Tunnel or not, China is using water as a strategic weapon; India may stay indifferent at its own peril

A recent report of China planning to construct a 1000 kilometre-long underground tunnel to divert the water of the river Brahmaputra to its arid Xinjiang province has strengthened persistent concerns about China's bullying behaviour. China has since denied the report but it had issued several similar and vehement denials in the past about building military facilities on South China Sea littoral while in the very process of doing so.

It is being seen as yet another example of China's coercive water diplomacy and further proof that in the 21st century Asia, water will emerge as the biggest strategic weapon. And as an upper riparian state which controls virtually the entire flow of water in Asia, China is in a unique position to wield that weapon.

 Tunnel or not, China is using water as a strategic weapon; India may stay indifferent at its own peril

File image of a Chinese dam. Reuters

To be sure, the plan to develop the parched Xinjiang region — 90 percent of which is inhabitable with Gobi Desert in the north and Taklimakan Desert in the south — by rerouting water from Tibet isn't a new one. The Tibetan plateau is home to nearly all of Asia's major rivers including the Yellow, Yangtze, Salween, Mekong, Ganges, Indus, Irrawaddy and Yarlung Tsangpo — which becomes Siang in Arunachal Pradesh and the Brahmaputra in Assam and sustains virtually the entire northeastern region before meeting the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh.

Chinese plans to redirect the flow from Tibet to Xinjiang and turn the desert province into 'modern California' has long been the subject of futile discussion due to lack of engineering expertise, fragile ecological balance and prohibitive cost estimation of the project. So, what has caused a renewed interest?

According to a report in Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, China has pressed its engineers and scientists into service to build a similar tunnel on the earthquake-prone Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau in southwest China — a region that is as geologically unstable as the Tibetan Plateau.

This comparatively smaller 600-kilometre tunnel (that still comfortably beats the world's longest tunnel underneath New York City that runs for 137 km) will be built over an eight-year period at a cost of nearly $12 billion as a 'test case', using groundbreaking technology and state-of-the-art equipment that is expected to provide a blueprint for the Tibet-Xinjiang project. Scientists hope that once the project takes off, the government will be more amenable towards the master plan.

South China Morning Post quotes a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Rock and Soil Mechanics, as saying that "the water diversion project in central Yunnan is a demonstration project… to show we have the brains, muscle and tools to build super-long tunnels in hazardous terrains, and the cost does not break the bank."

Why should this worry India?

Though the project is still at a conceptual stage, it poses a direct risk to India's sensitive north-eastern region and given the way the Brahmaputra is integral to North East's ecology, economy, livelihood, life and socio-economic well-being, by controlling the river's functionality China will gain a huge strategic leverage over India. A huge, expansive project like this one will vastly improve China's control-capabilities vis-à-vis India, and in the event of any conflict New Delhi will remain perennially vulnerable to Beijing's strong-arm tactics.

This move may be seen in conjunction with China's recent refusal to share hydrological data with India despite a bilateral mechanism whereby Beijing — as the upper riparian state — is expected to share hydrological, meteorological, credible, scientific and specific data on the progress, dispersal and quality of water on Brahmaputra river with India (the lower riparian state).

India, in cases where it is the upper riparian state, shares such data for free with downstream neighbours such as Bangladesh and Pakistan. However, despite paying its pecuniary instalment to China (in accord with the bilateral agreement) it has not received any hydrological data from Beijing this monsoon season.

China has come up with an unimaginative excuse that its hydrological stations are "being upgraded" and hence it is unable to share the data, a lie that is easily busted. A BBC report "has found that China continues to share data for the same river with Bangladesh, the lowest downstream country in Brahmaputra basin".

Punishment for OBOR, Doka La stance

This raises the direct possibility that China withheld crucial information as a policy to punish India's obstinacy in not joining the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and having the gumption to lock horns with it over a patch of land on the Doka La plateau. As a direct consequence of Chinese action, India has suffered devastating floods in Assam.

According to data from Floodlist, in the "third wave of flooding in the state since the start of the 2017 monsoon season, 84 people had lost their lives and 29 districts in the state had been affected by heavy rains and floods (data updated till 6 August, 2017)".

As strategic affairs expert professor Brahma Chellaney writes in Project Syndicate, "China’s cutoff of water data, despite the likely impact on vulnerable civilian communities, sets a dangerous precedent of indifference to humanitarian considerations. It also highlights how China is fashioning unconventional tools of coercive diplomacy."

These are not far-fetched concerns. The South China Morning Post report on the 1000 kilometre-tunnel, which triggered the latest spate of concerns, carries comments from Chinese scientists who show a stunning disregard for humanitarian and ecological costs that such a disruptive project would inflict.

Wang Wei, a researcher who forms part of a team of 100 scientists involved in the gigantic project, revealed that Yarlung Tsangpo river will be drained at Sangri county in southern Tibet, near the disputed border with India, and though the project may witness protests from India and Bangladesh, "it won’t leave a mark on the surface for other countries or environmental activists to point their fingers at," according to the South China Morning Post report.

China's grand strategy

Such hegemonic behaviour on the distribution of freshwater and a rather naked ambition to use all natural resources as foreign-policy tools may justifiably cause alarm in affected nations. One needs only to look at how China has endangered the Mekong river basin through an elaborate network of mega-dams and hydroelectric projects and has driven a wedge through ASEAN nations by its control over water resources. While Laos and Cambodia have benefitted from it, Vietnam's delta basin has been devastated and its primarily agrarian economy that is dependent on water from the Mekong is gasping for breath.

As Rabea Brauer, Frederick Kliem note in their research paper on China's coercive water diplomacy, Chinese actions have fragmented the ASEAN nations and allowed China an iron grip over South China Sea littoral because the warring and competing countries are in no position to present a united front. "China," write the authors, is the only country manipulates river flow "with more than its own economic development in mind; to play politics with water-control capability."

India not only lacks options against such a diabolical adversary, it has so far shown a remarkable lack of seriousness about the threat of a water war. Through its foreign ministry, China has denounced the SCMP report as "false" but its behaviour has so far been consistent with a water hegemon that seeks to establish its unilateralism. India can ignore these developments only at its peril.

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Updated Date: Oct 31, 2017 18:11:57 IST