China’s omnivorous energy requirements have been attracting increasing attention as of late, as Beijing attempts to secure any and all sources of power for its growing industrial base.
Nowhere is this more noticeable than Beijing’s policies in the South China Sea, where Chinese assertions of sovereignty are unsettling the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, all of whom have counter claims on the various shoals and islets.
China’s landward neighbours are also feeling the hot breath of Beijing’s mandarins, however, most notably its economic rival India, with whom China fought a brief war in 1962 in the Himalayas over a disputed frontier, where the alpine conflict, according to China’s official military history, achieved China’s policy objectives of securing borders in its western sector in retaining Chinese control of the Aksai Chin with India accepting the de facto borders which codified along the Line of Actual Control.
Now China and India are engaged yet again in a spat, this time over the headwaters of the Brahmaputra River. According to New Delhi China is planning up to 24 hydroelectric facilities with a cumulative power generation capacity of nearly 2,000 megawatts along Brahmaputra’s source, the Arun River, before it descends into India.
Further east, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos are alarmed by China’s intentions to build three massive dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong River, adding to six existing hydroelectric facilities. What is singularly lacking in all these plans is any regional or concerted international effort to counter China’s plans.
India’s concerns are heightened by the fact that most of its major rivers originate in Tibet, which China invaded and annexed in 1950, declaring it an integral part of “Western China.” Both the Brahmaputra and Indus rivers have their origins in a lake in western Tibet near Mount Kailash.
Complicating India’s efforts to discuss the issue is China’s reluctance to acknowledge the validity of satellite imagery, which Beijing regards as espionage, even though in 2010 China acknowledged as a result of India’s space observation that it was in fact building the Zangmu dam on the Brahmaputra, as the imagery received from Indian satellites confirmed the construction.
Indian strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney observed, “China has always been unapologetic about its refusal to enter into water sharing agreements with any states. It has always maintained that it would take into account interests of the lower riparian states but about half of the world’s total number of large dams are in China. India, with so many of its major rivers originating in Tibet, is going to be among the worst affected. The issue is usually soft pedaled by the water resources ministry, and there is never any international pressure on this though the list of countries suffering because of China’s refusal is quite long including Russia, Kazakhstan, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.”
Chellaney’s list of aggrieved states along China’s landward frontiers is extensive – what remains to be seen is whether the region’s two substantive powers, Russia and India, are willing to confront Beijing, either singly or in concert, over Beijing’s efforts to harness Asia’s river flow to power its industrial miracle. So far, the signs are not encouraging, as Chinese economic “soft power” seduces Russia and India as covertly as it does America’s economy.
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