China-India water cooperation tough without border resolution

Border disputes continue to overshadow China-India cooperation over the Yarlung Zangbo, but a more positive approach from China will help

On a visit to India in May, Chinese premier Li Keqiang said that the two countries would no longer avoid talking about their differences – everything, including border disputes and water sharing issues, was up for discussion. In October those talks bore fruit, with long-awaited progress on river issues. Li and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh, meeting in Beijing in their second summit of the year, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on strengthening cooperation on trans-border rivers, one of nine different agreements reached.

Under the agreement
, both parties recognised that “trans-border rivers and related natural resources and the environment are assets of immense value to the socio-economic development of all riparian countries” and agreed to cooperate through the existing expert level mechanism on flood-season hydrological data and emergency management. China also agreed to provide India with monsoon-season hydrological data for the Yarlung Zangbo (known in India as the Brahmaputra) for an extra two weeks every year, from May 15, rather than from June 1, to October 15.

The agreement made front page news in the Indian papers. A headline in The Hindu announced that “China will be more transparent on trans-border river projects” while the Indian Express wrote that “China’s acceptance of downstream rights is without precedent, and this is to date China’s only written agreement with a neighbour on these issues.” But Indian academics expressed disappointment, complaining the deal did not cover the real problems: China’s hydropower development and dam building on the Yarlung Zangbo. 

Stony silence from Chinese officials

The MoU did not make so much of a splash in the Chinese papers. When asked about the significance of the deal, the International Rivers Office at the Ministry of Water Resources’ Department of International Cooperation, Science and Technology waited a week before declining to comment.

Development of the Yarlung Zangbo has always been a sore point in relations between China and India. India worries Chinese hydropower dams will affect downstream flows. Brahma Chellaney of the Centre for Policy Research, an Indian think-tank, has even said, “China seems intent on aggressively pursuing projects on the Yarlung Zangbo and employing water as a weapon." A spokesperson at the Ministry of Water said China had no plans for any hydrological projects at the Great Bend of the Yarlung Zangbo, before the river flows into India. Meanwhile China would see any Indian development further downstream as threatening its claims over Arunachal Pradesh, which it refers to as South Tibet.

Li Zhifei, an assistant research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ (CASS) Institute for Asia-Pacific Studies, said that China was firmly opposed to any attempt by India to strengthen its de-facto control of the region by developing the Brahmaputra, while India holds that development would not weaken that control. “So real progress in talks on trans-border river and water allocation issues is unlikely, as the negotiations cannot avoid the status of South Tibet.”

Li argued the strategic significance of the new agreement was clear, but that China-India cooperation in this field is still just getting started, and has not yet dealt with the real issues – and so the problems cannot yet be solved. Although the two parties have opted to work together, any discussion of river development will inevitably run into questions of territory. Talks on sovereignty have decided to maintain the status quo, meaning that neither party will make any concessions. “So it can be expected that cooperation on trans-border rivers will go no further than these early exchanges of hydrological and flood-control information.”

But some Chinese academics have expressed confidence in future trans-border river cooperation. Yang Xiaoping, an assistant researcher with the National Institute of International Strategy at CASS, specialises in Chinese-Indian relations. She pointed out that the timetable for provision of flood-monitoring data on the Yarlung Zangbo hadn’t changed for over a decade, since the agreement was first signed in 2002. “It might have changed by just two weeks, but even that is a big step forward.” Yang added that “gathering data during the monsoon season is difficult, there is a lack of trust between the two nations, and scientific data is subject to national security considerations.”

Commenting on the outlook for the future, Yang said there can be further progress on institutionalising cooperation. So far there have only been MoUs,but in the future a working group could be set up to improve cooperation on flood warnings, environmental protection and biodiversity.

“For Chinese academics, trans-border rivers aren’t the decisive factor in relations with India. But if China takes a more positive approach, it will improve its image among neighbouring countries.”