A University Grants Commission Approved Journal
(under UGC-CARE, Arts & Humanities Citation Index)
ISSN 2582-2241



Excerpted from:
Raging Waters: China, India, Bangladesh, and Brahmaputra River Politics,
by Nilanthi Samaranayake, Satu Limaye, and Joel Wuthnow
(Arlington and Quantico: Virginia: CNA Corporation
and Marine Corps University Press, 2018).

We thank CNA Corporation and Marine Corps University Press for permission to use this chapter.

In September 2016, China announced that it would temporarily divert the Xiabuqu, a tributary of the Brahmaputra located on the Tibetan Plateau, to begin the construction of two major hydroelectric dams. The purpose of the dams, according to Chinese state media, was to increase electricity production and to contribute to a rising standard of living in the Tibet Autonomous Region, one of China’s 34 provincial-level administrative units and one of its most impoverished. The announcement, however, immediately sparked concerns among Indian analysts who suspected Beijing of harboring ulterior geopolitical motives and asserted that the diversion could have negative environmental consequences, including reducing the flow of water into India. China responded by reaffirming its benign intentions and denying that the diversion would result in a significant loss of water for its down stream neighbor.[1]

The episode was a microcosm of the larger dilemma China faces with the Brahmaputra. On the one hand, the river offers potential hydropower resources that can provide electricity for Tibet and its neighboring provinces. Building hydroelectric dams along the river also play a role in Beijing’s broader efforts to develop clean energy resources. China has already built one hydroelectric dam on the Brahmaputra and plans to construct several more. On the other hand, the Brahmaputra also has created two types of challenges for Sino-Indian relations. First, Beijing has had to reassure New Delhi that its dam-building activities are non-threatening, responding to concerns by some in India that China could use these facilities to disrupt the flow of water in a future Sino-Indian conflict. Second, China is concerned that Indian dam-building activities downstream could firm up New Delhi’s “actual control” over Arunachal Pradesh, or what China regards as “southern Tibet.” This could complicate border negotiations and further reduce Beijing’s hopes of recovering this territory.

China has focused its diplomatic efforts related to the Brahmaputra at a bilateral level, including signing agreements to provide India with river flow data during the flood season. Yet, due to the border dispute and compounded by mutual distrust in Sino-Indian relations, cooperation between the two sides has been limited. Meanwhile, China has shown little willingness to address Brahmaputra issues at a multilateral level, involving both India and Bangladesh. Nevertheless, there may be opportunities for China to modestly expand cooperation at both a bilateral and multilateral level. Specific actions could include expanded hydrological data sharing and environmental cooperation between Beijing and New Delhi and a non official dialogue on shared river challenges involving all three riparians.

China’s domestic uses of the Brahmaputra

As of 2018, China’s development activities on the Brahmaputra are limited to a series of planned hydroelectric dams, which are being built primarily to raise the standard of living in Tibet but also will support the Chinese government’s broader emphasis on clean energy. By contrast, China has announced no plans to attempt to divert the course of the river to satisfy domestic demands, although there are those who advocate for just such a plan. While diversion plans have been discussed intermittently in China for decades, serious cost and feasibility issues make their implementation unlikely.


Adapted by Pete McPhail, based on data from Ananth Krishnan, “China Gives Go-ahead for Three New Brahmaputra Dams,” Hindu, 30 January 2013.

Map 1.1. China’s current and planned dams on the Yarlung/Brahmaputra.

In the last 20 years, China has devoted significant effort to improving water resources in western China. Spearheaded by China’s Ministry of Water Resources, this investment has led to improved access to safe drinking water for 2.39 million people and has brought electricity to some 360,000 Tibetan herdsmen, according to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) data. This effort has included a total of $4.87 billion spent on water resource infrastructure in Tibet through 2014. Moreover, China’s five-year economic plan for 2011–15 places the main emphasis for water resource development in China on the south western Mekong region and the Tibetan Plateau, with a focus on building new water pumping and power storage facilities.[2] Chinese sources frequently argue that the purpose of hydro electric dam construction in Tibet is to develop an under utilized resource to meet local energy needs. A state media report noted, for example, that Tibet’s per capita electricity consumption in 2014 was less than one-third of the national average, yet the region possesses a full 30 percent of the nation’s water resources, capable of producing more than 200 million kilo watt hours of electricity.[3]According to Chinese economist Liu Peng, the Brahmaputra has the lowest hydro power utilization rate of all of China’s large rivers but also has the greatest potential for development. Liu argues that seizing this opportunity would help meet Tibet’s energy needs.[4] Likewise, at the opening ceremony of the Zangmu Dam in the Tibet Autonomous Region, an official from the state electric grid boasted that the new dam would help “solve Tibet’s power shortage, especially in winter.”[5]Hydro power development in Tibet is part of a broader effort to economically develop western China. A key element of this effort is the campaign to xibu da kaifa (open up the west), which was launched in 2000 to encourage economic progress in that historically impoverished part of the country. The program also was likely meant to support the migration of ethnic majority Han citizens into minority-dominated areas, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, and to develop natural resources and minerals in these areas to facilitate national economic growth.[6]

Aside from economic advantages, China’s drive to develop hydropower resources in Tibet supports a national emphasis on clean energy development. China’s national energy policy states that more than half of the contributions to the goal of raising non-fossil fuel energy consumption to 15 percent by 2020 will come from hydropower.[7]To meet this goal, the plan mandates that China accelerate the construction of hydropower stations on key rivers, such as the Brahmaputra. Similarly, a State Council official has stated that the main reason for increased dam building in Tibet is that these facilities will help reduce carbon emissions by providing clean energy.[8]

Adapted by Pete McPhail, based on data from Wang Yizhi, “China’s South–North Water Diversion Project,” China Central Television, 18 September 2012

Map 1.2. Current and planned routes of the South–North Water Diversion Project.

To achieve these goals—stated or unstated—China is making gradual progress and has announced plans to construct four dams along the Brahmaputra in Tibet. Only one of these facilities is currently operational—the Zangmu Dam, which is situated in Gyaca County, roughly 100 miles southeast of Lhasa. The Zangmu Dam opened in November 2014, and it became fully operational in October 2015. The dam has a total installed capacity of 510,000 kilowatt hours, raising Tibet’s overall power generation capacity by roughly 25 percent. According to China’s state energy plan for 2011–15, there are also plans to construct hydroelectric dams along the river at the nearby towns of Jiacha, Jiexu, and Dagu (see map1.1).[9]

A more controversial use of the Brahmaputra lies in the possibility, despite no announced plans, that China may seek to divert the river to meet domestic needs, especially for irrigation. China currently faces serious water-scarcity challenges at a national level. Overall, China holds 20 percent of the world’s population but only 7 percent of its freshwater resources. Moreover, China’s limited water resources are unevenly distributed: northern China possesses only an estimated 14 percent of the country’s fresh water but 60 percent of its farmland and 45 percent of its total population. In addition, 70 percent of northern Chinese villages have been described as short of water, with the per capita water endowment of some areas less than one-tenth of the world average.This situation has been exacerbated by such factors as weak pollution controls, poor conservation efforts, and inefficient irrigation methods.[10]

To correct these imbalances, China has embarked on a massive water transfer project known as the Nanshui Beidiao Gongcheng (South-North Water Diversion Project). Begun in 2002, the project consists of three planned routes: the eastern, central, and western. The eastern and central routes focus on diverting water from southern China’s Yangtze and Han Rivers, respectively, to the Yellow River in the north. These two routes have already been completed and are currently supplying water to northern cities, such as Beijing and Tianjin. According to China’s official plans, the western route, still in its early planning stages, will concentrate on diverting the headwaters of three tributaries of the Yangtze (the Tongtian, Yalong, and Dadu Rivers, which are all domestic rivers on the Tibetan Plateau) to the Yellow River by 2050 (see map 1.2).[11]

During the past three decades, various Chinese scholars have proposed diverting the Brahmaputra as a remedy above and beyond the official South-North Water Diversion Project. The best-known plan, put forward by a senior researcher at the Yellow River Water Conservancy Commission in 1990, envisions diverting the river via a series of canals and dams through Sichuan Province and into the Yellow River. Other plans have been proposed and studied by scholars at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Changjiang (Yangtze River) Water Resources Commission, and elsewhere. One plan, offered by a former Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officer, gained significant attention within China and internationally. Notions of diverting Tibetan rivers to alleviate the water needs of northern China entered the Chinese popular imagination with the publication of the book Xizang Zhi Shui Jiu Zhongguo (Tibet’s Waters Will Save China) by officer Li Ling in 2005. Li argues that waters from four rivers, including the Brahmaputra, could be diverted to the Yellow River. Li’s ideas have gained international attention—Indian scholar Brahma Chellaney cites it as evidence that China harbors plans to divert the river despite official assurances that it has no such plans.[12] Other Chinese scholars, though, pan the book as “bravado” and “folk theory.”[13] Although none of these proposals have been officially endorsed, some Chinese and foreign scholars contend that China’s water shortages may become so severe that the government will have no choice but to attempt to tap into the Brahmaputra. For instance, water scarcity, combined with the effects of climate change and desertification, may become so intense that a more radical scheme to divert the Brahmaputra will be needed. Similarly, a failure of the South-North Water Diversion Project to alleviate water shortages in northern China could make a plan to divert the Brahmaputra “very tempting” for PRC authorities.[14]

Plans to divert rivers from western China present several shortcomings, and there has been some internal and external opposition. First, from a cost perspective, interbasin water transfers are among the most expensive ways to increase water availability. Methods such as increasing irrigation efficiency, shallow groundwater pumping, and even intrabasin water transfers tend to be more cost-effective. Indeed, China is already moving ahead with various water-conservation measures, such as building fewer water-intensive coal plants.[15]

Second, diverting water from the Tibetan Plateau also raises serious feasibility concerns. The director of the PRC State Council’s office responsible for the South-North Water Diversion Project has described a “significant gap” between preliminary work done on the western route and the “actual requirements” of the project.[16]CNA interviews conducted in 2015 also indicated that Chinese experts have concerns about the western route based on technical grounds, including the view that the Tibetan Plateau is too geologically unstable to support such a massive endeavor. Moreover, given its potentially disruptive effects, plans for the western route are likely to encounter resistance on social and ecological grounds.[17]

Compared to the western route of the official South-North Water Diversion Project, Chinese experts tend to be even more dismissive of proposals to divert waters from the upper Brahmaputra. CNA interviews suggest that the Chinese government has given no serious consideration to these proposals in recent years. In fact, a study commissioned by the Ministry of Water Resources in 2000 reportedly concluded that such plans would be neither necessary nor feasible.[18]Former minister of water resources Wang Shucheng stated on at least two occasions that plans to divert the Brahmaputra were not feasible.[19]Thus, while China may eventually give some consideration to such ideas, there is no evidence to suggest that this is likely in the near future.

One of the potential obstacles to the fulfillment of these plans is opposition by local citizens and civil society groups, especially environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The record of China’s efforts to build dams is checkered with cases of domestic opposition. For instance, plans to build 13 dams along the Nu River in Yunnan Province were halted in 2004 following an environmental campaign.[20]Likewise, activism by such groups as the NGO Green Watershed has led local authorities to set up re-settlement funds for displaced residents along the Mekong.[21] Considering China’s larger, long-term goals for the region, it is doubtful that domestic opposition will play a significant role in halting or slowing the speed of dam construction along the Brahmaputra. One reason is that, given the social controls present in Tibet, it is unlikely civil society groups will have the political space needed to operate as they do in other parts of the country. In addition, Chinese sources suggest that the population along the Brahmaputra is so scant that any local opposition will be negligible. For instance, a researcher with China’s Ministry of Water Resources has argued that relocation programs for displaced residents will be facilitated by the small size of the population. Nevertheless, he added that local officials should proactively communicate with local residents to help them see that the construction projects are “for their own benefit.”[22]

Diplomatic Obstacles and Opportunities

Although driven primarily by domestic economic and developmental goals, China’s dam construction on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra has created significant friction in Sino-Indian relations. Indian analysts worry not only about the safety of Chinese dams but also about the possibility of Chinese diversion schemes. For instance, a temporary diversion of one tributary of the Brahmaputra, announced by the Chinese government in September 2016, was expected to marginally reduce water and silt flow into India.[23]This would stress Indian water resources and raise the chance of conflict between the two states. Beijing has tried, with only limited success, to reassure New Delhi that its dam construction will not have adverse consequences for India. Another source of friction emanates from Chinese concerns about India’s development of the river, especially in the disputed border area of Arunachal Pradesh. In particular, Chinese government analysts are concerned that Indian construction activities farther downstream will firm up New  Delhi’s  “actual control” over Arunachal Pradesh and thereby complicate border negotiations betweenthe two countries.[24]Despite these challenges, there may be opportunities for at least a limited expansion in Sino-Indian cooperation related to Brahmaputra issues.

Mutual Distrust in Sino-Indian Relations

Relations between China and India have been strained for more than 50 years, just as with so many other nations that have shared borders, and the issue of the Brahmaputra River’s waters are one example of these larger disputes. India is, indeed, concerned about Chinese upstream activities, which reflect a deeper problem of mutual distrust in Sino-Indian relations. This situation is driven by such factors as the ongoing border dispute, Chinese concerns over Indian ambitions and relations with the United States, Indian concerns regarding China’s rapid military modernization and ties with Pakistan, and lingering resentments stemming from the 1962 China-India border conflict.[25]This mistrust is not one-sided, and India’s official position about Chinese activities on the Brahmaputra has been close to that adopted by the United States in its arms-control negotiations with the Soviet Union in the 1980s: “Trust but verify.”[26]Specifically, New Delhi asserts that it accepts Chinese statements but will continue to monitor China’s upstream activities and convey concerns through diplomatic channels when necessary. In addition, PRC public diplomacy has not deterred Indian analysts, such as Brahma Chellaney, from circulating the argument that China harbors ulterior motives in its dam-building efforts. Thus, China still faces a trust gap with India on these issues. While Chinese interviewees contended that Sino-Indian relations have made progressundertherecenteffortsofPresidentXiJinpingandPrimeMinisterNarendra Modi, most concurred that distrust remains a central problem for the two countries.[27]

Observers have been able to express limited optimism because, during the past decade, China has attempted to reduce two major Indian concerns with respect to the Brahmaputra: flooding that could be prevented with access to Chinese data and potential Chinese development activities along the river. Many of the concerns about flooding developed as a result of a major flood that took place in June 2000. In this incident, a natural dam that had formed due to a landslide on a tributary of the Brahmaputra in Tibet broke. As a result, 3-4 billion cubic meters of water poured into Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, killing 30 Indian nationals, and leaving 50,000 homeless. Some Indian observers asserted that China withheld hydrological data that could have prevented the disaster; this led to friction in Sino-Indian relations.[28]

In response to Indian concerns about flooding, China and India have established a series of agreements to share hydrological data. In April 2002, China agreed to provide India with hydrological data from three monitoring stations on the Brahmaputra between June 1 and October 15 of each year, corresponding to the annual flood season. During a visit by then- Chinese President Hu Jintao to India in November 2006, the two countries agreed to establish an expert-level group to discuss hydrological data and emergency response measures. Then, in October 2013, China extended the data-sharing period from 15 May to 15 October. Data supplied by China have been used by India’s Central Water Commission to inform flood forecasts. [29] Chinese willingness to share hydrological data has been well received by India. This is evident in a series of joint statements made during China-India summits. For instance, in a joint statement following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September 2014, Indian officials thanked China for providing flood season data, and the two sides agreed to continue cooperation in data sharing and emergency response. The joint statement following Indian prime minister Modi’s visit to China in May 2015 contained a nearly identical statement.[30]Thus, China appears to have gained at least some diplomatic goodwill as a result of its overtures.

China has also sought, amid the climate of mistrust, to assuage Indian concerns about Chinese development activities along the river. Indian analysts have suggested that China may seek to use its dams on the Brahmaputra to disrupt the flow of water into India in the event of a conflict or to use its control over water resources as a form of diplomatic leverage. Some Indian observers also speculate that China could attempt to store river water (or even divert the river), which would result in reduced river flow to India at a time when water sources are increasingly stressed due to population growth and global climate change effects. [31]

Nevertheless, China has sought to quell Indian concerns through official rhetoric and media commentary. In particular, Chinese sources have repeatedly asserted that China plans to build only “run of the river” dams that cannot be used to reduce or stop the flow of the river into Indian- controlled territory.[32]Moreover, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman has stated that China’s planned dams will not pose flood risks or ecological challenges to downstream areas.[33]China has also responded to Indian speculation about potential river diversion schemes. For instance, a PLA Daily article denies any diversion plans and claims that China took Indian interests into account when it chose not to include the Brahmaputra in the South-North Water Diversion Project.[34]Yet, despite all these efforts, China’s public rhetoric has largely failed to assuage Indian concerns. While Indian officials have not publicly rejected Chinese pledges that Tibetan dam building will not harm Indian interests, they remain wary.

Chinese Concerns regarding Indian Hydropower Activities

While Indian officials may doubt Chinese sincerity about its intentions, the Chinese have their own concerns about the disputed territory of Arunachal Pradesh and what that means for its stated and unstated designs for the region. At present, the river is largely undeveloped as it flows through the northeastern Indian state. India’s Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, however, announced plans to build dams in that section of the river to control flooding and to increase electricity production. The ministry also contends that dam construction is necessary for securing water usage rights under international practice.[35]This appears to be a step forward in firming up India’s claims to Arunachal Pradesh, which China regards as its own territory under the name “southern Tibet.”

Arunachal Pradesh is one of two major areas of dispute along the Sino-Indian border. The other is Aksai Chin, which lies farther to the west, and has been effectively controlled by China since 1951. Arunachal Pradesh was the main theater of the 1962 China-India border conflict, in which Chinese forces advanced into Indian-controlled territory and then withdrew, pending negotiations. At the core of China’s contention is the view that Beijing has sovereignty over lands formerly held by the Tibetan kingdom, including Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. India rejects these claims and argues that these lands belong to India as part of a1914treaty.[36]Indian infrastructure development along the Brahmaputra is of particular concern for China because it could grant India leverage in border negotiations and significantly reduce the chance of China ever being able to enforce its sovereignty claims south of the Line of Actual Control. [37]Li Zhifei, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), who has extensively studied this issue, writes that India has used several means to strengthen its “actual control” over Arunachal Pradesh, including an increasing military presence, migration of citizens into the region, and development of water resources on rivers, such as the Brahmaputra. Li also argues that India is seeking to build dams in Arunachal to gain an “advantageous” position in border talks with China.[38]Building dams, in particular, is useful for India because it allows New Delhi to argue that it has established water user rights, regardless of China’s sovereignty assertions. [39]In addition to sovereignty concerns, Chinese observers make claims about environmental risks to China to oppose Indian down stream construction. One Chinese claim, albeit made without a clear scientific explanation, is that Indian industrial activity in Arunachal Pradesh could increase sedimentation of the river, which might raise the risks of flooding in parts of Tibet.[40] Other Chinese sources assert that rising Indian carbon emissions connected to greater industrial activity in the region could contribute to glacial melt in the Himalayas and threaten the long-term flow of the river.[41]These arguments may reflect genuine ecological concerns but also may be designed in part to provide an additional basis for opposing Indian development in the disputed region.

China has taken some steps to oppose India’s development of hydroelectric dams in Arunachal Pradesh. One tactic that China has used in recent years is to leverage its influence in international institutions, such   as the Asian Development Bank, to deny India funding for infrastructure projects in the disputed area. It is possible that China also will seek to use its leading position in the newly established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) for a similar purpose. Moreover, CASS’s Li Zhifei argues that China should continue to press these institutions to reject Indian re- quests for financial assistance. Given Indian domestic resources and New Delhi’s impetus to develop the northeastern part of the country, it is question able whether China will have the necessary power or influence to successfully oppose the future development of dams.[42]

Outlook for China-India Cooperation

Two factors will likely limit future expansion of China-India cooperation related to the Brahmaputra. First is the ongoing border dispute. Contested ownership of Arunachal Pradesh means that Beijing and New Delhi will probably be unable to reach a major accord on transboundary river rights and obligations, such as a water-sharing treaty. As of 2015, there are no signs that this dispute is set to abate in the near to medium term.[43]A second significant obstacle to cooperation—mutual distrust—regarding the Brahmaputra must be considered. A 2014 water management game conducted by CNA observed that mutual mistrust between riparian nations, driven by such factors as border disputes and terrorist actions, reduced the willingness of all three states to share information and support other types of cooperation.[44] While China and India watchers have seen this at the official level, it is even more pronounced within civil society in both countries. Indian analysts, such as Brahma Chellaney and R. N. Bhaskar, may continue to question Chinese intentions regarding dam building on the upper Brahmaputra. Meanwhile, Chinese observers will likely doubt the motives of their Indian interlocutors, whom many in China regard as biased and sensationalist. One scholar even penned an extensive review of the writings of Chellaney with respect to China, critiquing Chellaney’s assertions about China’s intentions to use water as a weapon as biased and unsubstantiated.[45]These sentiments could limit the prospects for productive engagements between scholars on both sides.

Nevertheless, there may still be opportunities for a modest expansion of Sino-Indian cooperation on Brahmaputra issues, most likely on narrow, technical subjects that can be separated from the border dispute. This interpretation is supported by scholars such as Lan Jianxue of the China Institute of International Studies, who argues that Sino-Indian cooperation is most likely on topics considered as “low politics,” such as on economic, humanitarian, and cultural endeavors. Topics within the realm of “high politics” (e.g., the border dispute) will remain contentious.[46]Specifically, China may be receptive to cooperation in areas of disaster management, environmental protection, and river safety, or on scientific topics, such as the effects of climate change on long-term river flow. These topics allow for some flexibility and opportunity as some may be discussed at an official level, including discussions between the water resource ministries of both states. Moreover, non states take holders may be useful in deliberations with humanitarian and environmental non governmental organizations engaging topics at the Track 2 level, or perhaps involving specialists from Chinese and Indian government-funded research institutes.[47]

Several drivers could promote enhanced cooperation on these issues. First, a positive overall direction in China-India relations could remove obstacles and set the stage for cooperation on transboundary river issues.[48]This would require a political consensus by Chinese and Indian leaders to prioritize mutually beneficial economic and diplomatic cooperation over the boundary dispute, which could be symbolized by regular summits and ministerial meetings. Second, China may be able to draw on its own initiatives related to the Brahmaputra to portray itself as a responsible upper riparian. For Beijing, modestly enhancing outreach on water security challenges could be a relatively low-cost way to foster diplomatic goodwill with New Delhi. Third, additional progress may be facilitated if initiatives are proposed and encouraged by the Indian side. This would address the argument of some Chinese analysts that Beijing has been proactive in sharing hydrological data and that the onus is now on India to reciprocate.[49]

China could take several steps, both unilaterally and in concert with India, to reduce mistrust and achieve mutual benefits on Brahmaputra issues. First, China could invite Indian (and Bangladeshi) observers to perform site visits as a way to reassure its neighbors of its dam safety standards. Second, Beijing and New Delhi could share information on dam construction plans and goals so that both sides have greater clarity about each other’s intentions and to avoid surprises, such as the September 2016 diversion that took many in India off guard. Third, the two sides could increase cooperation in areas such as data sharing, flood control, disaster management, and biodiversity protection. None of this will resolve the underlying border dispute or eliminate mutual mistrust but could serve to reduce tensions while providing important public goods.

Water Security and China-Bangladesh Relations

Compared to those with India, China’s interactions with Bangladesh related to the Brahmaputra have been relatively free of controversy, which is unsurprising since the two countries do not share a border. Beijing’s cooperation with Dhaka has proceeded on several fronts. In 2008, China agreed to share hydrological data on the Brahmaputra with Bangladesh. At a summit held in 2010, China and Bangladesh agreed to improve cooperation on water- resource management, hydro logical data sharing, flood control, and disaster reduction. China also agreed to assist Bangladesh with riverbed dredging and personnel training. Another memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed in March 2015 on the sharing of rainfall data in the river’s catchment area in China, which would help inform Bangladeshi flood forecasting.[50]

Sino-Bangladeshi cooperation on Brahmaputra issues is consistent with a broader expansion of the bilateral relationship in recent years. As of 2015, Beijing is Dhaka’s largest trade partner, and Bangladesh plays an important role in China’s vision of creating a “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” stretching from Asia to Europe and part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). [51] China is also vying with India for influence in Bangladesh. In recent years, both Beijing and New Delhi have reached out to Dhaka with various economic proposals and incentives.[52] In this context, Chinese willingness to share hydrological information and provide assistance in river dredging may simply be designed to cultivate diplomatic goodwill with Bangladesh. Moreover, Beijing has sought to reassure Dhaka (as well as New Delhi) that it has no plans to divert the Brahmaputra.

As the demands for water become a three-way discussion between the major stakeholders, China is able to use Bangladesh’s practical needs as an arguing point that is useful in distracting from Chinese designs on the regions for their own benefit. Thus, the perceived threats that Bangladesh faces from Indian development activities upstream have become a counterpoint to India’s concerns about Chinese dam building in Tibet. Various Chinese analysts have highlighted India’s water diversion plans as a challenge that could have severe economic and ecological effects on India’s downstream neighbor.[53]For instance, in a CNA interview in Beijing in 2015, one Chinese expert argued that potential Indian diversion plans could harm Bangladeshi interests, and that Bangladesh “has a right to say something” as a threatened downstream riparian nation. The subtext of these comments appears to be that India may be applying a double standard in critiquing China’s upstream development initiatives.

Multilateral Cooperation in the Brahmaputra Basin

China has centered its diplomatic outreach on Brahmaputra issues at a bilateral level. It has signed hydrological data-sharing agreements with both India and Bangladesh, but it has not engaged the two countries in a multilateral setting, which is consistent with a larger pattern of bilateralism in China’s water diplomacy. However, there are signs that Beijing could be willing to expand cooperation with both New Delhi and Dhaka at a basin-wide level.

Limited Multilateralism

In general, China’s water diplomacy has focused on achieving bilateral agreements with neighboring states. Aside from its agreements with India and Bangladesh, China has signed accords on the boundary and cross-border rivers with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, North Korea, and others. These agreements are diverse in scope, covering such issues as water navigation, hydrological projects, environmental protection, emergency notification, and data sharing. Many are more substantial than the limited China–India pacts on the Brahmaputra, largely because China has no border disputes with these other countries.

By contrast, China has avoided multilateral diplomacy as a way to solve shared water challenges. China was one of three states (the others being Turkey and Burundi) that voted against the 1997 United Nations Water Courses Convention, which outlines principles for cooperation related to international waterways, such as transboundary rivers, and procedures for dispute resolution. The reasons China’s UN representative gave for his country’s opposition to the treaty include inadequate protection of state sovereignty and an “imbalance” between the rights and duties of upper and lower riparians. China also has declined to participate in the World Commission on Dams, which provides guidelines for dam construction.[54]

In addition, China has been reluctant to participate in multilateral water agreements at a regional level. This is illustrated by China’s approach to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which was established in1995 to govern activities among Mekong River states. Although China has been a dialogue partner of the commission since 1996, it has not sought full membership, largely due to the concern that doing so would impose restrictions on its upstream dam-building plans.[55] Rather, as Selina Ho, an expert on Chinese trans boundary river issues argues, China has opted to seek agreements with Mekong states on a bilateral basis.[56] Nevertheless, China has adopted limited multilateral cooperation with the MRC, which is discussed in greater detail in the following section.

China’s preference for bilateral diplomacy on Brahmaputra issues is consistent with this larger pattern. This preference may be underscored by two factors. The first factor is the absence of existing institutions relevant to discussions among all three riparians. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), for instance, does not include China, while the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) does not include Bangladesh. The second factor is the deeper problem of mutual distrust, not only in China-India relations but also in India-Bangladesh relations, which some PRC analysts argue would undermine any plans to promote cooperation on a basin-wide scale.[57]In effect, Beijing may have concluded that it is more practical and effective to work with New Delhi and Dhaka separately than to work with them together.

Possible Cooperation

There are several reasons why China may revisit its current preference for bilateralism on Brahmaputra issues. First, at a broad level, China has participated in, and even shaped, multilateral regimes and institutions since the1990s.[58] This is evident, for example, in China’s role in organizing the Six-Party Talks on North Korea and in its participation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum.[59] China has also sought to play a more prominent role in SAARC, which includes both India and Bangladesh. Thus, if anything, China’s bilateral approach to water diplomacy is increasingly out of step with its confidence that multilateralism in other policy arenas can support Chinese interests.

Second, there is a precedent for Chinese participation in water diplomacy at a basin-wide level. Namely, China signed an agreement with the MRC in 2002 to supply hydrological data from 15 June to 15 October of each year, a period corresponding to the monsoon season. That agreement was expanded in 2008 and again in 2013. China has also cooperated with the MRC through technical exchanges in areas such as river navigation and hydropower development. In December 2014, China’s vice minister of water resources stated that Beijing hoped to strengthen cooperation with the MRC, such as in conducting a joint scientific study on water flow fluctuations in the river basin. [60] In October 2016, an editorial in China’s semiofficial Global Times praised multilateral cooperation in the Lancang-Mekong River basin and argued that it could become a useful guide for tripartite cooperation for the Brahmaputra riparians.[61]

Third, the barriers to basin-wide cooperation on the Brahmaputra are likely not insurmountable. For one thing, the lack of an existing mechanism does not necessarily rule out cooperation. In other contexts, China has established new bodies to address transnational challenges when one did not currently exist. For instance, China helped establish the SCO to address terrorism and other challenges in Central Asia. China also may be receptive to the possibility that existing bodies, such as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Forum for Regional Cooperation could be expanded to address water issues. In addition, mutual distrust has not prevented China from engaging in productive bilateral talks with India, and there is no reason why it would preclude similar discussions at a multilateral level. The key appears to be whether cooperation can be insulated from higher-level political tensions and focus instead on shared technical or humanitarian issues.[62]

China has several incentives to cooperate with other Brahmaputra riparian nations in a multilateral context. China’s reputation would benefit if they took a leading role in proposing basin-wide cooperation.[63]As it has with other regional initiatives, such as the AIIB, China could argue that it is engaging proactively as a responsible regional stakeholder.[64] Additionally, basin-wide cooperation could help reduce a source of friction on China’s western periphery at a time when it faces increasing challenges in its eastern maritime region and its relations with the United States and others. Finally, at a practical level, a basin-wide approach could yield a more holistic understanding of the river system and insights into how to address flooding and other challenges.[65]Thus, while a major multilateral accord may not be possible, China will likely be willing to explore lower-level cooperation with its downstream neighbors.

A starting point would be the establishment of an annual Track 2 dialogue with participation from university and think tank scholars from China, India, and Bangladesh. While there are many promising topics for discussion, one possibility would be to limit the initial focus to technical and scientific subjects, such as the effects of climate change on river flow and potential mitigation strategies. Such talks could also involve input from international specialists on a case-by-case basis. Over time, these Track 2 interactions might form the basis for cooperation at the Track 1 level.


In sum, managing the Brahmaputra has been a dilemma for the river’s uppermost riparian. Chinese officials and analysts see the river as a key to the development of Tibet and as part of a larger shift toward greater reliance on clean energy sources. Yet Beijing has had to reassure New Delhi of its positive intentions while also expressing its own concerns about India’s construction activities in Arunachal Pradesh. As this chapter has shown, the chances of a full water-sharing treaty between the two states is low due to mistrust and the underlying border dispute. However, opportunities might exist for expanded practical cooperation both at a bilateral and   a multilateral level, such as increased data sharing and dialogue between the riparian countries. This will not eliminate mistrust but could reduce the risk of conflict while providing concrete benefits to those who live along the river. This cooperation will be needed, especially as China and India continue with their large-scale dam activities in the coming years.

Joel Wuthnow is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs for the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. Previously, he was an analyst at CNA (a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, Virginia) and a postdoctoral fellow in China and the World Program at Princeton University. His publications include a book, Chinese Diplomacy and the UN Security Council: Beyond the Veto (2013), and articles in journals such as the China Quarterly, Journal of Strategic Studies, Joint Force Strategy, Asia Policy, Asian Security, and the Chinese Journal of International Politics, as well as book chapters. He received a PhD in political science from Columbia University


[1] For details, see Limaye, Wuthnow, and Samaranayake, “China and India’s Slow-Moving Path to ‘Water Wars’.”

[2] “China Invests 30 Billion Yuan on Tibet Water Infrastructure,” Xinhua, 23 August 2014; and “The Outline of the 12th Five-Year Program for National Economic and Social Development of the People’s Republic of China,” Xinhua, 16 March 2011.

[3] “China Invests 30 Billion Yuan on Tibet Water Infrastructure.”

[4] Liu Peng, “Zhong Yin zai kuajie heliu shang de liyi: suqiu yu xianghu yilai” [Chinese and Indian Interests in Transboundary Rivers: Demands and Interdependence], Nanya Yanjiu [South Asian Studies],no. 4 (2013): 33–45.

[5] China Focus: Major Hydroplant Begins Operations in Power Thirsty Tibet,” Xinhua, 24 November 2014.

[6] For an introduction to the program, see David S. G. Goodman, “The Campaign to ‘Open Up the West’: National, Provincial, and Local-Level Perspectives, ”China Quarterly 178 (2004): 317–34; Elizabeth C. Economy, “Asia’s Water Security Crisis: China, India, and the United States,” in Strategic Asia 2008 – 09: Challenges and Choices, ed. Ashley J. Tellis, Mercy Kuo, and Andrew Marble (Seattle, WA: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2008); and “Who Is Chinese? The Upper Han,” Economist, 19 November 2016.

[7] China’s Energy Policy 2012 (Beijing: Information Office of the State Council, 2012).

[8] China’s Energy Policy 2012; and “Hydro-Power Dam Stirs Debate,” Global Times, 18 November 2010.

[9] “China Focus: Major Hydroplant Begins Operations in Power Thirsty Tibet”; and 12th Five Year Plan Energy Development Plan (Beijing: Information Office of the State Council, 2013). In addition, Chinese engineers have explored the possibility of constructing a massive 38-gigawatt hydroelectric dam farther downstream at Motuo, but this has not been officially endorsed and does not appear in the 12th five-year energy plan. For details, see Jonathan Watts, “Chinese Engineers Propose World’s Biggest Hydro-electric Project in Tibet,” Guardian, 24 May 2013.

[10] Zhang Hongzhou,“Confronting China’s Water Insecurity,”RSIS Commentary, 30 Apri l2014; Sebastian Biba, “Desecuritization in China’s Behavior towards Its Transboundary Rivers: The Mekong River, the Brahmaputra River, and the Irtysh and Ili Rivers,” Journal of Contemporary China 23, no. 85 (2014): 21– 43, https://doi.org/10.10801/10670564.2013.809975; Peter MacKenzie and Marcus King, Climate Change in China: Socioeconomic and Security Implications (Arlington, VA: CNA, 2010), 3; and Kenneth Pomeranz, “Asia’s Unstable Water Tower: The Politics, Economics, and Ecology of Himalayan Water Projects,” Asia Policy, no.16 (July 2013): 5.

[11] For more details, see Susan Chan Shifflett et al., China’s Water-Energy-Food Roadmap: A Global Choke Point Report (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2015),19–21; Kiki Zhao, “Water from China’s South–NorthTransfer Project Flows to Beijing,” Sinosphere (blog), New York Times, 25 December 2014; and Carla Freeman, Quenching the Dragon’s Thirst: The South–North Water Transfer Project—Old Plumbing for New China? (Washington, DC: China Environment Forum, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2011). 

[12] Chellaney, Water,154.

[13] Zhang Jincui, “Yindu yingpai xuezhe de Zhongguo guan: dui Bulama Qielani jiaoshou de gean yanjiu” [An Indian Hawk’s China Outlook: The Case Study of Professor Brahma Chellaney], Shijie Jingji yu Zhengzhi Luntan [Forum of World Economics & Politics], no. 2 (2012): 66–79; and Liu Peng, “ZhongYin zai kuajie heliu shang de liyi: suqiu yu xianghu yilai” [Chinese and Indian Interests in Transboundary Rivers: Demands and Interdependence], Nanya Yanjiu [South Asian Studies], no. 4 (2013): 33–45.

[14] Pomeranz, “Asia’s Unstable Water Tower,” 6; see also Biba, “Desecuritization in China’s Behavior towards Its Transboundary Rivers,” 21–43.

[15] Charting Our Water Future: Economic Frameworks to Inform Decision-making (Washington, DC: 2030 Water Resources Group, 2009), 77; and Renee Cho, “How China Is Dealing with Its Water Crisis,” State of the Planet (blog), Earth Institute, Columbia University, 5 May 2011.

[16] Liu,“ZhongYin zai kuajie heliu shang de liyi” [Chinese and Indian Interests in Trans boundary Rivers],33–45.

[17] CNA interviews, Beijing, 2015; and Zhang Hongzhou, “China-India Water Disputes: Two Major Misperceptions Revisited,” RSIS Commentary, 19 January 2015.

[18] Zhang, “China-India.”

[19] Zhang Ke, “Diversion Debate,” China Dialogue, 13 June 2011.

[20] The Nu/Salween River is one of the region’s last free-flowing rivers. It originates in the Tibetan Plateau area as the Nu and flows through China, becoming the Salween in Burma and Thailand before it empties into the Andaman Sea. “Brahmaputra: Towards Unity,” The Third Pole.net, 10 February 2014. The plans to build the dams, however, were revived in 2013.

[21] Selina Ho, “River Politics: China’s Policies in the Mekong and the Brahmaputra in Comparative Perspective,” Journal of Contemporary China 23, no. 85 (2014): 1–20, https://doi.org/10.10 80/10670564.2013.809974; and Pichamon Yeophantong, “China’s Lancang Dam Cascade and Transnational Activism in the Mekong Region: Who’s Got the Power?,” Asian Survey 54, no. 4 (July/August 2014): 700 – 24, https//doi.org/10.1525/AS.2014.54.4.700.

[22] “Brahmaputra: Towards Unity”; and “Hydro-Power Dam Stirs Debate.”

[23] Limaye, Wuthnow, and Samaranayake, “ChinaandIndia’s Slow-Moving Pathto ‘WaterWars’.”

[24] CNA interviews, Beijing, 2015.

[25] For more on what is also known as the Sino-Indian War, see Ivan Lidarev, “History’s Hostage: China, India, and the War of 1962,” Diplomat, 21 August 2012.

[26] Liu, “ZhongYin guanxi zouxiang chengshu ji qi yuanyin tanxi” [An Exploration of the Maturation of Sino-Indian Relations and Its Causes], 49–55.

[27] “Hydro power Stationon Brahmaputra: India to Monitor Situation, ” Times of India, 15 October 2015; Murray Scot Tanner, Kerry B. Dumbaugh, and Ian M. Easton, Distracted Antagonists, Wary Partners: China and India Assess Their Security Relations (Alexandria, VA: CNA, 2011), 5–9; CNA interviews, Beijing, 2015; see also Lan Jianxue, Sino-Indian Relations in the New Era: Current Status, Development Trend and Policy Recommendations (Beijing: China Institute of International Studies, 2015).

[28] Wang Yan, “The River Wild,” News China, January 2012.

[29] “India-China Cooperation,” Government of India, Ministry of Water Resources, River Development, and Ganga Rejuvenation, updated 29 June 2017.

[30] “Joint Statement between India and China during Prime Minister’s Visit to China,” Government of India, Ministry of External Affairs, 15 May 2015; see also “Joint Statement between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China on Building Closer Developmental Partnership,” Government of India, Ministry of External Affairs, 19 September 2014.

[31] Vijai K. Nair, “The Chinese Threat: An Indian Perspective,” China Brief 1, no. 9 (2001); and Brahma Chellaney, “China’s Hydro-Hegemony,” New York Times, 7 February 2013.

[32] Biba, “Desecuritization in China’s Behavior towards Its Transboundary Rivers.”

[33] Transcript of Regular News Conference by PRC Foreign Ministry on 24 November 2014, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 24 November2014.

[34] Sun Peisong, “China-India Friendship Is Basis for New Order in Future of Asia,” PLA Daily (Beijing), 22 October 2013.

[35] “India Plans to Build Big Dams over Brahmaputra, Says Uma Bharti,” Economic Times, 4 June 2015.

[36] John W. Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 79 – 109.

[37] The Line of Actual Control is a 4,057-kilometer boundary between China and India that is as disputed as water rights between the countries. “Crossing the Line of Actual Control,” Stratfor, 12 September 2017.

[38] Li Zhifei, “ZhongYin lingtu zhengduan zhong de shui ziyuan anquan wenti” [Water Security Issues in Sino-Indian Territorial Disputes], Nanya Yanjiu Jikan [South Asian Studies Quarterly], no.4 (2013): 29–34.

[39] Prime Minister of India, “On board Media Interaction with PM on Return from BRICS Summit,” press release, 28 March 2013.

[40] Lan, “Shui ziyuan anquan hezuo yu ZhongYin guanxi de hudong” [Water Security Cooperation and China-India Interactions], 37– 43.

[41] CNA interviews, Beijing, 2015. For background on potential climate change effects on the river, see Walter W. Immerzeel, Ludovicus P. H. van Beek, and Marc F. P. Bierkens, “Climate Change Will Affect the Asian Water Towers,” Science, no. 328 (2010): 1382 – 85, http://doi.org/10.1126/science.1183188.

[42] Sudha Ramachandran, “Chinese Antics Have India Fuming,” Asia Times (Hong Kong), 5 May 2009; and Li Zhifei, “ZhongYin lingtu zhengduan zhong de shui ziyuan anquan wenti” [Water Security Issues in Sino-Indian Territorial Disputes], 29–34.

[43] Vivek Raghuvanshi, “India-China Talks Fail to Make Progress on Border Dispute,” DefenseNews, 17 November 2015.

[44] Catherine M. Trentacoste et al., Bone Dry and Flooding Soon: A Regional Water Game, Final Report (Arlington, VA: CNA, 2014), 17–19.

[45] Li Zhifei, “ZhongYin lingtu zhengduan zhong de shui ziyuan anquan wenti” [Water Security Issues in Sino-Indian Territorial Disputes], 29–34; Lan, “Shui ziyuan anquan hezuo yu Zhong Yin guanxi de hudong” [Water Security Cooperation and China-India Interactions], 37– 43; Li Li, “Nontraditional Security and China’s Relations with South Asia,” in Ecological and Non traditional Security Challenges in South Asia, ed. Farooq Sobhan, Dennis Pirages,Stacy D.Van Deveer, LiLi (Seattle, WA: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2011) 33–36; and Zhang Jincui, “Yindu yingpai xuezhe de Zhongguo guan” [An Indian Hawk’s China Outlook], 66–79.

[46] See Lan, Sino-Indian Relations in the New Era, 30 – 31. “Track 2” refers to engagements between nongovernmental scholars, often based at think tanks and research institutes. This is contrasted with “Track 1,” which are meetings between government officials.

[47] CNA interviews, Beijing, 2015.

[48] Liu,“Zhong Yingu anxizouxiangchengshujiqiyuanyintanxi” [An Exploration of the Maturation of Sino-Indian Relations and Its Causes], 49–55.

[49] CNA interviews, Beijing, 2015.

[50] “China Assures Preferential Treatment for Bangladeshi Products: Three Agreements Signed  at Summit Talks,” Bangladesh Economic News, 24 September 2008; Joint Statement Between the People’s Republic of China and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 22 March 2010; and Abu Bakar Siddique, “China to Give Brahmaputra Flow Data to Bangladesh,” TheThirdPole.net, 20 May2015.

[51] ASMG Kibria, “Bangladesh Juggles Chinese, Japanese Interest,” Diplomat, 5 January 2015; and Capt David L. O. Hayward, “The Dragon’s Pearls: China’s Road to Hegemony in the Indian Ocean,” Marine Corps University Journal 7, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 46–82, https://doi.org/10.21140/mcuj.2016070103.

[52] See “India’s Modi Hopes to Tamp Down China’s Influence in Bangladesh,” VOA News, 27 May 2015.

[53] Jonathan Holslag, “Assessing the Sino-Indian Water Dispute,” Journal of International Affairs 64, no. 2 (2011): 19–35.

[54] Huipeng Chen, Alistair Rieu-Clark, and Patricia Wouters, “Exploring China’s Transboundary Water Treaty Practice Through the Prism of the UN Watercourses Convention,” Water International 38, no. 2 (2013): 217–30, https://doi.org/10.1080/02508060.2013.782134; United Nations General Assembly, “General Assembly Adopts Convention on Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Water courses,” press release, 21 May1997; and Ho, “River Politics,” 8.

[55] Ho, “River Politics,” 8; and Beth Walker,“China and India Ignore UN Water courses Convention,” Chinadialogue (blog), 18 August 2014.

[56] Ho, “River Politics,” 8.

[57] CNA interviews, Beijing, 2015.

[58] Joel Wuthnow, Xin Li, and Lingling Qi, “Diverse Multilateralism: Four Strategies in China’s Multilateral Diplomacy,” Journal of Chinese Political Science 17, no.3 (September 2012): 269–90; Kuik Cheng-Chwee, “Multilateralism in China’s ASEAN Policy: Its Evolution, Characteristics, and Aspiration,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 27, no. 1 (2005): 102–22; and Hongying Wang,“Multilateralism in Chinese Foreign Policy: The Limits of Socialization,” Asian Survey 40, no.3 (May–June 2000): 475–91.

[59] The Six Party Talks, held between 2003 and 2009, involved discussions between China, Russia, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, and the United States regarding North Korea’s nuclear program. The ASEAN Regional Forum, launched in 1994, is a venue for discussions between ASEAN member states and others, including China, the United States, and the European Union.

[60] Zhang, “China-India: Revisiting the ‘Water Wars’ Narrative.”

[61] Hu Weijia, “No Need for Concern in India over China’s Blockage of Brahmaputra River Tributary,” Global Times (Beijing), 10 October 2016.

[62] CNA interviews, Beijing, 2015.

[63] Lan, “Shui ziyuan anquan hezuo yu ZhongYin guanxi de hudong” [Water Security Cooperation and China-India Interactions], 37– 43; and “Brahmaputra: Towards Unity,” 20 21.

[64] “Brahmaputra: Towards Unity,” 20 –21.

[65]CASS’s Li Zhifei even argues that basin-wide cooperation would reduce the chances that outside powers, such as the United States, would be able to interfere in regional affairs. Li Zhifei, “Shuiziyuanwaijiao: Zhongguozhoubiananquangoujianxinyiti” [Water Resource Diplomacy: A New Topic in Constructing China’s Peripheral Security] Xueshu Tansuo [Academic Exploration], no. 4 (2013):28–33.