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Variable of water in India-China relations

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Farzad Ramezani Bonesh

Senior Researcher and Analyst of International Affairs

 South Asia makes up about 22% of the world’s population, but global water resources in the region have become as precious as new oil, so there is no alternative to water.

The Tibetan Plateau will play a key role in future disputes over water resources between India and China. The Tibetan Plateau has been annexed by China since the 1950s. Meanwhile, India and China are still at loggerheads over Tibet, Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and the McMahon Line.

In fact, the two countries’ needs to water are increasing day by day. Some of the world’s highest mountains and glaciers, known as “The Third Pole” (after Antarctica and the North Pole), are located in Tibet. Also, part of the largest and most important rivers in Asia originate from Tibet, and it actually supplies most of East and Southeast Asia’s water.

On the other hand, the largest rivers in India and China depend on glaciers and water resources in Tibet, so any major changes in glaciers can affect the extent of disputes. Under these circumstances, the Brahmaputra River is a trans boundary river that stretches for more than 2,900 kilometers across China, India and Bangladesh.

The management of Brahmaputra’s is important for water, food and energy security, but mutual distrust of governments complicates cooperation. Meanwhile, tensions over water between India and China are rising.

Chinese approach to common waters

A quarter of China is made up of deserts and is facing severe water shortages. From Beijing’s point of view, China wants to benefit from hydropower (Converting the water to the energy). China by using its geographical position (above India) can use the Brahmaputra’s water potential in Tibet.

Under these circumstances, China appears to be providing some of its electricity from the waters of the Brahma Putra River. The Chinese have repeatedly assured India that Beijing does not intend to divert water from the Brahmaputra, but instead, fears that India could use its construction activities in Arunachal Pradesh to consolidate its power in this region.

From this point of view, China has the right to control the resources of large rivers before they cross the border. In fact, projects at the Brahmaputra hydropower plant in Tibet will not change the volume of water in the downstream in India. Also, the amount of water consumption for the upstream areas is very low and the local people in upstream have the right to use the river.

From China’s point of view, the dams on the rivers leading to India do not pose a problem for India and the water of these rivers has not been completely blocked. From this point of view, India has no agreement with China in this regard and cannot protest it according to international law

Indian approach to common waters

From New Delhi’s point of view, India is potentially affected by China’s measures toward the water issue. China’s re-engineering is damaging to the transfer of border rivers to India (directly or through the Nepal River).

India considers China as the main cause of the water crisis in South Asia. Artificial dams and lakes restrict groundwater resources, blocking the natural flow of the mud and the flow of rivers. It also poses a risk to the ecosystem and the environment, and increases the potential of earthquakes, droughts and floods.

In addition, it appears that Indians are mulling the dangers of cross-river water transfer program, the lack of transparency about the construction of the dam on the Tibet River, and the risk of cutting off the transferring of hydrological data from China to India.

What is clear is that Indians believe that China is using water as a tool to resolve geopolitical disputes. Also, by dominating the negotiations, its inflexibility and upward position, China is not willing to sign a memorandum of understanding or to shape the Brahmaputra Basin Commission.

In fact, from New Delhi’s point of view, the construction of a dam on the upstream waterways from China poses serious problems for India. The Holly Brahmaputra River is one of the largest rivers in India. Meanwhile, in recent years, Indians believe that China by using its leverages has benefitted from water as a new lever in China-India relations.


More than 300 million people in India are deprived of water. Also, the lack of sweet water resources in India, along with continued population growth, increases India’s dependence on Tibet’s natural water reservoir. This could have significant implications on the future relations between China and India and future conflicts over the water.

Three countries, Pakistan, India and China, have claimed control of the Jammu and Kashmir region. The northeast of the region is under Chinese control. The northwest and the western strip are under Pakistan’s control. India also controls the south and center of the region. Areas under the control of these countries are of great strategic importance.

However, if India decides to use water weapon to punish Pakistan, China, as an ally of Pakistan, could threat India and create a catastrophe in the country.

China and India, on the other hand, share about 3,440 kilometers of border. They have territorial disputes in some areas. The border between the two countries is known as the “The Line of Actual Control”. In particular, China and India have long been at loggerheads over the Ladakh region.

Meanwhile, New Delhi’s decision to unilaterally change the structure of the state of Jammu and Kashmir has been opposed by China. In the meantime, India and China are pushing for their infrastructure projects along the border.

Although despite border disputes, China and India after several conflicts with each other have managed to settle their conflicts; despite possessing nuclear weapon and the $ 80 billion trade volume between the two countries, if they can’t find a solution to resolve their water disputes by using hydro politics and a proper policymaking, the increasing tensions between the two countries will go higher.

In the meantime, the ambiguous situation of water tensions can have a negative impact on other aspects of tensions and cooperation between the two countries and aggravate them.