China touts its damming of Tibet’s rivers as a counter to climate change and denies its dam building foreshadows any untoward intentions. But military analysts in both India and China recognize the potential of these dams to devastate India should hostilities break out between them, and the untenable position in which they would place India.
The Tibetan land mass, despite its sparse population and remote resources, is one of the most geostrategic on the planet. As goes Tibet, so goes much of South Asia.
The 965,000-square-mile region of Tibet—a land area six times that of California—holds the headwaters for 10 major rivers that flow into 10 countries, most of which have disputes with China. China’s control over those rivers gives it the ability to shun water-sharing treaties, to exploit water to its neighbors’ economic detriment, to blackmail its neighbors into acquiescing to China’s whims, and, if need be, to turn the rivers into weapons of war.
The Mekong River, one of the world’s largest, provides one example of how China exploits rivers to the detriment of others. Until 2010 and 2012, when China commissioned large hydro dams on the Mekong north of its border with Thailand, the flow of water downstream of China was fairly predictable on the basis of upstream rainfall and snow melt.
After these dams were commissioned, trouble grew in recent years, leading to the worst droughts in generations in some of the downstream countries. Water levels downstream from China along the Thai-Lao border were as much as 10 feet lower than normal, according to a U.S.-government-funded study conducted by Eyes on Earth, a research and consulting company. Downstream countries such as Thailand and Vietnam saw their rice and sugar crops and fisheries devastated as the once mighty Mekong was at times reduced to a trickle.
China denied that its dams were responsible, blaming low levels of rainfall for the droughts. That claim was belied by satellite measurements indicating that the Upper Mekong region in China’s Yunnan Province actually enjoyed above-average combined rainfall and snowmelt during the May to October wet season.
While countries downstream of China suffered shortages, China’s dam reservoirs were full. According to Eyes on Earth CEO Alan Basist, China was “not letting the water out during the wet season, even when the restriction of water from China has a severe impact on the drought experienced downstream.” Stimson Center analysts came to a similar conclusion: “China’s dams held back so much water that they entirely prevented the annual monsoon-driven rise in river level at Chiang Saen, Thailand. This has not happened since modern records have been kept.”
With the exception of Vietnam, which fought a brief border war with China in 1979, none of the other countries in the southern Mekong are militarily capable of standing up to China, which plans to augment its seven Mekong dams with another 20. Most countries downstream of Tibet’s other major headwaters are likewise militarily incapable, giving them little choice but to bend to China’s terms in trade negotiations or other areas of contention. Over time, they could be relegated to vassal states.
Not so with India, whose Brahmaputra River, which accounts for nearly 30 percent of India’s freshwater resources, flows from Tibet’s Himalayas through India where it meets the Ganges River before flowing to the Bay of Bengal. With hundreds of millions of Indians at risk, India will not be acquiescent if China carries through with its plans in the upper reaches of the Tibetan Brahmaputra for a series of hydro dams, one of which will have a capacity twice the size of the Three Gorges Dam, now the world’s largest. China has already begun construction of three new major dams in the middle reaches of the Brahmaputra—in all China plans 11 dams on the Brahmaputra’s mainstream and others on its main tributaries.
China, which touts its damming of Tibet’s rivers as measures countering climate change, denies its dam building foreshadows any untoward intentions. But military analysts in both India and China recognize these dams’ potential to devastate India should hostilities break out between them, and the untenable position in which they would place India.
To prevent the eventual capitulation of much, if not all, of South Asia to Chinese hegemony, the United States, Asian countries, and NGOs are issuing warnings of the looming dangers and attempting to muster diplomatic pressure to encourage China to relent.
Although many of the world’s major international waterways are subject to water-sharing agreements through either bilateral agreements or the U.N. Convention on Non-Navigable Use of International Watercourses, China refuses to participate in any of them, seeing no reason to give up the immense leverage it exerts over its neighbors by dint of its exclusive control of Tibet’s rivers. Where China has entered into bilateral water agreements—to share data on river flows, for example—it has failed to honor them.
Communist China has demonstrated it is impervious to international pressure to abide by an accepted rules-based order, whether the pressure was directed at the enslavement of Uyghurs, the organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners, or the takeover of Hong Kong… or Tibet. Striving to convince China to enter into water-sharing negotiations with the many countries that depend on the Tibetan rivers amounts to participating in a charade.
Short of war, the only plausible approach to prevent China from becoming ever-more entrenched in South Asia is to rebuff China’s malign policies at every turn—a death by a thousand cuts strategy. The West should aim to restore Tibet’s autonomy by ending its decades-long kowtowing over Tibet, and making China’s occupation of Tibet costly to the Communist Party in terms of its prestige, power, and pocketbook. Western countries should recognize the sovereignty of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama should again be welcome at diplomatic gatherings, and the right of Tibetans to freely exercise their Buddhist faith should be demanded. Western companies such as Nike and Apple should be prohibited by law from contracting with Chinese suppliers that exploit slave labor. Sanctions should be placed on Chinese businesses and Chinese officials that harm Tibetans by preventing them from operating in the West, and from enrolling their children in Western universities.
Wherever territorial disputes exist between China and its South Asian neighbors, the West must be muscular in response, to prevent China from continuing its policy of persistently and incrementally annexing lands claimed by others.
The rallying cry of “Free Tibet” should once again mean something. Otherwise, independence for the countries of South Asia may mean nothing.