What are the emerging geopolitical implications of water sharing of the Brahmaputra between China and India?

Brahmaputra,Geopolitics,India⎯China,The China Chronicles

Departing from the past, the delinking of political and water related interactions is unlikely to continue.

This is the fifty fifth part in the series The China Chronicles.

Read all the articles here.


China’s effort to portray itself, as a credible and peaceful neighbour has been unsuccessful in more than one way. Nowhere is it more evident than in the case of water sharing of the Brahmaputra/Yalu Zangbu river. The absence of data sharing on the Brahmaputra during and after the Doklam standoff and lack of clarity on the intent behind the 1,000 Km⎯long tunnel to transfer water from Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet to Xinjiang betray China’s self⎯declared ‘responsible’ behaviour involving transboundary waters. While the hydrological data sharing has been resumed after the 11th meeting of the India⎯China Expert Level Mechanism (ELM) on transboundary waters recently (26⎯27th March 2018), critical questions arise on the future trajectory of the Sino⎯Indian water relations. What are the emerging geopolitical implications of water sharing of the Brahmaputra between China and India?

Departure from the past

Diplomatic interactions on water cooperation between China and India have not always followed the contours of their geopolitical relationship. Ideally, a cordial relationship between the riparian countries is directly proportional to the possibility of cooperation over transboundary waters. But this has not always been the case.

With the improvement of the political relationship in the 1950s, joint water and flood management and disaster prevention were the driving factors for collaboration between India and China. All talks on water cooperation were stalled during and much after the 1962 Sino⎯Indian war. As the relationship recovered, China and India signed the first MOU on sharing the Hydrological Information on the Brahmaputra/Yalu Zangbu river in 2002.

The political⎯water equation was aligned until the early 2000s, after which water and political exchanges began to be delinked, at least superficially. In the later period (2002⎯2012), a conflictual water relationship had minimal influence on the broader political relationship. Indian apprehensions on the impact of the Chinese Zangmu dam on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra were on the high at the time when China and India were developing a border resolution mechanism, economic and strategic partnerships, and resuming bilateral army exercises.


The political⎯water equation was aligned until the early 2000s, after which water and political exchanges began to be delinked, at least superficially.


At other times, there have been instances, despite tense political relations; water cooperation has advanced quite smoothly. In 2013, immediately after the Chinese incursion into the Debsang Valley in Ladakh, China and India renewed and extended the 2002 MOU on data sharing on the Brahmaputra river. The progress continued over the next few years with regular meetings under the ELM. In 2015, China and India signed another MOU on sharing water flow data on the Langqen Zangbo/Sutlej river, despite political upheavals.

Departing from the past the delinking of political and water related interactions is unlikely to continue. A negative spillover effect on water cooperation is more likely as the intensity of the Sino⎯Indian boundary conflict increases. As is already evident in the recent case of the Doklam standoff where China held up the flood season data on the Brahmaputra, cross⎯border rivers will be used as a strategic means to influence boundary negotiations.

The emerging geopolitical overtones of water cooperation

The historical trends may seem to indicate that the tensions over the Brahmaputra form a small subset of the broader political relationship between China and India. However, going forward, laxity and mismanagement of the water relationship will have more severe geopolitical implications for India.

India⎯China water dynamics is loosely tied to India’s relationship with its other riparian countries, namely, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan. Indian demands over the rights and entitlements of the Brahmaputra river is labelled ‘hypocritical’ by Bangladesh, Pakistan and even Nepal, who have similar ‘lower riparian’ grievances. India already has a strained relationship with Bangladesh over the long overdue Teesta Waters Treaty; and clashes with Pakistan over hydropower dams and reduced flow of water in the Indus river. Therefore, while India negotiates with China on the rights of shared rivers, it will have to be balanced, strategic, and fair so as not to set unrealistic expectations from its lower riparian countries.


India⎯China water dynamics is loosely tied to India’s relationship with its other riparian countries, namely, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan. Indian demands over the rights and entitlements of the Brahmaputra river is labelled ‘hypocritical’ by Bangladesh, Pakistan and even Nepal, who have similar ‘lower riparian’ grievances.


Another trend likely to influence India’s geopolitical position is China’s shift in preference from bilateral to multilateral water cooperation ­— leaving India in an uncomfortable position. In line with its periphery policy (neighbourhood policy), in 2016, China established the Lancang Mekong Commission (LMC) with the six Mekong countries as an alternative to the ADB⎯led Mekong River Commission, which China denounced all along. Beijing is pushing for a similar China⎯controlled multilateral set up in the Brahmaputra basin. Since 2010, China has been advancing its engagement with Bangladesh on water management, hydrological data sharing (on the Brahmaputra), flood control, and disaster reduction. China is also set to finance a series of hydropower projects in Pakistan under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including one in contested territory between India and Pakistan.

India, on the other, continues to prefer bilateral agreements with its riparian nations. It has maintained discretion in its engagement with its eastern (Bangladesh) and western riparian (Pakistan) neighbours. Despite efforts to improve diplomatic ties with Bangladesh and Pakistan, India fears Chinese encirclement and confinement to a weak negotiating position.


India continues to prefer bilateral agreements with its riparian nations. It has maintained discretion in its engagement with its eastern (Bangladesh) and western riparian (Pakistan) neighbours.


Finally, China’s aggressive activities on the upstream of the Brahmaputra may feed into its ‘Salami Slicing’ strategy. The Southeast Tibetan region and Northeast India are two of the most underdeveloped regions in both the countries. As per the International law of prior appropriation, China can claim a greater share of the Brahmaputra river if it is able to utilize the water first to transfer water to its arid regions, produce electricity, or use it for agriculture. As China develops this part of the Southeastern Tibetan plateau, it will not only be able to strengthen its military reach but may as well reinforce its territorial claim on Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing refers to as ‘Southern Tibet’.

Way forward

Sino⎯Indian water relations have undeniably improved over the years and survived deep political tension. However, in the coming future, the basin countries will face hard challenges owing to climate change, reduced flow of water, upsurge in demand for water, increase in the frequency of disasters, among others. Besides these, both China and India will continue to engage each other more intensively on border issues, economic ties, and strive sustain their geopolitical interests and influence in the region. Undoubtedly, the future trajectory of the Sino⎯Indian water relations point towards increasingly difficult negotiations — one that is more complex and intertwined with the fluctuating geopolitical realities. For the Brahmaputra, India will have to develop a more proactive strategy, as opposed to the present reactive approach. India will have to be assertive as it is over the BRI and during the Doklam standoff and more innovative in setting the standard for best practices in water sharing by way of focussing more on building India’s own competence and capacities in managing cross⎯border rivers. Consequently, India will be able to establish a more cohesive and resilient position in negotiations with China.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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