The present controversy surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, especially to the Tawang Monastery, a revered symbol of Tibetan Buddhist tradition, is not a stand-alone episode of bilateral bickering between antagonist neighbors India and China, but part of a larger strand of strategic powerplay underscored by factors such as disputed borders and Shared water resources – the usual culprits – that make up the central architects.
The Tibetan plateau situated in China, also referred to as “The Water Tower of Asia” is the source of major rivers flowing into South and South East Asia. Home to the largest freshwater reserves outside of the Polar eco-systems, the ten rivers originating in the region straddle various countries, servicing its over 1.5 billion inhabitants. While a means of regional integration for certain neighbors, the trans-boundary nature of the rivers is a source of conflict for others.
The Brahmaputra River meandering through China and India, eventually emptying into the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh, is one such river causing friction amongst all three recipients, especially India and China. At the heart of the conflict lie strategic and Security considerations, including food and livelihood security, in a region riddled with tenuous fault lines. What exacerbates the calculus further is the border disputes between the two countries, especially the region in the vicinity of the Brahmaputra River – referred to as ‘South Tibet’ by China and Arunachal Pradesh by India. The two countries have already been to War over the region in 1962.
China’s claims over the region stem from the desire to put an end to Tibetan nationalism, more so as the dissident spiritual leader Dalai Lama is based in India. The present Visit of the Dalai Lama was vehemently opposed by China in a departure from the former’s previous visit in 2009, precisely because the Dalai Lama, due to advancing age, was expected to anoint a successor. If the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama were to take place from a traditionally Tibetan region falling beyond the direct control of China such as Tawang, it would entail yet another generation of Tibetan dissent against China.
The region being located at the cusp of four international borders also provides strategic vantage. India on the other hand claims to be heir to the McMahan Line agreement signed in 1914 between British India and Tibet, demarcating the boundary between India and China. China rejects the notion on the pretext that Tibet was not sovereign at the time, hence didn’t have the authority to conclude such treaties. The region also acts as a buffer for India, providing it Strategic depth, especially in terms of its volatile North-East region.
The border disputes have further fueled misgivings between the two neighbors, especially India’s threat perceptions regarding China’s leverage as the upper riparian, a position it feels can potentially be utilised as an instrument of aggression both politically and strategically against India downstream. Added to this are dynamics such as Climate Change, melting glaciers – one of the fastest in the world, depleting aquifers, fluctuating precipitation patterns, heat waves and excessive flooding which have aggravated existing hydro-political fault-lines. Expanding economies, water-intensive irrigation practices and a burgeoning middle-class with increased domestic demand have also accelerated the region’s progression towards one of the most water-stressed hence water-antagonist regions in the world.
China’s dam building and diversion ambitions on the Brahmaputra River have also piqued India. A dam burst in May 2000 in Tibet triggered a flash flood downstream in Arunachal Pradesh causing widespread loss of life and key infrastructure. India was infuriated. A lack of hydrological data meant India was unaware of the approaching floods. The event further raised the specter of frequent flash floods and additional silting in the river downstream, while also providing credence to Indian fears regarding China’s capacity to create droughts at will, by storing water upstream in dams, during key harvesting season downstream in India.
The commencement of the Zangmo hydro-electric dam by China in the middle reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra’s name in China) in 2008 further generated apprehensions within India. India perceived it to be a step towards the eventual diversion and drying up of the Brahmaputra River. China’s withholding of hydrological data, which it deemed its internal matter, only intensified speculation of the coming water conflict between the two states. The recent blocking of a tributary of the Brahmaputra amidst India’s revisit of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) with Pakistan, seemed to have confirmed Indian misgivings. Within the milieu of China’s envisaged China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC) which links its North-West Province of Xinjiang with Pakistan’s strategic southern deep-sea port of Gwadar, any tinkering with the IWT could result in serious consequences for CPEC with many of its constituent schemes dependent on the rivers covered by the treaty. This new dynamic has realigned the strategic calculus of the region in general and its hydro-politics in particular, enabling china a steady encroach upon significant stakeholder positioning within the region.
In the wake of Indian reservations, China continues to defend its position by contending that it only plans to build run-of-the-river dams for electricity generating purposes with little impact on India’s water security downstream. While not a direct threat to Indian security, run-of-the-river dams can however cause grave ecological disturbances in the long term and compound the impact of floods such as the one in Uttarakhand in 2013 which was triggered by a cloudburst.
The ‘Grand Western Water Diversion Plan’ by China aimed at diverting water at the Great Bend towards China’s arid northern region is yet another cause of concern for India. The Brahmaputra River makes up 30 per cent of India’s water supply. If China proceeds with the project, it could significantly decrease both the quantity and quality of water flowing into India. According to Ramesh Bhattacharji, a former Indian bureaucrat, even if the plan does go ahead, India would have little to worry about as the Brahmaputra receives 70 per cent of its flow from tributaries and rainfall from within India. However, Ramaswamy Iyer, former Secretary of Water Resources with the Government of India, asserts that the aforementioned flow in the Brahmaputra only occurs during monsoon seasons and as little as a ten per cent change in the flow can have detrimental consequences for India. Fortunately for India however, the huge financial and environmental costs of the project could compel a revisit and probable stalling of the project, at least for the time being.
China on its part too is wary of Indian plans to build dams on the Brahmaputra River in its state of Arunachal Pradesh which China claims as a part of “South Tibet”. It perceives the Indian plans as a means of establishing its rights, especially “first use rights” over the state’s waters. For India, not only will it consolidate its legal (and strategic) claims over the territory but also stabilize unrest ridden neighboring states such as Assam, by helping control floods and generating additional hydro-electric power. China fears this will enable India greater foothold in the region and complicate already complex mechanisms of conflict resolution over their disputed borders. In this regard, the PLA’s (People’s Liberation Army of China) earlier incursions across the LAC (Line of Actual Control) into Arunachal Pradesh were aimed at deterring India and asserting its claims over the region. It’s pursuit of the strategic Doklam Plateau in neighboring Bhutan is also part of its larger scheme to acquire critical advantage over India especially in terms of territories it claims as part of “South Tibet”.
Keeping in mind the intricate nature of the discord, an institutionalized mechanism of dispute management needs to be put in place between both states. A way forward, limited not just to improved diplomatic communication but also, greater environmental, resource and human security has to be navigated. In the immediate term, greater communication and transparency by way of all-year hydrological data-sharing and exchange of information on infrastructure development like dam construction etc. should be adopted. In the longer term however, both countries along with the lower riparian Bangladesh need to develop effective and innovative frameworks of resource management, such as the Nile Basin Initiative – an intergovernmental partnership of Nile basin sharing countries aimed to “achieve socio-economic development through the equitable utilization of common Nile Basin water resources”. Such an arrangement over the Brahmaputra if followed through sincerely could with time lead to an International treaty on water-sharing management – the relatively ‘low lying fruit’ and ultimately become the precursor for a more receptive and deliverable process of dispute resolution over the two countries contentious borders.