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China's lust for water

According to a school of foreign policy, India’s stance towards China has been wrong from the word go. We lost the game, many detractors say, when in an agreement signed with China in April 1954, India officially recognised that Tibet belonged to China. Regardless of whether we gave away Tibet, as if Tibet had ever been ours to give away, the basic point is that by getting hold of Tibet, China laid a stranglehold on its enormous water resources.

Asia’s 10 great river systems including the Ganga, Indus, Mekong, Yangtse, Yellow River – fed by thousands of Himalayan-cum-Tibetan glaciers and mountain springs and flowing down from the Tibetan highlands – highlight the role played by this plateau as the continent’s ‘water tower’.

The numerous lakes on the plateau alone store, according to the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources, 608 billion cubic metres of freshwater that makes the Tibetan Plateau even more important. And now, if we trace the same motive to Chinese actions at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), particularly at the Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso, we can understand their actions better.

The oft-repeated quote of Mao terming Tibet as the ‘palm’ of a hand with its five fingers as Ladakh, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan, and what has so long been as NEFA that pertain to our north eastern states, and his claims that these were ‘Chinese’ territories that needed to be ‘liberated’ must not be lost on the current leadership of India because the current leadership of China continues to nurse such grand illusions if the Chinese behaviour of the last 60 years is any guide.
Beijing at one time had affirmed that ‘reunification’ of China is a ‘sacred duty’ of the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA), implying that this was much more a task for the military than of political–diplomatic processes. Observers say that if Beijing had recognised the McMahon Line, it would have been akin to accepting that Tibet had enjoyed de facto independence at the time of the Shimla conference in 1914, weakening its claim that Tibet was an inalienable part of China.

China’s hungry territoriality and downright irredentism could, to a large extent, be ascribed to water. If one does want to find potential water wars involving China, the natural place to look is its face-off with India over the river that flows out of western Tibet, where it is called the Yarlung Tsangpo, which takes the name Brahmaputra and flows through remote northeast India before crossing into Bangladesh.

Of the three mighty Himalayan rivers – the triad of great rivers in South Asia — the Ganga, Brahmaputra, and Indus — and their tributaries that feed five of the South Asian countries, namely, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, the Brahmaputra and the Indus originate in the Tibetan plateau thus making China eligible to make claims on waters of these two rivers. The Mekong River snakes out of Chinese-controlled Tibetan glaciers for some 4,350 km, through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Since 2010, China has moved to take control of a larger share of the water in the Tibetan plateau. China plans to build more than 322 km of canals to divert melting Himalayan glacier water to the parched Yellow River. When China took over Tibet more than half a century ago, it may have had its eye on the Yarlung Tsangpo as expanding territories for China then made as such sense as it does now.

Besides being the source of Asia’s greatest rivers, the annexed Tibetan plateau is the world’s largest repository of freshwater after the Arctic and Antarctica that serve as the lifeblood for mainland China and South and Southeast Asia. Momentous battles over the glacial water of the Tibetan Plateau might well be on the anvil.

Pangong Tso

In his book, “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis”, Brahma Chellaney pointed out to the attention deficit regarding some specific transboundary lakes, wetlands and glaciers such as the 134-km-long Pangong Tso, currently in contention and the 6,300-metre-high Siachin Glacier.

He recounted how the 4,350-metre-high Pangong Tso – the scene of bloody battles during the 1962 Chinese invasion of India – remains a hotly contested zone and how China, in control of two-thirds of this endorheic lake, seeks to test Indian defence preparedness in the area by intermittently dispatching armed patrols across the line of control, including by motorboat.

Chellaney reminded us that while Indian forces were deflecting a major Pakistani military incursion into the Kargil region of Ladakh in 1999, Chinese troops built a 5-km permanent track into Indian-administered territory along the lake, located on the opposite flank of the Ladakh border indicative of their lust for the region’s water resources.

The so-called Chinese Claim Line runs very close to the confluence of the Shyok and Galwan rivers (referred to as Galwan Mouth) that is barely about 4 km west of the LAC. As the road from Darbuk to Shyok to Daulat Beg Oldie, the Indian landing strip, runs parallel to the Shyok river along its western bank, this location is of strategic importance.

An analysis of satellite imagery explains how China altered the Galwan river's ecosystem to eventually claim the region as its own. Unconfirmed Indian media reports claim Beijing has cut off the flow of the Galwan River which many feel should be challenged immediately, or else this could lead to cutting off waters to other rivers with serious consequences for agriculture and potable water in India.

China is occupying nearly 48,000 sq km of Indian territory (in Aksai Chin) in Ladakh, had obtained the Shaksgam Valley further west from Pakistan illegally, and also claims 94,000 sq km of Indian territory in the north-east constituting the state of Arunachal Pradesh. We have been putting up with such uneasy facts for far too long and now paying a price for it.

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