China and India Heading to War Over Water? China to Build Huge Hydropower Station on Border

Hello, everyone. Welcome to Zooming In China, I’m Simone Gao.

A new report from Bloomberg on August 3rd seemed to bring hope to a darkening border dispute between China and India. China and India have mutually agreed to pull back troops from the site of a deadly dispute in June 2020 where 20 Indian and 4 Chinese soldiers were killed. After more than a year of both sides protecting that border, it will now be replaced with a demilitarized zone neither side will patrol in order to prevent a repeat of that conflict. Similar zones exist throughout their disputed 2,170-mile border.

The photos coming from the area capture a different story for the rest of that border. They show heavily armed vehicles traversing dangerous terrain, carrying more soldiers and heavy weaponry to a battle the international community sees coming but seems powerless to stop. Both sides have sent troops to the area over the past year, China increasing their troops from 15,000 to over 50,000 and India keeping pace with tens of thousands of their own. The deployments on both sides have reached the highest level in decades, and what the August 3rd announcement does not show is a willingness to remove those troops altogether.

The propaganda coming from China’s People’s Liberation Army has increased in tempo, too, most recently with a video posted online by the Henan provincial military district. In the video, a graphic clip of the June 2020 battle shows troops, who had been denied guns to reduce skirmishes, wading through waist-deep water while throwing stones and waving bayonets at one another. The video was shown during an interview with the family of one of the four Chinese soldiers killed in that dispute. Clearly this is an attempt to fuel anger and a desire for justice among the Chinese people to gain their support for a coming war. A war between two nuclear-armed countries.

The preparations are already in place. Both China and India have been at work building infrastructures that will support a lasting presence in the area, including insulated cabins and huts for use by the soldiers during the long Himalayan winter. China has built underground bunkers and tunnels, power structures including hydroelectric power stations and solar panels, and helipads and field hospitals. They have also moved heavy artillery to the area, including advanced surface-to-air missiles.  

India is deep in preparations as well, building their own roads and tunnels as well as housing for around 18,000 troops. Previously, they had housing for only 5,000. And along with their own heavy artillery, they have sent a squadron of 18 fighter jets to the surrounding regions, prepared to engage if necessary. A second squadron is being readied.

It would be easy to cast this as a simple border dispute, an argument over land that was only vaguely defined following the last China-India war in 1962. An official border was never determined after that war, the land instead being drawn by a demarcation line, or what is known as the Line of Actual Control. India draws that line at the location where Chinese troops withdrew in 1962. China draws it in the location they held before the war, in 1959. One area China continues to try to claim is an area where India has established a full state: Arunachal Pradesh.

If this were just a battle over an ill-defined border, it would be easier to believe that there is daylight coming, a reversal of the march toward what may become a nuclear incident. But there is more at stake. There is a reason this land is so hotly contested and so important to each side. And that reason is water. 

The international water at the heart of this conflict is the Yarlung Zangbo River that runs through China’s territory in Tibet. It then flows into India, known there as the Brahmaputra River, and through Bangladesh as the Jamuna River until it finally flows into the Indian Ocean. This is a river that matters. It matters to the identity of the Tibetan people, to the economy of the Chinese people and to the very lives of citizens in India and Bangladesh. The fighting, then, is not about the land itself. It is about the survival of people, countries, and identities.

During the disastrous floods in China’s Henan Province, rather than staying in the area to help his people through the crisis, General Secretary Xi Jinping traveled instead to Tibet. He went to survey the area surrounding Linzhi, part of the land contested between these two countries, and to the Niyang River Hydropower Station. Both sites important to China’s intention to “implement hydropower development in the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River” outlined in the country’s 14th Five-Year Plan and their 2035 Vision.  It is scheduled to begin construction between 2030 and 2035 with an estimated completion date of 2045. It will be three times the size of the Three Gorges Dam.

This new project, called the Mo Dehydration Power Station, comes from a country that has exhausted its ability to build dams in many other areas. Chinese water conservancy expert Wang Weiluo reports that “The hydropower resources in other provinces except Tibet are almost exhausted. The only thing left is the Tibet Autonomous Region, and the hydropower resources of the Tibet Autonomous Region are concentrated in the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River.” With so many hydroelectric projects scattered throughout China, why risk a war with India to build a new one on contested lands in international waters? 

Money is a big part. This is a project estimated to bring in a total of 3.6 trillion yuan for China, with 22.19 billion yuan slated for Tibet. While that might seem like a needed boost for the Tibetan people, it is meant as a benefit to the Chinese government. Tibet’s total fiscal revenue for 2019 was just 22.19 billion yuan, which was then subsidized by the Chinese government who added another 190.12 billion yuan. This power station, then, does little more than offset part of what the Chinese government was subsidizing to the region. It does not improve the lives of the Tibetan people who live there.

But controlling the water is bigger than money. Constructing the Mo Dehydration Power Station will give China the complete strategic control over the water resource of the Yarlung Zangbo River. This will be China’s most powerful move against an ever hostile and dangerous rival: India. Likewise, handing the security of these powers over to the CCP would mean a loss of control and survival, not just in this contested area but in their entire country. And it means putting the lives of 1.37 billion people in India and 163 million people in Bangladesh at the mercy of the CCP. 

For India and Bangladesh, this is about life itself. The Brahmaputra River is the most significant source of water in both countries, and any diversion of that water would be disastrous for both countries. 130 million people in India and Bangladesh live along the Brahmaputra delta with another 600,000 living on the river’s islands. These people rely on the river’s yearly flooding for the moisture and sediment it brings to the soil. That flooding brings the nutrients needed for their agriculture and marine farming that are key to their food production and their economies. The fish caught on the river’s floodplains and ponds are the primary source of protein for people in the area, and two of their three seasonal rice varieties cannot survive without the floodwater. Already facing serious climate refugee challenges due to rural lands being lost under the rising seas, a loss of the Brahmaputra’s river natural flooding would ravage both countries. 

The Tibetans won’t be happy either. As Weiluo also makes clear, “In the hearts of the Tibetans, the Yarlung Zangbo River Grand Canyon is the place where gods live. It is the mother river of the Tibetans and the cradle of the Tibetan culture.” Chinese author Han Xuemei adds that “among the primitive Tibetan religion Bon, the sacred concept of awe of nature and ecology has the deepest impact on Tibetans. They believe that the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is a holy land, and the sacred mountain and lake are the ancestors and protectors of their nation. Not only would this project be destroying their sacred areas and cultural spaces that are critical to their identity as a people, the Tibetan people do not economically benefit from the project. Tibetans are not employed in dam construction projects because the Chinese government is worried that they will destroy the engineering facilities, according to Weiluo.

How will the Mo Dehydration Power Station project unfold? We will keep you updated. 

That’s it for today. As some of you may have already seen, we are about to release a documentary movie on the Clean Network. It is part two of a documentary series “The American Dream Takes on China Inc.” that tells the story of a group of silicon valley veterans beating the CCP in the economic battlefield. We will publish it on the membership website first on Friday and premiere it on YouTube two days later on Sunday. 

For future documentary movies that are not part of this series, we may put them on the membership website only. So if you would like to watch this movie earlier and to support us, please sign up for our membership website: Thanks for watching. I am Simone Gao and I will see you next time. Oh, before I leave, enjoy the trailer of the documentary movie, the clean network.

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