The Geopolitics of Water in China-India relations: The Yarlung-Zangbo/Brahmaputra conflict

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The Geopolitics of Water in China-India relations: The Yarlung-Zangbo/Brahmaputra conflict

The Geopolitics of Water in China-India relations: The Yarlung-Zangbo/Brahmaputra conflict

Miquel Vila Moreno Asia, Energy security and climate impact 29/09/2018 Comments

Access and control over natural resources have been a central element of international conflicts. In the Asian context, freshwater is increasingly gaining strategic importance. China faces serious problems of freshwater supply due to its large population and its costly process of industrialization and modernisation in terms of environment. Nevertheless, in this regard, China has an important advantage over its neighbours, because of the fact that several great Asian rivers have their sources within its current borders.

Growing population, urbanization, the consequences of climate change – droughts, natural disaters – and desertification are all challenging the provision of freshwater all around the world. According to the High Level Panel on Water report, only 2.5% of world’s water can be consumed by human beings, and by 2030, there would be a 40% shortfall of water availability. Besides, the distribution of freshwater resources and population is far from balanced and is constantly affected by human actions. In highly populated and developing or new industrialized countries such as China, India, Nigeria or Egypt, among others, the demand of freshwater is increasing, while per capita water availability is coming down due to pollution and mismanagement. Scarcity of resources usually intersects with previously existing problematics – like sectarian and ethnic tensions –contributing to the emergence of new international conflicts in the 21st century.

Water conflicts which focus on transboundary rivers sometimes these go beyond the access to drinkable water. Issues such as energy security, freedom of access or freedom of navigation are also involved in these conflicts. In this way, a zero-sum game could appear when we talk about river’s water as a commodity, that means, the gain of one part are seen as the lost of the other. At this stage is when conflicts are more likely to escalate and difficult to settle. In this regard, China’s control over the source of major rivers of Asia has a dramatic impact in its bilateral relations with one of its main geopolitical rivals, India, with whom it shares a transboundary river, the Yarlung-Zangbo/Brahmaputra. In this analysis, the author explores the importance of China’s hydric resources in its international relations with its neighbours, focusing on the case of China-India relations and the Yarlung-Zangbo/Brahmaputra conflict, and bearing in mind not only China’s position as an upstream country that it gives leverage over India, but also the fact that the source of the river is located in the Tibet, a conflictive area for China.


Within its current boundaries, China has the sixth largest water reserves of the world with 2812.4 km3 of annual water reserves. Nevertheless, its yearly water per capita availability is 2100m3 which is a quarter of the global average. China’s population growth has prompted an increase of water demand during the last decade. Besides, the fast process of industrialisation has polluted part of China’s subterranean waters. That is a relevant problem at the core of China’s food security taking into account a likely scenario with a shortage of drinkable water and the use of 82% of China’s freshwater for the agriculture sector. Furthermore, water is unevenly distributed along China’s territory, being the South the richest area in freshwater sources, on the one hand, and the North, in the other hand, the one with more demand, specially, in rural areas where 300 hundred millions of inhabitants deal with water scarcity.


Despite all these challenges, China gets a significant advantage over its neighbours due to the fact that only 1% of its water sources comes from other countries. In fact, we should pay attention to which part of the river controls each State in order to understand transboundary river conflicts. Thus, upstream countries, which host the source of the river, have the upper hand over downstream ones, which host parts of the river’s course, because their actions can modify the entire river’s flow. That gives China not only its independence on freshwater provision, but also the power of influence over third states. This is why China has been defined as an upstream” superpower.

However, the source of major China’s and Asian rivers are concentrated in a very specific region, the Himalayan Plateau in the Tibet province. From a Chinese point of view, Tibet is a conflictive province with a prominent pro-independence movement which is considered one of the main threats in terms of national security by Chinese authorities. Hence, the fight against Tibetan separatist movement is not only a matter of territorial integrity and sovereignity, but also a matter of food security due to the strategic importance of Tibet for China’s water provision and hydric power.


Regarding with which attitude has China approached the advantages of its control over freshwater in its regional relations, Beijing has usually maintained a pro-sovereignty foreign policy approach regarding the rivers that are born in its territory. Thus, China does not allow any foreign actor to limit its room of manoeuvre over its rivers and has refused to join multilateral agreements. China does only deal with river issues bilaterally. For instance, China is not a member of the Mekong’s River Commission, although the Mekong source is located in China. However, China has not taking advantage of its position to pressure its neighbours until now. China cooperates with the riparian countries of the Mekong. Nevertheless, for China, the Mekong is essentially framed as a resource for hydropower and as a transportation route. Indeed, China shares a common interest with the riparian states of the Mekong to not modify its water flow and course. Besides, the asymmetry of power between China and its Mekong neighbours allows China not to be concerned of any threat that would required a more assertive approach.

On the contrary, a different scenario surfaces in the case of China-India relations regarding their transboundary rivers. Thus, the Yarlung-Zangbo river, the Brahmaputra when it enters in India, is one of the main rivers in Asia. Its source comes from the Tibetan plateau and the river crosses through China, India, and Bangladesh creating, along the Ganges, the productive agricultural area of the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta. At present, China-India relations are strained. Despite the fact that China and India work together and cooperate in some fields within frameworks such as the BRICS or the G20, they perceive each other mostly as rivals in the Asian context, militarily and economically. In this way, China has implemented a regional foreign policy in order to isolate India by strengthening ties with Pakistan and Bangladesh during last years. For instance, it is commonly known how India has been detached from the major projects within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). On the other hand, India has increased its cooperation with Japan, Australia and the U.S. in the framework of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quad. Furthermore, India has endorsed the idea of the “America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Vision” launched by Donald Trump’s administration last July, which aim is to counterbalance the Chinese BRI.


For a better understanding of the conflict regarding the management of the Yarlung-Zangbo/Brahmaputra transboundary river, we should highlight the root of the border dispute between China and India. The Sino-Indian border conflict is one of the few land border reclamations that China has not been able to settle peacefully. It comes from the agreement of 1913-1914 signed between British colony of India and a representation of the self-proclaimed Tibetan independent authority. The treaty redrew the border between Tibet and India along the called Mc Mahon Line, which ceded the region of Arunachal Pradesh to British India. It does not need to be said that, neither Chinese Republican or Communist authorities have never accepted the treaty because it was signed by a non-recognized Tibetan government. Nowadays, the mere act of accepting to negotiate any concession from the Chinese side, tacitly it could imply to recognize the existence of an independent Tibet in the past. As a matter of national interest, Beijing cannot afford any movement involving the Tibetan province and, in fact, it makes this issue an unsolvable obstacle for settling the conflict in short-mid term. Precisely, the Yarlung-Zangbo’s flow goes through this contested border.

For India, the Brahmaputra means the 29% of its surface freshwater provisions, linked to the development of the agriculture sector in the Brahmaputra-Ganges Delta. Furthermore, it is also the source of its 44% of hydropower. This is a crucial issue in terms of energy security for a newly industrialized country like India. On the other hand, for China, the Yarlung-Zangbo is a vital river due to its water flow, even though its course does not cross any agriculture-rich land, neither it is used as a transport waterway. In this way, the Yarlung-Zangbo is regarded as an underexploited source of freshwater in case of a water scarcity scenario. This is why several influential actors, among them the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) along with the most nationalist wings of the Communist Party of China, advocate and support a project of diversion of waters from the Yarlung-Zangbo river as a solution for the water scarcity that hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens are facing. Indeed, an increasing tension between China and India would surely improve the PLA influence on Chinese politics and its Defence budget.

Actually, in 2002 China announced a divert project from the Yarlung-Zangbo, as part of the “South-North Diversification project”, which already diverts water from the Yangtze, the Han and the Huai rivers – in the south – to the Yellow River – in the north-. Furthermore, there have also been plans to build a dam to produce hydropower for China that would surpass the Three Gorges Dam. Nevertheless, the cost of such infrastructure projects is difficult to afford, even for China, and for now, despite these announcements, any step forward has not been taking for its materialisation. A project of these characteristics is only possible on the long term, which could give India enough time to react to China’s movements in the area. However, China has developed other projects like the Zangmu dam in the upstream of the river, which operates since 2015. In addition, China expects to build up a total of three similar projects, causing the concern of the Indian government. Despite data sharing agreements in this issue included in three memoranda of understanding between China and India in 2002, 2008 and 2013, the accountability of the data provided by China is contested by India’s authorities.


As a result, China and India face a conflictive bilateral relation with divergent views and aims for the hydric resources of the Yarlung-Zangbo/Brahmaputra river. In this sense, both countries are likely to deal with substantial challenges related to freshwater scarcity due to their large populations in the future. This is why in a time of necessity both will need to rely heavily on the river’s water reserves. Besides, this case intersects with other problematic issues between China and India such as territorial claims and a crescent geopolitical rivalry. In this case, it seems that a zero-sum game is more prone to be imposed than a cooperative one. What makes it another troubling element in an already complicated bilateral relation between China and India, a multifactorial rivalry due to the intersection of territorial, geopolitical and economic factors.

How likely is that a conflict over the Yarlung-Zangbo/Brahmaputra could turn into an open war? Not much, at least if we pay attention to its regional and global implications in terms of cost and benefits for both actors. Neither of them can currently afford an exposed flank that would focus most of their respective defence and diplomatic resources. In addition, China is not in a position to engage in massive infrastructure projects for diverting the Yarlung-Zangbo due to logistics and security reasons. Beijing is aware that any major diverting project in this river could face an overall response from the Indian counterpart due to the crucial importance of the Brahmaputra river for agriculture and energy sectors and the freshwater provision of India.  Hence, it is unlikely that this concrete issue could trigger a major conflict between both countries in the short-mid term.

On the other hand, a more realistic scenario may be the emergence of regular, but minor and limited, crisis related to the Yarlung-Zangbo/Brahmaputra river. China is able to develop less ambitious projects that could have minor effects on the flow of the river. Through these projects, China could use the Yarlung-Zangbo to gain leverage against India in multilateral or bilateral negotiations, as the BRICS, to claim a lower India’s cooperation with Washington, to influence over the Pakistan issue, or to force New Delhi to stop supporting Tibetan nationalists, among other issues.


Control over water sources is becoming a matter of national security for many states with highly populated areas, China and India among them. Despite being considered a country which suffers from water scarcity, China has a strategic control over hydric resources in the South Asian area. In this way, China argues that the streams of its transboundary rivers are a matter of its territorial sovereignty, even though it could affect third countries. However, Beijing is aware of the impact that its actions on these rivers could have in its regional relations, a issue it takes into account in its foreign and domestic policies. Despite of this, China defends and claims its rights over the rivers that are born in its territory. Besides, other previously existing frictions with the riparian states affects  Beijing’s approach. This is the case of the Yarlung-Zangbo/Brahmaputra river as has been presented.

In short and mid-term it appears that this case is going to be at the most a recurrent source of conflict in an already complex scenario. Nevertheless, in the long term all options remain open and on the table. As long as China’s freshwater demand increases and water scarcity continues, more voices internally could demand a significant distribution of Yarlung-Zangbo’s water to the areas of China where it is more needed. In coming years, analysts should keep tracking the evolution of the Yarlung-Zangbo/Brahmaputra river conflict, where geopolitical rivalries, competition for scarce resources and regional power, and the Tibetan question encounters. Taking into account the described factors, the volatility of the situation is likely to increase in the future, becoming a source of a major conflict between the two Asian giants.

Miquel Vila MorenoAssociate Analyst for China and the Geopolitics of East Asia


Photo 1: Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna basins (Source: Wikimedia).

Photo 2: Asian’s Major Rivers (Source: ICIMOD/Council on Foreign Relations).

Photo 3: Map of Yarlung-Zangbo/Brahmaputra river (Source: Indian Express, 2015).

Photo 4: Zangmu dam in Yarlung-Zangbo river (Source: AFP, 2015).