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India & China: An Assessment of October 2013 Agreements-MoU on the Brahmaputra River

Manmohan Singh’s visit to China could eventually turn out to be a bigger diplomatic success for India, especially on the memorandum of understanding the two neighbours reached on ‘Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-border Rivers’.

There is an existing pact between the two countries on sharing hydrological data during the monsoon season, particularly relating to the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo in China) and Sutlej Rivers. But in accordance with the latest MoU, India and China will be entitled to discuss not just flood-season hydrological data but also ‘exchange views on other issues of mutual interest’.

This can certainly be seen as a breakthrough on New Delhi’s part because Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took up the water issue, rather persistently, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, during the latter’s visit to India in May. In fact, Dr Singh had sought a joint mechanism with China for better transparency on 39 project sites that Beijing has apparently identified on tributaries of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), including seven on the main river. New Delhi had pressed for a joint mechanism because in the absence of a river water–sharing treaty between the two countries, such a mechanism will allow India to seek specific information about the upstream projects in China, their construction schedule, the likely impact on people, environment and downstream river flows.

On that occasion, all India could get was an announcement by the visiting Chinese Premier about the ‘renewal’ of the existing pact on sharing flood data during the monsoon season. There was no official word on setting up a joint mechanism to address India’s concerns on dams coming up on the Chinese side of the Brahmaputra. In terms of the earlier pact of 2008 and 2010, China has been providing India with information on water levels, discharge and rainfall at 8 am and 8 pm (Beijing time) twice a day from 1 June to 15 October every year at three hydrological stations. The latest MoU says China will be providing India data from May to October.

Today, very few would tend to believe that the two great Asian neighbours could go to another war over issues like the boundary. Economic ties or compulsions are perhaps far too big for China to embark on another military adventure or misadventure against India. Be that as it may, there is also no scope for complacency because the Chinese continue to be unpredictable. A war over the border dispute looks remote, but that cannot be said about escalation of tensions over the securitisation of water.

The manner in which Beijing is going about damming the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), a time may come when the flow of water on the ‘Red River’ could diminish drastically, leading to an ecological disaster on our land and other lower riparian states like Bangladesh. The Chinese leadership is understood to have given the green signal for the construction of three new dams, besides the Zangmu Dam, on the Yarlung Tsangpo. The new projects were reportedly approved by China at the State Council or Cabinet meeting on 23 January 2013.

The 23 October 2013 MoU on trans-border rivers assumes all the more importance because Chinese opinion-makers have now admitted the existence of a water dispute with India, although they dismiss the possibility of this dispute leading to a military confrontation. In fact, the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that is directly under the State Council, has accused India of pressurising China by exaggerating ground realities and attempting to draw sympathy from the international community with the intention of putting a stop to China’s plans of developing Tibetan water resources.

Li Zhifei, in a commentary (“Indian threat-mongering over water resource disputes dangerous fantasy,” Global Times, 7 October 2013), links the border disputes with the contention over water resources – “It attempts to gain control of disputed territories by acquiring more international support and actual control on the ground through the development of the water resources in related areas…Furthermore, India has already set up dozens of hydropower stations in the so-called Arunachal Pradesh, attempting to reinforce its actual control and occupation of the disputed area.”

Dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo are not the only concern for Indians. There is also worry over China’s plans to actually divert the river to provide water to its arid northern areas. But, South Asia is unlikely to have a real water war unless China goes ahead with its proposed plans of diverting the Brahmaputra at the expense of its neighbours, India and Bangladesh. International water-sharing treaties will therefore play a key role in addressing the threat of a water war. India is an upper riparian state with respect to Pakistan and Bangladesh, and a lower riparian to China, Nepal and Bhutan. Therefore, India needs to recognise its geo-strategic location and aim to effectively pursue new trans-boundary riparian treaties while reworking the existing treaties. New Delhi cannot afford to be complacent just because it has reached this latest MoU with China on ‘Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-border Rivers’.

(The writer, Mr Wasbir Hussain, Executive Director, Centre for Development and Peace Studies, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS ), New Delhi. This is published under a joint programme to assess the India-China October 2013 agreements of the Chennai Centre for China Studies(C3S) and the IPCS).

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