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India & China: An Assessment of October 2013 Agreements-Addressing the Heat Wave over Brahmaputr

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between India and China provides an opportunity for the two sides to strengthen cooperation on the trans-border rivers by expert level exchange of hydrological information during the flood season and emergency management. What is the current standing over the water situation between both countries? How far can the newly developed relationship thrive based on the existing formulated understandings?

The agreement between India and China aims to ‘further enhance mutual strategic trust and communication’ as well as strengthen the geo-strategic partnerships. The two sides deliberated on the prominent role of an Expert Level Mechanism on all trans-border rivers. India held the view that China providing flood-season hydrological information and support during an emergency state of affair will facilitate greater transparency in terms of administrating the smooth functioning of the Brahmaputra river course.

China, did not have an informed treaty over any hydro arrangement with India; it had a mere agreement that was outlaid during the May 2013 visit when China agreed to share hydrological data from June to October. This agreement to extend hydraulic data of the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) has now been revised from the period 1st June to 15th May till 15th October of each relevant year. This was settled between the Ministry of Water Resources, the People’s Republic of China and the Ministry of Water Resources. The two sides are expected to execute this in accordance to the related Implementation Plan. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, expressed his acceptance and appreciated Chinese Premier Li Keqiang position in this regard.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s acceptance and appreciation drawn towards China’s position over the Brahmaputra deal should not dilute India’s preliminary proposal to institutionalise the set up of a joint bilateral mechanism between the two. China’s proposition to share hydraulic information during the ‘relevant years’ is a mere getaway from India’s primary bid. As a result, this proposition can also be seen as a pacifier to India’s growing concerns over the construction of the several dams/projects along the Yarlung Tsangpo. This coupled by the absence of a considerable deliberation to intimate India about the schemes. India’s water projects in Arunachal Pradesh (referred to as ‘so-called’ by an article titled, ‘Indian threat-mongering over water resource disputes dangerous fantasy’ in the Global Times by Li Zhifei on 7 October 2013) or any other lower riparian state have never been discreet or duplicitous. Be it any of its projects along the Indus, Brahmaputra or even the Teesta River.

Differences in the socio-political, economic equations or misunderstandings have always been prevalent and lucid in the neighbouring state of affairs and have often been resolved either by bilateral talks or arbitration methods. At times, the process towards a de facto settlement has taken longer than usual due to domestic compulsions. However, the prospect towards a harmonious South Asian assimilation as regards sharing of the natural resources for the overall economic development of the region has never laid off the table. Thus, the categorical imperative, in this case, implies that China’s geo-strategic ambition through a ‘run-of-the-river’ projection or ‘hydraulic data exchange’ is a mere means to its long-term end.

India’s proposal to a robust joint mechanism on the issue of the Chinese dam construction plans will entail the already stipulated conditions in the agreement, that is greater transparency, joint study of hydro-technical data, regular dialogue and revisions. India also needs to continually amend the existing pacts with its riparian neighbours based on environmental diversifications, climate change and the impelling factors that impact the seasonal flow of the river. It must also effectively hasten the process of entering into trans-national treatise with all its riparian states. India must not lose its impetus to firmly vocal its views and lay a clarified underpinning as regards the watercourse. If India sought ‘sympathy and support from the international community’ concerning this issue, India would have filed for immediate international arbitration. However, India believes that the Brahmaputra River is not a given and the natural resource is an asset of immense value that must be shared in accordance with all its riparian counterparts.

India and China do not see a direct confrontation regarding the question of water apportionment in the time to come. Conversely, it is yet to be seen how long the recently formulated MoU will last with China’s major dam construction projects to start early next year.

(The writer, Ms Roomana Hukil, is Research Officer, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi. This article is published under a joint programme to assess India-China October 2013 agreements of the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the IPCS).

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