Global Policy Forum

War is Boring: China Dam Project Stokes Regional Tensions

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By David Axe

World Politics Review
April 28, 2010

Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna returned from Beijing this month with bombshell news. Krishna said Chinese authorities had finally admitted what the Indian government had long suspected: Beijing is building a massive, power-generating dam on China's Tsang Po river, which also runs through India -- where it is known as the Brahmaputra -- and Bangladesh.

Amid protests, Krishna reassured the public. "We have an expert-level mechanism to address the issue," the minister said during a meeting of parliament, according to press reports. "A meeting of experts from both India and China is scheduled to take place between April 26-29 in Delhi.''

The Tsang Po dam is just one of five such facilities China admits to building on waters it shares with India. Once completed, the dam could disrupt fresh-water supplies and agriculture for tens of millions of South Asians living downstream. Beijing insists the dam is necessary to supply electricity to its booming economy -- and will have little effect on downstream communities. But to India, its construction could be tantamount to a declaration of war as the region's water resources come under greater pressure from growing populations.

The rising tempers over the Tsang Po dam are indicative of a deeper and broader problem. Rapidly growing Asian economies require more water every year in a region where water supplies can vary wildly according to the whims of the weather -- and where rivers, water tables and other resources extend across political borders. Countries must balance their own domestic needs with those of their neighbors, or risk escalating tensions.

As the biggest country in Asia, in terms of population and Gross Domestic Product, China in particular must take care not to step on its neighbors' toes.

But so far, Beijing seems willing to risk open conflict in order to hoard as much water as it can for power-generation, agriculture, industrial use and personal consumption. The eye-popping growth of China's energy consumption alone helps explain this approach. In recent years Chinese energy demand has ballooned by as much as 10 percent, or 100 gigawatts, annually. Under current usage, China would need a new, large dam for every half-percentage point in consumption, although the country meets most of its energy needs with coal.

The dam boom is consistent with China's helter-skelter resource grabs across Asia and Africa. To sustain its historic run of economic growth, marked by double-digit GDP expansion for the past decade, Beijing often resorts to short-sighted and risky political moves.

In Afghanistan, China lobbied hard to acquire, at a cost of around $3 billion, the mining rights to a broad swath of Logar province that U.S. surveyors discovered was rich in copper. U.S. forces have only recently expanded into Logar province, and continue to fight almost daily battles with a resurgent Taliban. Since China has no security presence in Afghanistan, Beijing relies on the U.S. and NATO -- its two biggest military rivals -- to protect its Logar investment.

In an echo of Beijing's Afghan venture, the Chinese government also has big stakes in oil and other mineral exploration in some of the most dangerous regions of Central Africa. In Chad, Chinese engineers mingle with U.N. peacekeepers, Chadian troops and Sudanese-sponsored rebels in one of the world's most complex civil conflicts.

Beijing's Tsang Po dam differs from these projects only in the potential severity of the fallout. In Afghanistan and Central Africa, China risks losing its investments, but is unlikely to spark a regional conflict. In South Asia, by contrast, the potential pushback against China's water moves could cost Beijing politically. An earlier bout of Chinese dam-building in the Mekong Delta prompted coordinated protests from Cambodia, Laos and Thailand as those countries saw downstream water levels drop precipitously.

Such conflict will only become more common and more severe, according to the U.S. military. The 2010 Joint Operating Environment, published last month by the Pentagon's forward-looking Joint Forces Command headed by Marine Gen. James Mattis, warns of a coming "severe energy crunch."

"While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds," the report asserts. "Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India. At best, it would lead to periods of harsh economic adjustment."

For China, one potential solution lies in making better use of existing water resources, through a management philosophy called "Integrated Water Resources Management" that stresses sustainable exploitation of lakes, rivers and ground water. "It is a must for China," said Wang Hao, from the non-profit Global Water Partnership China.

But Beijing's approach to exploiting the country's water remains dangerously wasteful. "The serious water shortage is exacerbated by poor efficiency in its use and contradictions in the way water is allocated and managed," the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reported. Now China's neighbors are beginning to feel the effects.

That said, countries surrounding China have few options for forcing Beijing to change its ways with regards to water. "Any military retaliation would be suicidal," Indian defense analyst Manu Sood commented on his blog, 8ak. And economic sanctions are unlikely as long as affected nations need China's cheap credit more than China needs access to their markets.

For now, all that India and China's other neighbors can do is hold meetings, write harshly worded letters and await the day when some kind of political consensus emerges that empowers Asia's increasingly parched nations to challenge the continent's biggest water hog.


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