Building trust on the Brahmaputra

Anamika Barua, an Indian academic, shares her experience working with Chinese peers on the transboundary Brahmaputra River
<p>Fishermen on the Brahmaputra, a river that winds through four countries (Image: Sumit Vij)</p>

Fishermen on the Brahmaputra, a river that winds through four countries (Image: Sumit Vij)

I have been fortunate to be a part of Brahmaputra Dialogue (BD) since 2013. This dialogue was initiated by the South Asian Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies (SaciWATERs), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Hyderabad in 2013. The initiative started as a bilateral process between India and Bangladesh, but it became multilateral in 2015 with the inclusion of Bhutan and China.

Over the past five years the project gave me the opportunity to engage with many people from the four countries involved, in different capacities. Such interactions at a professional, as well as personal level, helped me to overcome various apprehensions that I had before interacting with colleagues from overseas.

The Brahmaputra is a unique river system of South Asia shared by four countries: China (where it is called Yarlung-Tsangpo), India, Bhutan and Bangladesh (where it is called the Jamuna). The river system has immense potential to become an engine for economic development, but the diverse geophysical characteristics of the river have led to divergent interests among the countries sharing the Basin. Hence, amid diversity (a common feature of any transboundary river basin), we need to identify avenues of cooperation to harness the river in the best possible way, which is economically viable, socially just, and environmentally sustainable.

But cooperation cannot happen overnight and is only possible when countries communicate, as lack of communication usually leads to suspicion and mistrust, which further complicates the situation, eventually leading to deadlock.

This is the backdrop in which the Brahmaputra Dialogue was initiated. It aims to help the Brahmaputra riparian countries discuss their concerns related to the river with a broader objective of breaking the enduring deadlock, which has made negotiation over the Brahmaputra extremely complex.

Between 2013 and 2014, during the bilateral BD meetings (attended mostly by academics or those close to decision-makers, or “track 2 and 1.5” in dialogue parlance), the need for China’s participation in the dialogue was raised many times. Everyone knew and acknowledged (directly or indirectly) that “riparian geographical position” can play a significant role in determining the way the water is managed in the Basin. However, the suggestion to include China was accompanied by apprehension that China would not participate in such dialogues, and even if it did, its representatives would not openly share their views. This was the common belief among academics, policymakers and members of the media in both India and Bangladesh.

In 2015, the BD team decided to take up the challenge to include China and Bhutan and thus raise the BD platform from a bilateral to a multilateral dialogue process. Despite a few initial hiccups, SaciWATERs, with the help of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), identified a few suitable people at Yunnan University. An invitation was sent to them requesting participation and we received an immediate response. In fact, they asked if we could accommodate two people from China and that they would bear the additional costs.

The first multilateral BD regional meeting took place in May 2015, in Bangladesh, which for the first time saw the representation of all the four riparian countries – India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China.

The representatives from Yunnan University not only participated in the meeting but also to everyone’s surprise, shared their views and opinion openly in the forum. While commenting on the relationship around hydropower diplomacy between the Brahmaputra Basin countries, they emphasised that suggestions and ideas coming out from such discussion were extremely important and needed to be communicated to the government of the respective countries.

They expressed keen interest to host a similar workshop in China, so that the Chinese stakeholders could be made aware of the impacts of infrastructure development on lower riparian countries, such as India and Bangladesh. They also cited the case of the Mekong, and mentioned the diverse interests of each country in the Mekong River Basin. They emphasised that many of these differences were resolved to a great extent in 2004, when the Chinese government came to an agreement with the Mekong River Commission to share water data to support flood control in downstream countries. Being an upstream country, China realises the need for its participation in such forums to promote joint research, improve data sharing mechanisms, and eventually pave the way for long-term institutional development.

This was also the beginning of my professional and personal association with Chinese counterparts through the BD project. We shared phone numbers and stayed in touch through messages and emails. During our conversations I made a personal request to them to help us connect to more intuitions in China, so that we could expand our network. They were equally excited about the BD initiative and connected us to institutions such as the Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIIS), the Beijing Institute of international Relations, and Fudan University. As a result, in 2016 at the regional meeting of BD, which was held in Singapore, we had representation from both SIIS and Yunnan University.

In May 2017, (during the time of the Doklam standoff on the Bhutan-China border involving Indian and Chinese forces) a colleague and I travelled to China, with SIIS and the Hainan Institute of World Watch (HIWW) hosting us. Before leaving for China, I wrote mails to a few senior academics, who work on India-China relations, seeking an appointment to meet them. All of them responded; whether to accept, or to explain their inability to meet due to prior commitments, which indicated to me their professionalism as well as their willingness to talk.

We met several important people in Shanghai and Beijing during our visit. They were from government academic institutions as well as influential thinktanks. All of them shared their views about both India and China without any hesitation, appreciated the dialogue initiative and suggested ways to take the dialogue forward with Chinese participation. One representative emphasised the need for “patience to wait for the right moment” for things to move; adding that for the Brahmaputra, the “right moment is not too far”.

The issue of hydropower development by China was also discussed openly. Most of participants agreed that China (like India) has plans to develop hydropower because, as a developing country, they need access to clean (non-fossil fuel) energy. They also recognised the fact that different countries have different interests in the river, as is common for all transboundary rivers.

One contributor mentioned that China is keen to participate in such transboundary dialogues, as it helps them to know the needs of each country, both now and in the future. Scientific research is one of the most important concerns for all. The generation of knowledge is key to any cooperation. One of the academicians stated that, “while transboundary issues are largely political, unless we know what the river can provide, we are not in a position to negotiate”. They suggested that the dialogue platform should also try to bring researchers together to develop joint projects at the transboundary level.

One of the major outcomes of this visit was a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Guwahati and Yunnan University (the first MoU between a Chinese academic institution and IIT Guwahati) to conduct joint research on the Brahmaputra Basin.

We also shared a few light moments discussing Indian movies (Dangal was a major hit at that time in China), Indian and Chinese cuisine, and how the western world is fascinated by our food.

I was supposed to travel to Beijing alone as my colleague could not accompany me. Our host was disappointed as they felt it would be extremely difficult for me to manage alone, as local taxi drivers do not speak English. I told them not to worry as I was used to travelling alone. But to my surprise, on the morning of travel I was informed that our host institution had sent one of their employees to accompany me, and to bear the cost. When I vehemently opposed it, they told me, “You are our guest, your safety is our utmost concern, so please let us do our duty.” I could not oppose the goodwill.

I am grateful to them for taking so good care of me during my entire time in Beijing. In fact the taxi driver in Beijing played Hindi songs for me, adding that he often listened to old Hindi songs as he finds them very melodious.

I consider myself fortunate to be a part of BD project, as it gave me the opportunity to work with Chinese people and to experience their hospitality. I also realised that China and India’s general public think alike in many ways; both seek peaceful resolution to problems, both understand the value of such dialogues, both respect each other’s culture, both love each other’s cuisine; and both realise that differences crop up when we let politics take the centre stage. Hence, what we need to push for is people-to-people diplomacy, to mitigate the mistrust and hostility between India and China, which is also one of the aims of the BD project.