The Sino-Indian Water Divide

NEW DELHI – As China and India gain economic heft, they are drawing ever more international attention at the time of an ongoing global shift of power to Asia. Their underlying strategic dissonance and rivalry, however, usually attracts less notice.

As its power grows, China seems determined to choke off Asian competitors, a tendency reflected in its hardening stance toward India. This includes aggressive patrolling of the disputed Himalayan frontier by the People’s Liberation Army, many violations of the line of control separating the two giants, new assertiveness concerning India’s northeastern Arunachal Pradesh state – which China claims as its own – and vituperative attacks on India in the state-controlled Chinese media.

The issues that divide India and China, however, extend beyond territorial disputes. Water is becoming a key security issue in Sino-Indian relations and a potential source of enduring discord.

China and India already are water-stressed economies. The spread of irrigated farming and water-intensive industries, together with the demands of a rising middle class, have led to a severe struggle for more water. Indeed, both countries have entered an era of perennial water scarcity, which before long is likely to equal, in terms of per capita availability, the water shortages found in the Middle East.