Assessing the Sino-Indian water dispute

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Date: Spring-Summer 2011
From: Journal of International Affairs(Vol. 64, Issue 2)
Publisher: Columbia University School of International Public Affairs
Document Type: Report
Length: 6,883 words
Lexile Measure: 1850L

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This paper investigates the threat of a water war between China and India. It argues that Indian suspicion of China has been premature. Beijing has not jet given its approval for major water diversion projects in Tibet, it has taken some limited steps toward easing the concerns of the Indian government and a growing number of Chinese experts have taken an interest in developing institutional frameworks for managing transboundary rivers. However, a definitive settlement or cooperation will be difficult because both countries perceive themselves as the victim of a greedy neighbor. While India complains about China's ravenous exploitation of the Himalayan rivers, it is common in China to accuse India of exaggerating the Chinese threat and being unreasonable in its demands.


Two thirsty regional powers, each on one side of a mountain range covered by steadily shrinking glaciers; a more quintessential example of a zero-sum game would be hard to imagine. While relations between China and India have historically been tense, the precious water reserves of the Himalaya might well form the prelude to a new era of hostility. Indian news media and think tank experts have warned that China will erect several dams on the headwaters of mighty rivers like the Brahmaputra, the Ganges and the Indus. "The project," warns Brahma Chellaney of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, "implies environmental devastation of India's northeastern plains and eastern Bangladesh and would thus be akin to a declaration of water war ..." (1) Pundits like Chellaney have even maintained that China is determined to exploit its riparian dominance and fashion water as a political weapon against India.

This is not the first time that China and India have locked horns over water resources originating in the Himalayas. In 1962, tensions over the disputed boundary and Chinese infrastructure projects in Aksai Chin escalated into a brief border war. Many Indian strategists have approached the Tibetan plateau as if they were looking up against the walls of a fortress, uncertain about the aspirations of its rulers in Beijing. "The Himalayas have been regarded as an impenetrable barrier against any threat from the north," wrote Sardar Patel, the iron fist of the first Indian cabinet, in a letter to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1950. "In our calculations we shall now have to reckon with communist China in the north and in the northeast, a communist China which has definite ambitions and aims and which does not, in any way, seem friendly disposed towards us." (2)

India was well aware of the fact that whoever controlled that geographic bastion also controlled India's lifelines. Nehru pointed at the great strategic value of the water resources of the Himalayas. "For my part, I attach probably most importance to the development of our big schemes--river valley schemes--than to anything else. I think it is out of those that new wealth is going to flow into this country," he stated in front of the Indian parliament; "When I see a map of India and I...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A254825834