and threats?

The paper queries China’s hydro-behaviour and looks at its actions on the Brahamaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) and the Mekong (Lancang) to infer certain hegemonic tendencies. Through the course of the paper and the analysis that follows, it can, with some understanding, be concluded that China’s policies on the transboundary rivers does not indicate to the ‘peaceful’ nature of its rise. In fact, there seems to be a great deal of ‘hydro-arrogance’, ‘hydro-aggression’ and ‘hydro-egoism’. There are indicators that confirm to this and the paper will delve into it specifically. One strong pointer is China’s hydrobehaviour towards Tibet. The hydro-relevance of Tibet suggests that it is the lifeline of China. This frames Beijing’s maximalist orientation towards harnessing the water resources and therefore dams and diversions are engineering process towards mitigating its food and energy requirements and overcoming its uneven distribution of water.

Large shifts of water from Tibet will continuously form part of China’s development plans – it’s an unquestionable necessity but also has strategic significance as the Tibetan plateau is the source of Asia’s 10 major river system meandering to 11 countries that includes the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Irrawady, Salween and Mekong. About 2 billion people stretching from Afghanistan to the Ganga-Meghna-Brahmaputra basin in South Asia to the Mekong in the Southeast depend on the rivers. The reason for China’s intransigence on Tibet is clear – water. Tibet’s vast water resources is key to sustaining China’s northwest region, revitalising its deserts and the Yellow river itself, as well as being crucial to its Himalayan Strategy. China’s need and the water requirements of the other down riparian countries sets up a contesting and conflicting situation often prompting analysts to say that ‘China’s thirst will leave others thirsty’.

China’s rise not being peaceful can have various connotations. In relation to water issues, given its enormous requirement, China will be far less accommodative and in the realist sense “guardian of its own security and independence”.4 This makes China a “rational egoist” interested in its own utility as well as a “defensive positionalist” firm in maintaining relative capabilities. Therefore one needs to continuously inquire the impact of China’s actions particularly on the peripheral states which it always considers as being rivals.

In the regional context China’s ascendancy has far reaching significance than from a Western perspective that views China’s rise as a challenge to a ‘Western-dominated international society’. Some of the Western writings, particular the English School, are largely pessimistic about China’s ability to “continue rising peacefully”. Others more specifically argue that the peaceful rise in the next 30-years will be challenged by domestic reforms and cracks will emerge as China transits from a command to a market economy. These arguments are well circulated and contested and make the debate on China’s rise fascinating.

Like it or not, China does matter.5 It is home to a 1/4th of the world’s population but finds itself with disproportionately less arable land, water and oil. Its economy while galloping at a pace that is undoubtedly impressive6 has left a telling impact on the environment. There are limits to China’s resources that can match its ability to be self-sufficient in food. Being food secure equally means optimising the water resources. A hungry China is equally a thirsty China. It is a compelling reminder that no engagement with China can afford to ignore its resource dilemmas.
Nature of Transboundary Rivers

Transboundary rivers originating from, flowing through and draining into territorially defined boundaries are a significant part of the freshwater biome, contributing roughly 60 per cent of world’s freshwater excluding the Antarctica.7 There are about 260 river basins home to 40 per cent of the world population with roughly 145 sharing agreements/treaties in existence.8 Clearly the rivers make the international system positively busy with an array of cooperation and shared benefits. However, rivers display a peculiar tendency that can be referred to as the ‘unsettlement of the settled’. Water relations can never be permanently settled since flows in river are not constant. The flows in turn are determined by seasonal variations and usage particularly those that are non-consumptive in nature. Also, interventions and diversions on rivers impact flow. Political relations therefore can easily swing according to the changing quantitative and qualitative nature of the river.

Varied interpretations on the use of river have resulted in differing claims between riparian countries.9 ‘Limited Territorial Sovereignty’, however, allows each riparian state to use the flow of the shared rivers within its territory provided such utilization does not impinge on the rights of the co-riparian. that nations are entitled to “reasonable share of water”. But since there is no legal-binding international treaty on water sharing, riparian relations will remain hostage to individual states’ current needs and future requirements.10 As major parts of the globe experience high-level of water-stress, riparian relations will get contentious.

While rivers are visible yet they are not transparent. This relates to the difficulty in monitoring and measuring the flows and as such the lack of knowledge prompts suspicion and creates conflictual positions. Since rivers physically link upstream and downstream users, knowledge can also be ‘constructed’ to suit the riparian state interest. The possession or capture and control of water resources can result in aggressive tendencies and can readily translate into power and dominance. Water thus can assume hegemonic attribution. Project MUSE® - View Citation

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Alex Liebman. "Trickle-down Hegemony?: China's "Peaceful Rise" and Dam Building on the Mekong." Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 27.2 (2005): 281-304. Project MUSE. Web. 25 Apr. 2011. .

Always review your references for accuracy and make any necessary corrections before using. Pay special attention to personal names, capitalization, and dates. Consult your library or click here for more information on citing sources.

Alex Liebman. (2005). Trickle-down hegemony?: China's "peaceful rise" and dam building on the mekong. Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 27(2), 281-304. Retrieved April 25, 2011, from Project MUSE database.

Always review your references for accuracy and make any necessary corrections before using. Pay special attention to personal names, capitalization, and dates. Consult your library or click here for more information on citing sources.

Alex Liebman. "Trickle-down Hegemony?: China's "Peaceful Rise" and Dam Building on the Mekong." Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 27, no. 2 (2005): 281-304. (accessed April 25, 2011).

Always review your references for accuracy and make any necessary corrections before using. Pay special attention to personal names, capitalization, and dates. Consult your library or click here for more information on citing sources.


T1 - Trickle-down Hegemony?: China's "Peaceful Rise" and Dam Building on the Mekong
A1 - Alex Liebman
JF - Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs
VL - 27
IS - 2
SP - 281
EP - 304
Y1 - 2005
PB - Institute of Southeast Asian Studies
SN - 1793-284X
UR -
N1 - Volume 27, Number 2, August 2005
ER -

Always review your references for accuracy and make any necessary corrections before using. Pay special attention to personal names, capitalization, and dates. Consult your library or click here for more information on citing sources.

Project MUSE® - View Citation

  • MLA

  • APA

  • Chicago

  • Endnote

Alex Liebman. "Trickle-down Hegemony?: China's "Peaceful Rise" and Dam Building on the Mekong." Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 27.2 (2005): 281-304. Project MUSE. Web. 25 Apr. 2011. .

Always review your references for accuracy and make any necessary corrections before using. Pay special attention to personal names, capitalization, and dates. Consult your library or click here for more information on citing sources.

Alex Liebman. (2005). Trickle-down hegemony?: China's "peaceful rise" and dam building on the mekong. Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 27(2), 281-304. Retrieved April 25, 2011, from Project MUSE database.

Always review your references for accuracy and make any necessary corrections before using. Pay special attention to personal names, capitalization, and dates. Consult your library or click here for more information on citing sources.

Alex Liebman. "Trickle-down Hegemony?: China's "Peaceful Rise" and Dam Building on the Mekong." Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 27, no. 2 (2005): 281-304. (accessed April 25, 2011).

Always review your references for accuracy and make any necessary corrections before using. Pay special attention to personal names, capitalization, and dates. Consult your library or click here for more information on citing sources.


T1 - Trickle-down Hegemony?: China's "Peaceful Rise" and Dam Building on the Mekong
A1 - Alex Liebman
JF - Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs
VL - 27
IS - 2
SP - 281
EP - 304
Y1 - 2005
PB - Institute of Southeast Asian Studies
SN - 1793-284X
UR -
N1 - Volume 27, Number 2, August 2005
ER -

Always review your references for accuracy and make any necessary corrections before using. Pay special attention to personal names, capitalization, and dates. Consult your library or click here for more information on citing sources.

Power and hegemony

The paper coneptualises the role of hegemony and power in transboundary water to understand the power asymmetries and the hegemonic nature of transboundary water relations. Steven Lukes’ study on power is a common tool of analysis in understanding state’s behaviour.11 Some studies have already applied power and hegemony to transboundary water particularly while analysing the hydro-relations between Turkey and Syria on the Tigris and Euphrates and Ethiopia vis-à-vis Egypt on the Nile.12 This paper does so in relation to China.

Power is not easy to define and highly contested. It is “less about what power is than about what power does.”13 Lukes description of three dimensions of power is interesting when approached through water.14 The first form of power being the state’s military and economic superiority or ‘structural power’ also referred to as ‘hard power’. It can be reasoned that states riparian position and its control of water can fall under structural power. Here the hydro-hegemon can employ structural power in a coercive way. The second form of power refers to setting the agenda, dictating the discussion and ability to shift the goal post. The stronger party gives very little choice or option to the weaker party. This is referred to as the ‘bargaining power’.15 The third form of power occurs when the hegemon takes the initiative of depoliticising the issue and becomes a kind of a guarantor and regulator of affairs, a ‘dean’ or ‘guide’ so to speak. This is referred to as ‘ideational power’ or ‘psychological power’.16 Mark Zietoun and Jeron Warner describe hydro-hegemony as “hegemony at the river-basin level achieved through water resource control strategies such as resource capture, integration and containment. The strategies are executed through an array of tactics (e.g. coercion-pressure, treaties, knowledge construction, etc.) that are enabled by the exploitation of existing power asymmetries within a weak international institutional context.”17 Eventually all international river basins are determined by ‘who gets how much water, how and why?’18

China’s continued water development, now witnessing a rapid pace with successive interventions on the rivers, is in pursuant of its internal compulsions and therefore self-driven. It, however, does not find it necessary to take into consideration the concerns of its downstream neighbours. China’s upper riparian position gives it the hydrological advantage to use and control the waters the way it wills. This allows for enormous power (structural). Power also determines who the hegemon is. Recently, Wen Jiabao in an interview to Malaysian and Indonesian media stressed on the fact that China would never seek hegemony when it becomes a developed country.19 Such statement of calm and assurance is typical of China and Wen is the perfect PR man. However, one cannot discount China’s deception and dismiss the fact that it will not strive to become a regional hegemon (domination).20

China’s effort to dominate Asia has to be understood from two important features of Asia: continental and maritime. To be a true hegemon, China will have to dominate over both the continental and the maritime. It’s continental domination, first having filled the space left by the collapse of the Soviet Union its prime continental challenger, is now solidly secure with the control of the waters of the Tibet. China’s maritime dominance continues to be challenged by countervailing powers like the US in Asia’s littoral and India in the Indian Ocean.21 It can be argued here that China’s continental hegemony is predominantly hydro-hegemony. With roughly 10 major rivers flowing out of China’s territory to 11 countries and none coming in, it’s a resource dominance of unimaginable proportion. With such control, what can China do? First, its disproportionate water hold gives it the capacity to coerce the weaker riparian. As a hydro-hegemon it can set and dictate the agenda for all riparian. It can also determine the knowledge that is included and exclude the hydrological information by ensuring that any information used enhances the hegemon’s case and not that of a weaker party contestation.

Chinese civilization and water management

Chinese civilization like many of the early civilization flourished around the mighty river systems of the Yellow and the Yangtze. These great rivers also accompanied with it widespread deluge and destruction, “…rising to the heavens with their swell.”22 While the society respected water as nature’s gift it also acknowledged its destructive force. The history of Chinese civilization in many ways is a history of hydraulic engineering, canal building and water conservation. Modern day projects such as the Three Gorges and the SNWP (South-to-North Water Project) carry a distinct Chinese tradition of taming the rivers which goes back to nearly 5000 years when Yu the Great of the Xia Dynasty (2205 BC) also referred to as Da Yu (Mighty Yu) dredged the vast floodplains of ancient China. Legend has it that Yu created Sanmenxia (now a city in western Henan province of central China) by cutting the Longman mountain into three ridges with a divine battle axe to control the floods of the Yellow river. Yu’s period symbolized the beginnings of Chinese water projects and water control. The Great Yu’s control of the floods is cast as ‘courage’ and ‘struggle’ of the labouring people against the elements of nature. Looked from a Chinese political philosophy, it bears a certain class imprint and thus part of the popular political consciousness.

Some of the most famous water projects of ancient China include the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, the Ling Canal and the Grand Canal. The Dujiangyan Irrigation System, built in 3 century BC on the Min river, a major tributary of the Yangtze, is regarded as the oldest water project in the world and listed as a UN World Heritage Site.23 It still serves the Chengdu inhabitants. Li Bing who built the project acquired a mythic status representing mans struggle against the forces of nature and its ultimate triumph. Bing left behind a legacy of water planners and builders who are revered and commemorated in China. The Ling Canal and the Grand Canal represents engineering feats of connecting rivers. The Ling Canal completed in 214 BC is probably one of the oldest canals in the world linking the Xiang and Li rivers both tributaries of the Yangtze. The Grand Canal built over 2000 years ago and still functioning, is an engineering marvel that connected the rivers Hai, Yellow, the Huai, the Yangtze and the Qiantang to form a great aquatic artery from north to south with a total length of 1794 km running from Hangzhou to Beijing.24 It is also interesting that China's recently revived political direction of building ‘a harmonious society’, ‘harmony with nature’ and a ‘harmonious world’, all Confucian concept, does not comply with its current water projects. It seems that for China the challenge is not just ultimate environmental security, but immediate and medium-term survival.

Thirsty China: Overview of the water resources

According to the Water Resource Ministry, the total amount of water resources in China in 2007 was 2469.6 billion m3, of which the surface water resources were 2,376.4 billion m3.25 The figures become very interesting when we observe that the amount of water that flowed into Chinese territory from outside was only 15.7 billion m3. In comparison, the water that flowed out of the territory was 569.9 billion m3. Also to note is the fact that the water that flowed into the boundary rivers was 67.4 billion m3 and water that flowed into seas was 1,435.3 billion m3.26 China has much in total volume of water resources but less in per capita volume. The available water resources per capita was 1,869 m3 in average. What is to be noted is that the total amount of water resources is decreasing. The amount of total water supply in 2007 was 578.9 billion m3, of which surface water was 470.4 billion m3 (81.2 per cent) and groundwater 105.8 billion m3 (18.3 per cent).27

China is expected to face 25 per cent supply gap for projected water demand by 2030 with two-thirds of its cities already facing difficulty in accessing water. Having put in place the structures as part of its strategic objective, China in December 2010 made a decision to accelerate reform and development of water resources, known as the No.1 Document in 2011. The document focuses on three ‘red lines’: over-exploitation, usage efficiency, pollution.28

These facts suggest that China is water insecure and its insecurity primarily relates to the disproportionate availability or uneven distribution of waters within its territory – the majority of which is in the south (Tibet) with the north and west excessively water stressed. The region south of the Yangtze river, which accounts for roughly 36 per cent of Chinese territory, has 81 per cent of water resources. The territories north of the Yangtze, where much of water is required, make up 64 per cent but have a meager 19 per cent of water capacity.

Without Tibet, China’s hydrological supremacy would be overturned from being entirely water-independent to water-dependent. Had it not been for Tibet, China would not have been the world’s most independent riparian country.29 In fact Beijing’s total control over Tibet in effect is the ‘total’ control of the water resources. ‘Absolute territorial sovereignty’ over the waters gives an added strategic sharpness to China’s regional approach. The classic lines, “He who holds Tibet dominates the Himalayan piedmont; he who dominates the Himalayan piedmont, threatens the Indian subcontinent; and he who threatens the Indian subcontinent may well have all of South-East Asia within his reach, and all of Asia,”30

China has no significant bilateral riparian treaties on any water allocation or water utilization,31 an indication of it being hydro-hegemonic. Its Water Resource Ministry website, however, states “…that China has built cooperation relationships with more than 60 countries, and signed water cooperation agreements and memorandum of understanding with 40 countries.”32 In fact, China was one of the three countries33 that did not approve of the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Waterways.

In order to overcome this hydrological unevenness, projects like the ‘south-to-north water diversion’, first proposed by Chairman Mao in 1952 to ease water shortages in cities like Beijing and Tianjin, is a national priority. In fact Mao had made a seemingly innocent remark: “the south has a lot of water, the north little…if possible, it is OK to lend a little water.” Since then it has prompted a breed of Chinese leadership who think hydrologically. Many of the top leadership today are hydraulic engineers and technocrats including Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.34

The south-to-north project which started in December 2002 was designed to take water from China’s largest river, the Yangtze, to the arid northern regions. It is expected to be completed by 2050 and would eventually divert about 44.8 billion cubic meter of water to the north annually.35 The northward-bound water has three routes - an eastern route, a middle route and a western route. The project started with the construction of the eastern route in 2002. The construction of the middle route followed in 2003 which will come into service after 2014’s flood season. It is expected to handle 9.5 billion cubic meters of water annually.36 By the end of 2010, 115 billion Yuan had been spent and 40 projects were started making a new annual record.37 The western route is controversial owing to political and strategic ramification for China’s riparian neighbours particularly on the Mekong and the Brahamaputra. However, in spite the sensitivity, China has not stated that it will not go ahead with the western route. Though still in the planning stage, it involves working in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (3,000m–5,000m above sea level). Once completed in 2050, the western route project will bring 4 billion cubic metres of water from the Tongtian, Yarlung and Dadu rivers across 500km to northwest China.

More than anything else, the water shortage becomes an impediment to China’s goal of meeting food production and questions the leadership claims to self-sufficiency in food grains. Water deficiency, prolonged drought and below average rainfall in the nine provinces (including the six major wheat producing provinces) of the northern and eastern region have resulted in a surge of grain imports not experienced in the last 15 years.38 Reduced self-sufficiency is dangerous for a country with a population as large as China and therefore its search for water becomes an unending imperative often desperate and aggressive.

Electricity is equally crucial in China’s economic development. With a GDP growing at the rate of over 10 per cent a year, China’s energy requirement is projected to increase by 150 per cent by 2020.39 Its ever increasing demand for energy requires it to look for various sources. While resource rich in coal and a net importer of oil, both climate unfriendly, China is compelled to develop its hydroelectricity as a clean and renewable source. China has already half of the world’s large dams including the Three Gorges. Its exploitable hydropower is estimated to be around 378GW with an annual power supply of 1.92 trillion KWh.40 Huge hydroelectricity projects for energy and water diversion schemes for food sufficiency are strategic measures to China’s growth path.

On the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra41

China has been successful in damming the Yarlung Tsangpo on November 12, 2010.42 The 510 MW Zangmu hydroelectricity power station being built on the middle reaches of the Yarlung between the counties of Sangri and Gyaca is equivalent to the entire existing hydropower generating capacity in Tibet.43 As a long-term objective of capturing the flow, China has ensured that no free flowing rivers exist in Asia. Yan Zhiyong, general manager of China Hydropower Engineering Consulting, has been quoted as saying: “By about 2020 most of China’s hydropower projects outside of Tibet will have been completed, and the industry’s focus will shift to the Jinsha, Lancang, the upper reaches of the Nujiang river and the Yarlung.”44 The riparian dynamics is set to get far more contentious and controversial with greater nervousness among the lower riparian.

Studies carried out by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ put the Yarlung hydropower potential second only to the Yangtze but the highest in terms of power-generating potential per unit of length. The hydropower development is expected to lead to a development boom with increased activities in mining and rapid growth in road and railways. The Zangmu dam marks a beginning of a new era in Chinese engineering and construction capability.

It was only in the last decade that the Chinese leadership has focused its attention on river development plan in Tibet. Earlier it was low-key and mostly about Tibetan self-sufficiency. But with new studies revealing larger hydropower potential of 114 gigawatts on the Yarlung basin including a possibility of 38-gigawatt hydropower facility at the Great Bend in Medog county (equal in power to the Three Gorges),45 the Chinese leaders have now a water mine to exploit.46 Chinese hydro-obsession as seen in the Three Gorges will drive mega projects on the Yarlung. Small-to-medium hydro power stations do not excite the Chinese leaders. Many 40-50 MW project on the Yarlung were not carried out because of river-silt issue and displacement concerns. The hydropower plans on the Yarlung comes at a time when other infrastructural development has taken place or will soon be completed. By 2012 the electricity grid in Tibet will be connected to the national grid through Qinghai. The Qinghai-Tibet railway has now made it possible to move materials for building large dams on the Yarlung. The Chinese now have a clear policy direction on the Yarlung and with energy supply becoming ever more pressured, the time and condition is ripe to develop the rich hydropower resources of Tibet and a no-holds-bar approach to taking total and complete political control of Tibet.

The most disturbing and controversial project is the Shoutian or “reverse flow” Canal, announced by Jiang Zemin in 1999 as the “xibu da kaifa” (the Great Western Extraction). The plan proposes to transport 206 billion m3 of water from the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahamaputra) or roughly 33 per cent of the flow into the Yellow river and then supplied to the northwestern part of China.47 The fact that these great transfers and projects have been conceived by the Chinese army – the brainchild of Guo Kai a general in the PLA – adds to some misperception of military design though it cannot be doubted that such projects are “from a supply first mentality”, that ensures supplying water for heightened food production.48

Guo Ki inspired Li Ling's book How Tibet's Water Will Save China, detailing the Shoutian Canal as the solution to chronic water shortages in China's dry north and northwest. The plan proposes: “a dam at Shoumatan Point will back up water that will plunge 2,000m through 15km of tunnels near Dagmo and discharge through 26 of the world's biggest turbines into a tributary rejoining the riverbed and reservoir of the storage dam north of Medog. At twice the capacity of Three Gorge's, the 40GW pumped storage facility will be the world's largest hydroelectric facility. After diverting the original 33 per cent, the volume of returned water determines residual river flow from the holding dam.”49

Over the years, China’s great technology leap in the area of water development has given it strategic width in the region. While it is easy to damn the dams, however convincing the argument is, such structures and the benefits accrued is an attraction for development. China’s expertise and knowledge on dam building helps to enhance its power and influence and importantly weaken lower riparian coalition.
On the Mekong/Lancang

On the Mekong, China is only a dialogue partner in the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which was formed by the concerns of four lower-riparian countries – Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam in 1995. 22 per cent of the river is located in China and withdraws 26 per cent of the waters annually from the Lancang (Mekong). Though China’s non-binding participation in the Mekong basin has increased, it is unthinkable that it will join MRC as an active member. Sitting on the sideline and being non-committal to any formal arrangement gives China the power to observe and comment without any binding role or responsibility. Moreso, China’s hydropower development on the Lancang (Mekong) is typically based on little information and no transparency. China plans 15 dams on the river of which at least two will be of mega-size. The Xiaowan dam is to be completed in 2012 and will be the second only to Three Gorges. Clearly the dams will have widespread impact on the down riparian states. Also, the western route of the ‘south-to-north’ diversion project involves diverting water from the upper Lancang to the Yangtze river. The Mekong lower riparian countries remain suspicious of China’s power game and upstream hydroelectricity projects. China as the upper riparian player would like the water debate in the lower Mekong basin to be intensified between the lower riparian states just as it likes the water debate in Pakistan and Bangladesh to be directed and contested with India, without highlighting its own hydroelectricity plans either on the Indus or the Yarlung Tsangpo or the Lancang. For China not being transparent on its dams is a ploy, despite the fact that under international law countries downstream of a river are entitled to be fully informed. China’s dams and water diversions are important components of its hydro-hegemony. On the one hand it can be an effective bargaining tool when dealing with countries like India with whom it has testy political relations. On the other hand, hydro-diplomacy through partnership on dam construction and infrastructural development helps it to widen and deepen its influence and weaken lower riparian coalition.

Out of the 15 dams planned, the Chinese have started work on eight dams on its territory, the Chinese companies have also started constructing two hydroelectricity dams in Cambodia, one of the downstream basin countries. Lower riparian countries like Cambodia have much to lose by being too critical of China’s dam construction, and would rather receive billions of dollars from China into the country’s infrastructure. China’s expertise and knowledge on hydrology and dam construction helps to enhance its power. Laos hydro-power potential is the highest in the lower Mekong basin states. Sensing that the Chinese dams are unstoppable, the government plans to build a series of 9 dams including the Xayaburi. With dams flow controversies and discord is going to intensify. The Xayaburi brings in direct conflict with Vietnam and Laos over fear of low flow and sediment. Vietnam is the world’s leading rice producer and hence the concern is pitched high. Thailand has a larger stake in the Mekong basin in the sense of being the lead country in initiating the MRC, which was also signed in Bangkok. As the prime mover of this much lauded river cooperation amongst the lower riparians, Thailand would like to facilitate sustainable development and to follow the principle of ‘equitable utilization’.

The dam race will leave behind a trail unending consequences with China conducting the philharmonic on the upper reaches. China’s dam-centric approach has an underlying message that these engineering feats are essential to the livelihood of millions of people. China’s uncompromising position on dams and diversion will only result in a dam spree in the lower riparian countries.

Counter hydro-hegemony strategy

Power asymmetry is a fact of realpolitik but it need not be completely subjugating. Counter-hegemonic tactics and strategies can turn a disadvantaged riparian party into a position where it can change the rules of the game or bring in a level of parity. However, dealing with a superior riparian player requires a thought-through approach. China’s hegemonic path is currently ‘dominance by coercion’. In the next 30-years it would aspire to be a regional leader buttressed by authority and respect. Also it must be noted that China has been successful in effectively mixing ‘cohesion and compliance’ with ‘attraction and intimidation’, what Gramsci called “a mix of force and consent”.

To counter-balance China’s hydro-hegemony, it is critically important to understand its intentions and accordingly frame policies that are not reactive but perceptive. For one, China understands it supreme riparian position, another it frames it strategically. India, given its power parity is the rightful counter-balancer in spite its position being a lower riparian. A parallel can be drawn to Ethiopian counter-hegemonic strategies against Egyptian hegemony on the Nile.

A typical recourse is to advocate the principles of international water law, however non-binding they are. Raising concerns through such norms alerts and sensitises the international community in spite the fact that issues of ‘equitable utilisation’ and ‘limited sovereignty’ are always difficult and uncomfortable to agree upon. The principle of ‘information exchange, notification and consultation’ is crucially important with China given the nature of the dams and water diversions. For example, withholding data on the flows of the rivers or plans to build storages or dams or projects that divert water comes under the ‘no harm rules’. India’s own water sharing structures with its neighbours– Pakistan and Bangladesh– are quite exceptional and takes due consideration of the ‘no harm rules’. There is a high moral ground here that India can take but for that it has to shirk off its defensive stance over China’s water development on the Tibetan rivers for which India also has a rightful use.

Importantly, India is not one-river downstream with China. This makes India’s riparian relations with China exceptional and critical. India is multi-river dependent on the Brahmaputra on the east and the Indus and the Sutlej on the west. The Ganga which originates in India has nine tributaries joining it from Nepal, three of which Karnali, Gandaki and Kosi arise in Tibet. Some figures indicate that about 354 BCM of water flow into India from the Tibet of which 131 BCM is accounted for in the Brahmaputra (the low-end figure is 78.10 BCM). It is important for India to draw China into a dialogue on water issues and consistently raise hydrological concerns at bilateral meetings. But critically for India is the fact that it has to articulate its middle riparian position to change the perception in the neighbourhood that India is a ‘water hegemon’.

A perceptive response that India should undertake is to increase its storage capacity. Water storage per person (in cubic meter) in India is about 200. The US has roughly 6000 and China almost 2500. India needs to strengthen its storage capacity to a reasonable and sustainable level based on proper environmental impact assessment and not entering into a dam race with China on the Yarlung/Brahamaputra. This is important, as India needs to take into consideration the concerns of Bangladesh. India’s counter diplomacy should be to isolate China as an unreasonable upper riparian at the regional and global level.

Any counter strategy with China has to be well nuanced and not always framed in the legalistic sense. Some would argue that India should play the power game through managing and engaging China.50 This holds significant political value when dealing with China on the Tibetan water resources. By raising the question, however contesting it might be, that should China alone be the stakeholder to the waters in Tibet, gives India the opportunity re-consider its Tibet policy. Rajiv Sikri notes: “India could state that it considers Tibet, as an autonomous region, to be a part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China – the implication being that it is only if Tibet is a truly autonomous region that India recognises it as a part of China.”51 If China wants to keep its relationship with India adversarial then India should keep its Tibet policy ambiguous. Sujit Dutta says: “India’s repeated reiteration that Tibet is a part of China has not helped to clinch the territorial bargain. There has neither been corresponding reciprocity from China nor has it helped in building trust. India thus needs to nuance its current strategy.”52

Tibet has also to be seen from an ecological perspective and the glacial melting has added new concerns and challenges. There are crucial sustainability and ecological issues that can potentially affect millions of people downstream. Raising water resources in Tibet as a ‘commons’ would draw international attention and possibly prompt China into a water dialogue with the downstream countries on ways to preserve and share the benefits of the waters of Tibet.53 It needs to be remembered that China has a strong environmental constituency with activists, scientists and journalists, despite odds, sensitising local people and authorities to ecological concerns. Tibet’s ecology has been a key issue for civil society and powerful environmental groups like the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to campaign for Tibet as a vulnerable area to be protected from rampant resource exploitation. In fact in 2003, a 7.1 million hectare in Yunnan province, where upper reaches of the Yangtze, Lancang and Nujiang run parallel was declared a World Heritage in 2003. Interestingly, China has ratified the Convention on the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage which was adopted by the UNESCO in 1972.54


China’s upper riparian position and its enormous domestic requirement gives water a strategic characteristic in the region and as such different level of trust and mistrust; cooperation and misperception are seen. China values water and its utilisation as fundamental to its development; the greatest achievement being to lift more than 400 million people out of abject poverty in three decades through economic growth at breakneck speed. It will need to continue with that and therefore will continue wanting water. China perceives its peripheral states as potential rivals. Stability in the region would significantly depend on the stable supply of water. Suggesting the Tibetan rivers, as ‘commons’, is clearly anathema for the Chinese leadership. In a realist perspective, China’s water development approach in Tibet is unilateral giving little space for dialogue and accommodation and bound to affect downstream riparian both in terms of water flow and ecological consideration. A coalition of lower riparian coming together specifically to draw China into a water dialogue is conceivable in spite the fact that many of them have a strategic partnership with China.

In brief, China’s privileged riparian position gives it enormous strategic latitude by deploying structural power in a coercive mode. Also it can use power over the bargaining process to greater effect during times of negotiations. China can also use its power to force through contentious issues; to firm up deals (as in dams) and to impose ideas for example that its water predicament is reasonable and uncompromising.

1 This paper builds on the earlier paper presented at the IDSA Asian Security Conference 2011 in February titled “Himalayan Hydrology and the Hydropolitics”

2 ‘Rise’ gave a negative connotation and the Chinese leaders deliberately changed it to ‘Peaceful Development’ of China in 2005.

3 See Barry Buzan, ‘China in International Society: Is “Peaceful Rise” Possible?’, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 3(1), 2010, pp 5-36. See the correspondence ‘Debating China’s “Peaceful Rise”?’, between Zhang Xiaoming and Barry Buzan, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 3(4), 2010, pp-447-460

4 J. Spanier, Games Nations Play: Analysing International Politics, 3rd edition, New York, Praeger Publishers, 1978, p.11

5 A phrase taken from Gerald Segal’s, “China Does Matter”, Foreign Affairs, vol.78, no. 5, 1999, pp-24-36

6 Since 1978, China has averaged 9.4 per cent annual GDP growth, one of the highest growth rates in the world. It’s impressive because in 1978 it accounted for less than 1 per cent of the world economy. However it can be argued whether China’s development has been broad and even. See Zeng Bijian, “China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’ to Great Power Status”, Foreign Affairs, Sept-Oct, 2005

7 IUCN Report: “Share: Managing Water Across Boundaries”

8 Ibid. Also see, Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database, Oregon University.

9 Riparian nations, are those nations “across which or along which a river flows, have legal rights to use the water of river”, Law, International Water.

10 While this is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (1997), it is not binding because the Convention is not in force with only 22 countries have ratified it. To come into force it requires 35 countries. The UNGA approved the UN Convention by 104-3 in 1997. There is also the “no-harm rule” in the convention, which states riparian nations to take all “appropriate measures” to prevent causing harm to other watercourse nations.

11 Steven Lukes, Power: A Radical View, Second edition, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005

12 See in particular, Marwa Doudy, “The Water Divide between Syria, Turkey and Iraq: Negotiation, Security and Power Asymmetry, CNRS Editions, Paris

13 S. Guzzini, “The concept of power: a constructivist analysis”, Millenium: Journal of International Studies, 33(3), 495-521.

14 The London Water Research Group (LWRG) led by Mark Zietoun and JA Allen at the LSE and SOAS since 2005 have through the participation of experts examined and interrogated the concept of power and hegemony to transboundary water. The LWRG applied Steven Lukes concept of power. See Mark Zietoun and JA Allan, “Applying hegemony and power theory to transboundary water analysis”, Water Policy 10 Supplement 2, 2008, p.7 Also see, Keith Bowding, “Three-dimensional Power: A Discussion of Steven Lukes’ Power: A Radical View”, Political Studies Review, Vol 4, 2006, pp.136-145

15 Zietmoun and Allan, Ibid. p. 8

16 Ibid, p.8

17 Mark Zeitoun and Jeroen Warner, “Hydro-hegemony: A framework of analysis of transboundary water conflict”, Water Policy, 8, 2006, p. 435

18 Ibid, p.435

19 “China will never seek Hegemony, Says Premier Wen, Malaysian National News Agency,

20 China for sometime has been viewed as a ‘potential hegemon’ and as John Mearsheimer notes only seek to achieve domination when the costs are low, “Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War”, International Security, Vol 15, No. 1, 1990, p. 37. Orville Schell writes in Asia Society about how to work with a more combative China. See,

21 See Paul HB Godwin, “China as a Regional Hegemon”,



24 Ibid

25 All the data and figures are from the Ministry of Water Resources, People’s Republic of China, Annual report 2007-2008, pp 9-10.

26 Ministry of Water Resources, People’s Republic of China, Annual report 2007-2008, pp 9-10.

27 Ibid

28 CSCAP Meeting on ‘water resources security’ in Hanoi, March 23-24, 2011. Presentation by Zhou Shichun, deputy secretary general ESCIR (Ecosystem Study Commission for International Rivers)

29 ‘Independent’ in terms of rivers originating in its territory and not being ‘dependent’ on the headwaters from other countries.

30 See George Ginsburg and Michiel Mathos, Communist China and Tibet: The First Dozen Years, Martinus Nijhoff, 1964

31 Except for being a dialogue partner in the Mekong River Commission (MRC). The Lancang River begins in the northeastern side of Tanggula mountains in Qinhai province, flows through Tibet into Yunnan province, and is called Mekong River when it flows out in Mengla county in Yunnan province. Mekong runs all the way through Myanmar, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam and empties into the South China Sea near Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. Lancang-Mekong River is 4,880.3 kilometers long; the section of Lancang River in China is 2,161.1 km long. So far, 25 major projects have been listed: 14 projects inside China, 4 inside Laos, 4 along the borders of Laos and Thailand and Laos and Cambodia and 3 projects inside Cambodia. These dams are estimated to produce 70 per cent of China’s current electricity needs.


33 The other two were Turkey and Burundi

34 Hu Jintao was a hydraulic engineer having worked on the construction of Liujiaxia Hydroelectricity station in the 1960s. Wen Jiabao professional background is in geology and engineering.

35 See south-to-north water project,

36 Xinhua news report, April 27, 2011 in Ministry of Water Resources, The People’s Republic of China, (accessed on April 30, 2011)

37 Xinhua, January 24, 2011

38 See People’s Daily online,

39 Gal Luft, “Fueling the Dragon: China’s race into the oil market”,

40 See,

41 The Yarlung originates in the Jima Yangzong glacier near Mount Kailash in Tibet and enters into Arunachal as Dihang. It then flows southwest through the Assam valley as Brahmaputra and south through Bangladesh as the Jamuna. There it merges with the Ganges and then splits into two the Padma and the Meghna to form a vast delta, the Sunderbans.

42 He Haining and Jiang Yannan, “A new era for Tibet’s rivers”, Chinadialogue,

43 Ibid. Zangmu will be the fourth in a row of five on the Sangri to Gyaca stretch of the river. Several well-known Chinese hydropower firms have already made their way into Tibet.

44 Ibid


 Chinese research and study have always delved into the possibility of building the world’s largest hydropower station in Tibet. For example, Chen Chuanyou’s article, “Could the World’s biggest hydropower station be built in Tibet?” in Guangming Daily in 1998. In 2002, Chen published another paper in Engineering Sciences looking at the positive impact of the hydro development in the Great Bend in south-east Asian region.

46 See Chinese 11th Five Year Plan (2006-2010),

47 MS Menon, “China’s power play”, The Tribune, January 28, 2011. Also see Jonathan Watts, When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind, London” Faber and Faber, 2009. See Diverting the Brahamaputra, Arthur Thomas, posted May 2, 2008, Australia e-journal of social and political debate,

48 Molly Walton, “The Importance of Ecological Security for Protective Security”, Josef Korbel Journal of Advanced International Studies,, p.61

49 Diverting the Brahamaputra, Arthur Thomas, posted May 2, 2008, Australia e-journal of social and political debate,

50 Sujit Dutta, “Managing and Engaging Rising China: India’s Evolving Posture”, Washington Quarterly, 34(2), 2011, pp.127-144

51 Rajiv Sikri, “India needs to change its Tibet policy”, rediffnews, March 27, 2008,

52 Sujit Dutta, “China’s High Risk India Gamble”, IDSA Comment, September 3, 2010,

53 Uttam Kumar Sinha, “Tibet’s watershed challenge”, The Washington Post, June 14, 2010

54 See,

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