NEW DELHI — Just as China has aroused international alarm by wielding its virtual rare-earths monopoly as a trade instrument and by thwarting efforts to resolve territorial disputes with its neighbors, it is raising deep concern over the manner it is seeking to fashion water into a political weapon against its co-riparian states.
China, the geographical hub of Asia, is the source of transboundary river flows to the largest number of countries in the world — from Russia to India, and from Kazakhstan to the Indochina Peninsula. This unique status is rooted in its forcible absorption of sprawling ethnic-minority homelands, which make up 60 percent of its landmass and are the origin of all the important international rivers flowing out of Chinese-held territory.
Getting this riparian power to accept water-sharing arrangements or other cooperative institutional mechanisms has proven unsuccessful so far in any basin. As epitomized by its construction of upstream dams on several major international rivers, including the Irtysh-Illy, Amur, Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Arun, Indus, and Sutlej, China is increasingly headed in the opposite direction — toward unilateralist actions impervious to the concerns of downstream nations.
No country in history has been a greater dam builder than China, which boasts not only the world's biggest dam (Three Gorges) but also a greater number of dams than the rest of the world combined. China thus is the most "dammed" country in the country, boasting slightly more than half of the nearly 50,000 large dams in the world.
Yet far from slowing its dam-building spree, China has stepped up its re-engineering of river flows by portentously shifting its focus from internal rivers to international rivers. It also has graduated from building large dams to building mega-dams.
Its newest dams on the Mekong are the 4,200-megawatt Xiaowan — taller than Paris's Eiffel Tower and producing more electricity than the installed hydropower-generating capacity of all the lower Mekong countries combined — and the under-construction 5,850-megawatt Nuozhadu, which will be even bigger in storage volume but not in height.
Last summer, China's state-run hydropower industry published a map of major new dams approved for construction, including one on the Brahmaputra at Metog (or "Motuo" in Chinese) that is to be twice the size of the 18,300-megawatt Three Gorges. The Metog site is almost on the disputed border with India.
In the next decade, according to international projections, the number of dams in the developed countries is likely to remain about the same, while much of the dam building in the developing world, in terms of aggregate storage-capacity buildup, will be concentrated in just one country — China. The consequences of such frenetic construction are already visible.
First, China is now involved in water disputes with almost all its riparian neighbors, ranging from big countries such as Russia and India to weak client-states like North Korea and Myanmar.
Second, its new focus on water megaprojects in the traditional homelands of ethnic minorities has triggered fresh tensions over displacement and submergence at a time when the Tibetan plateau, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia have all been wracked by revolts or protests against Chinese rule.
Third, the projects threaten to replicate in international rivers the serious degradation haunting China's internal rivers.
Yet, as if to declare itself the world's unrivaled hydro-hegemon, China is also the largest dam builder overseas. From Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to Burma's troubled Kachin and Shan states, China has widened its dam building to disputed or insurgency-torn areas, despite local backlash.
While units of the People's Liberation Army are now engaged in dam and other strategic projects in the restive, Shiite region of Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-held Kashmir, China's dam building inside Burma has contributed to renewed bloody fighting recently, ending a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army and the government.
For downriver countries, a key concern is China's opacity on its hydroengineering projects. It usually begins work quietly, almost furtively, and then presents a project as a fait accompli and as holding transboundary flood-control benefits.
Worse still, China rejects the very notion of a water-sharing arrangement or treaty with any riparian neighbor. The terms "water sharing," "shared water resources," "treaty" and "common norms and rules" are anathema to it. It is one of only three countries that voted against the 1997 United Nations Convention that lays down rules on the shared resources of international watercourses.
It is thus no accident that there are water treaties among co-riparian states in South and Southeast Asia, but not between China and any of its neighbors. That the country with a throttlehold over the headwaters of major Asian rivers is also a rising superpower, with a muscular confidence increasingly on open display, only compounds the regional security challenges.
In this light, China poses the single biggest obstacle to the building of institutionalized cooperation in Asia to harness internationally shared rivers for mutual and sustainable benefit.
Water indeed has emerged as a source of increasing intercountry competition and discord in Asia, the most-populous and fastest-developing continent whose per capita freshwater availability is less than half the global average.
The growing water stress threatens Asia's continued rapid economic growth. And for investors, it carries risks that potentially are as damaging as nonperforming loans, real estate bubbles, infrastructure overbuilding, and political corruption.
Because of China's centrality in the Asian water map, international pressure must be exerted on Beijing to respect the rights of subjacent states and halt further unilateralist appropriation of shared waters.
It should accept institutionalized basin cooperation, which demands a coextensive restraint among all parties so that no country utilizes shared waters in a way to injuriously affect a co-riparian.
By Benjamin A Shobert
This month, the Chinese government released a white paper with a Western audience in mind. Published on September 6 by the State Council, the cabinet, the paper is titled "China’s Peaceful Development". Divided into five sections that range from China's peaceful scientific development to its peaceful foreign relations, it aspires to communicate to the West the country's deepest desires; in short, domestic stability empowered by economic growth.
Conversely, what does this position paper suggest China most fears? Political instability fomented by outsiders who are unhappy with China's successful economic growth but perceived inadequate political reform. In addition, Beijing clearly fears the outbreak of trade hostilities and the emergence of prevailing wisdom in the West that confronting China with a Cold War
mindset would be the best path forward. Throughout the white paper, the Communist Party reiterates its belief that domestic stability is the sole objective of its policies.
The structure of the white paper is no accident. In its very first section, the government works to establish the narrative of China as a country that has been at the wrong end of Western great power politics for a 100 years:
In the mid-19th century, Western powers forced open China's door with gunboats. Internal turmoil and foreign aggression gradually turned China into a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. The country became poor and weak, and the people suffered from wars and chaos.This functions as an important jumping-off point because it serves to justify China's current-day reluctance to simply remake its government to look more like those in the West. In Beijing's eyes, the West's intentions towards China have rarely been pure, with too many motives to sell into, or extract from, the country. China desires the West to meet it with an open mind, to believe that the systems Beijing is developing are the best for China, even if they might not match American or European ideals.
The white paper's emphasis on the "peaceful development" of China serves to draw out the lesson that China's path forward must be one of its own choosing, and consequently, a path that many in the West may not recognize, appreciate or agree with.
Anticipating Western reluctance to believe in China's model, the white paper asserts, "Through arduous struggle, the Chinese people have succeeded in finding a path of development conforming to China's reality, the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics." Already a familiar phrase, "socialism with Chinese characteristics" is an interesting turn on American attempts to cast a vision of what China will ultimately come to look like, what many Westerners call "democracy with Chinese characteristics".
While subtle, the Chinese emphasis on their over-arching political ideology as "socialism" versus the Western emphasis on "democracy" is a reminder to those in the West that China's political systems are still thoroughly collectivist in their design and objective.
Looking beyond China's shores
But what of China's foreign policy? How does its publicized desire for "peaceful development" influence the nation's relationship with the rest of the world?
Much of the white paper reads as a boilerplate on the matter, with statements such as "China should develop itself through upholding world peace and contribute to world peace through its own development ... it should work together with other countries to build a harmonious world of durable peace and common prosperity".
China is deeply aware that as a country it is "becoming increasingly interdependent with other countries" and as such, its economic growth (and social stability) are reliant on an ongoing ability to access the world's markets. But woven throughout the white paper is the constant theme of "stability", seen equally in matters domestic and foreign.
As a consequence of this realization, China's peaceful development means that it must "build a framework in which its relations with other major countries are generally stable and mutually beneficial and develop in a balanced way".
Even on the foreign policy front, the paper affirms that China's priorities are highly ordered around domestic stability. As even China's greatest advocates acknowledge, domestic stability exists to ensure the political stability of the party. Westerners therefore would do well to remember that whatever their own interests in seeing China evolve, nothing the West can offer as incentives will come close to matching the urgency and priority the party gives to its own domestic stability.
In this sense, China's view of foreign investment and of the role foreign businesses operating in China is that foreign interests are to be guarded only so long as they serve to ensure China's domestic stability. The white paper taps a slow, steady drumbeat that to be in China means living with the priority Beijing will continue to place on its own political viability, which it believes is a function of economic growth and social stability.
Sections of the white paper acknowledge the relative distance China still has to go domestically in order to ensure peaceful development. The party's statement is quick to emphasize that "China will accelerate the building of a harmonious society with emphasis on improving people's lives, thus strengthening the foundation of achieving social harmony".
How will the government achieve this? Beijing, according to the white paper, "will accelerate the reform of social systems, improve basic public services, develop new mechanisms for social management and make such management more efficient, and improve income distribution and the social security system."
In a proverbial nod of the head to Western critics of its seemingly stalled political reform, the government-written white paper asserts that China is still committed to what it calls a "socialist democracy" where people can "control their own destiny". Achieving this will include "democratic election[s], decision making ... supervision in accordance with the law ... [allowing people] to express their views" and in one of the most interesting phrases the white paper uses to allow the Chinese people to "supervise the government".
Here again, the important caveat seems to be the emphasis the white paper places on an "orderly public participation in the political process". As long-time China watchers know, the emphasis on order is an important caveat which always gives Beijing a backdoor out which it can slip, laying the blame of further political reform at the hands of those who could not pursue reform in an "orderly" fashion.
Towards the end of the white paper, Beijing turns its eyes towards what is one of its greatest fears: that a deteriorating economic situation in America and Europe is making a trade war more likely.
Arguing that it is in no one's interests to "rock the boat" regarding globalization, China's leaders write "countries of different systems and different types and at various development stages are in a state of mutual dependence, with their interests intertwined".
In a surprisingly candid connection between the possibility of an economic war and conventional conflict, the white paper states, "Another world war would be disastrous for the whole of mankind, and no one would emerge victorious in an all-out conflict between great big powers."
China's fear over maintaining domestic stability are the most prevalent theme throughout the piece, but it would be an oversight to look past the very real concerns being voiced by Beijing about how easy it could be for a deteriorating economic situation to push countries down the path towards war.
Beijing's choice to publicly acknowledge these fears in this white paper is not an accident, and serves to remind everyone of the high stakes involved.
Ultimately, China's peaceful development may have less to do with its own policies but more with how the rest of the world perceives it. As such, it should come as no surprise that this recent white paper seeks to reaffirm Beijing's commitment to political reform and an ongoing engagement with the global rule-set, even though China remains frustrated that this largely reflects the needs of more developed Western countries.
The target audience of this white paper is Washington and other European capitals, now deep into a process of questioning whether their policies of engagement towards China are sustainable. China very much wants to be left alone to peacefully develop, but the greater and more immediate question may be whether the developed West can afford to let China do so.....