There is increasing concern in South and Southeast Asia over Beijing’s control and implied threat to the major water arteries flowing through the region. Six of the major South Asian and Southeast Asian rivers, the heart of life in South and Southeast Asia, rise on the Tibetan plateau. The Chinese Communists have been on an intensive program of dam building on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra, the Irrawady, the Meman Chao Phya and the Mekong, which would give them control of these arteries of commerce as well as irrigation for vast areas downstream.
The issue is further complicated by the effect of global warming on the Tibetan glaciers where snows are melting at an unusually rapid pace on 46,000 glaciers, the largest concentration of ice after the south and north poles. Tibet has some of the most rapidly rising temperatures on the planet. One of Tibet’s lakes, Namtso, a holy site where pilgrims circumnavigate its banks in prayer, expanded by 20 square miles from 2000 to 2014 from the melting ice and snow. It’s estimated that Tibet’s glaciers have shrunk by some 15% over the past 30 years. And some scientists have warned that if melting continues at current levels, the warmer temperatures will wipe out two-thirds of the plateau’s glaciers by 2050, affecting more than two billion people in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh Bhutan, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
It is against this background that China has been building politically potent barrages. The most dramatic example is China’s plan to divert the Brahmaputra from its upper reaches where it flows a thousand miles through Tibet and then another 600 miles through India., including emptying into the harbor of its second largest city and port, Calcutta. The Brahmaputra is the lifeline of northeast India, an already troubled region with caste and other ethnic conflicts, some traditionally fed by Chinese subversion.
Concern has also been expressed by Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia over eight dams it is building on the upper reaches of the Mekong river. The Burmese military junta canceled a dam under construction inside Myanmar.one of six other Chinese-led hydroelectric projects planned for the upper reaches of the Irrawady which would have exported electricity to southern China.
Governments and the business communities are worried that Beijing’s apparent intention to dam every major river flowing out of Tibet will lead to environmental imbalance, natural disasters, degrade fragile ecologies, and most of all, divert vital water supplies. The extent of the Chinese program is monumental — on the eight great Tibetan rivers alone, Beijing has already completed 20 dams or has them under construction while it has announced plans for three dozen more.
The Dalai Lama has pointed out the obvious, that China’s program could lead to conflict. He warned that India’s use of the Tibetan water “is something very, very essential. So, since millions of Indians use water coming from the Himalayan glaciers… I think you [India] should express more serious concern. This is nothing to do with politics, just everybody’s interests, including Chinese people.”
The Chinese program for the Brahmaputra is only one of many issues which dog the India-China relationship. Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi, from the nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party, has blown hot and cold over this issue as with other irritants in the relation ship between the two countries. Despite extensive contacts, the Himalayan border disputes which date back almost a century are no more near solution than they ever were with frequent if small set-tos by the countries’ military. Increasing penetration of the Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan, once dependencies of British India, has become a continuing concern for New Delhi.
Meanwhile, however, China has become India’s No. 1 trading partner – up to an estimated $80 billion in 2015, $10 billion more than 2014. That’s despite concern in New Delhi that Indian exports are largely raw materials and imports Chinese electronics and other manufactured goods. Extensive economic relations are often seen as insuring political disagreements would somehow be sorted out – but that has to contend with the U.S.-Japan relationship on the eve of World War II. An outbreak of uncontrolled violence between the two Asian giants is one more high priority concern that must be on America’s foreign policy agenda.
This takes on new weight as Washington negotiates with Modi for access for unlimited refueling and basing in Indian ports, a mutual treaty which of course is largely meaningless for Indians deployment in American waters. But access to Indian ports would be of considerable strategic advantage the U.S. operating in the vast Indian Ocean.