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The Hand On Asia's Water Tap

An article in today’s FT describes another arena in the Asian Great Game: water. The writer is also the author of Water: Asia’s New Battleground, and as the article notes, China’s “construction of upstream dams on international rivers such as the Mekong, Brahmaputra or Amur shows China is increasingly bent on unilateral actions, impervious to the concerns of downstream nations.”


China already boasts both the world’s biggest dam (Three Gorges) and a greater total number of dams than the rest of the world combined. It has shifted its focus from internal to international rivers, and graduated from building large dams to building mega-dams. Among its newest dams on the Mekong is the 4,200 megawatt Xiaowan – taller than Paris’s Eiffel Tower. New dams approved for construction include one on the Brahmaputra at Metog (or Motuo in Chinese) that is to be twice the size of the 18,300MW Three Gorges – and sited almost on the disputed border with India.

These actions have put China at loggerheads with each and every one of its neighbors, but Beijing just doesn’t seem to care. China consistently rejects international water-sharing treaties and refuses to negotiate bilateral or multilateral agreements.

The looming struggle over water is not difficult to foresee. As China and South Asian countries use more and more water in urban development and agriculture, available resources will be intensely protected. China controls the vast Tibetan plateau, where most of South Asia’s rivers originate. Not only does China appropriate upstream resources, but pollution flows downstream, making what water downstream nations have available increasingly unsuitable for consumption or agriculture.

This looks less like a deliberate attempt to antagonize or intimidate neighbors than like a reflection of the economic development lobby in China compared to the power of the Foreign Ministry.  One suspects that China’s diplomats couldn’t restrain local interests from exploiting water resources and building dams if they tried.  Students of the Great Game will be watching attentively to see whether the advantages of faster domestic development will offset the cost of tenser relations with neighbors.

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  • Kris

    With rivals like that, who needs a State Department?

  • “China’s ‘construction of upstream dams on international rivers such as the Mekong, Brahmaputra or Amur shows China is increasingly bent on unilateral actions, impervious to the concerns of downstream nations.’ ”

    EGADS! Not those clever, dynamic, industrious Chinese! Is nothing in this world to be depended on? I mean, if you can’t expect humility, chivalry, proportion, fair play and fair-mindedness from the ambitious and hardworking, where’s it to be found anywhere? And to think only yesterday our two countries – we two partners-in-Limitless Progress – were marching lockstep into the Bold New World of the 21st century. Well, all I can say is, assuming the “facts” are correct, it can only be happening for the best. Who are we to question our “God is growth” superiors? Remember, no SMART Goliath ever slew – or better yet, enslaved? – a David without good reason. Or, if not exactly a “good” reason (“Hey, sometimes you gotta break some eggs . . .”), at least one that was bold, forward-looking, and future-confident.

    But in the extremely unlikely event the Chinese are not being GOOD Goliaths, what are the odds of any effective mediation by the US? At least in our present state of exemplary political calm and composure? Or might we already be past the point of no return where Beijing is concerned? (That was a pretty TIGHT lockstep as I recall.) I wish I could be confident one way or the other. We Yanks can be pretty fickle where mere Davids are concerned. On the other hand – especially in our isolationist phases – it can take us a while to see through the flattery (or bluster) of the “right” Goliath. And particularly one that seems to be on the Right Side of History.

  • WigWag

    China is working overtime to antagonize every one of its Asian neighbors. Whether it’s Chinese belligerency in the South China Sea or its piggish attitude about riparian rights, more and more Asian nations are coming to resent the Chinese. Naturally, these nations look to the United States for relief.

    This reality offers the United States a major strategic advantage in Asia, but the door to take advantage of this reality will not be open forever. It is absolutely awful that at just the moment that the United States should be taking a more assertive role in Asia, instead we are contemplating how much to cut the budget for the navy.

    It’s really quite remarkable; the Philippines is so wary about China that the suggestion is actually being made that the United States should be invited to reopen the bases as Subic Bay and Clark.

    At just the moment we should be poised to take advantage of the best strategic opportunities we’ve had in Asia for decades, instead the Pentagon budget is about to be massively cut. Talk about never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

    Ironically, all of this is the fault of a brain-dead Republican Party focused on austerity instead of opportunity. Despite Republican claims of being strong on defense the Party is actually weaker on defense than the Democrats.

    There is simply no political will to expand Pentagon spending when domestic spending is in an austerity mode. With the United States contemplating cutting social security and Medicare as well as a host of discretionary programs, American voters will never allow the military budget to go unscathed.

    Just at the moment when we should be using our navy to lay down markers in Asia that could benefit our country strategically for 50 years, thanks to Republican stupidity we are focusing on how to retrench.

    What makes this even more amazing is that interest rates are so low that China will actually lend us the money almost for free that we could be using to forge naval relationships that will hem in their expansionist aspirations generations.

    Austerity minded Republicans are not only ensuring that the United States faces the same kind of lost decade that Japan did; whether they know it or not they are crippling our ability to remain the world’s preeminent superpower.

    Democrats are dumb. Republicans are dumber.

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