The Water Hegemon

NEW DELHI – International discussion about China’s rise has focused on its increasing trade muscle, growing maritime ambitions, and expanding capacity to project military power. One critical issue, however, usually escapes attention: China’s rise as a hydro-hegemon with no modern historical parallel.

No other country has ever managed to assume such unchallenged riparian preeminence on a continent by controlling the headwaters of multiple international rivers and manipulating their cross-border flows. China, the world’s biggest dam builder – with slightly more than half of the approximately 50,000 large dams on the planet – is rapidly accumulating leverage against its neighbors by undertaking massive hydro-engineering projects on transnational rivers.

Asia’s water map fundamentally changed after the 1949 Communist victory in China. Most of Asia’s important international rivers originate in territories that were forcibly annexed to the People’s Republic of China. The Tibetan Plateau, for example, is the world’s largest freshwater repository and the source of Asia’s greatest rivers, including those that are the lifeblood for mainland China and South and Southeast Asia. Other such Chinese territories contain the headwaters of rivers like the Irtysh, Illy, and Amur, which flow to Russia and Central Asia.

This makes China the source of cross-border water flows to the largest number of countries in the world. Yet China rejects the very notion of water sharing or institutionalized cooperation with downriver countries.