Published Twice a Month
May 16, 2019 – May 30, 2019

Centre on Asia and Globalisation
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Guest Column

Will China and India Wage War Over Water?

By Lei Xie


China and India are respectively located on the upstream and midstream of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, which collectively form one of the largest water basins in the world – the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM). Both countries have taken to using these shared water resources at different levels of intensity. Although China and India’s ongoing border dispute is well-known and has been widely discussed among academics and policy-makers, the friction arising from their water sharing dispute has not received much attention. Nevertheless, both nations’ approaches to securitizing their shared water resources make this issue a time-bomb for Sino-India relations.

Security concerns relating to the management of the GBM are of rising importance to the region. The volume of water flowing along the Brahmaputra River varies widely both in terms of place and time. China suffers far less from the negative effects of this feature of the Brahmaputra River than its downstream neighbors (particularly India and Bangladesh), since only a small number of Tibetan residents (with a population density of 2.6 per kilometer) live in the region through which the river flows. Domestically, India is experiencing growing water shortages. Residents living in the Ganges basin in particular, suffer from insufficient water resources for irrigation and navigation.[1] Therefore, alongside the occurrence of more frequent and extreme climate-related events, India is likely to experience not only more intense rainfall but also more frequent droughts.

Due to the access it has to advanced hydrological technologies, China has made greater progress than its neighbor, India, in developing hydropower projects and managing its water resources. However, water-sharing presents Beijing with a new challenge in regard to its unilateral activities upstream on shared river basins. Chinese water experts and foreign policy practitioners have begun to take more interest in river water issues and have expressed support for Beijing to develop its own unilateral plan to deal with shared river basins, such as the GBM.[2] Scholars of both international relations and the natural sciences alike claim that policy discussions within China on shared international rivers have been limited to environmental science and hydrology. They agree with the Beijing government that the negative ecological effects of damming activities are “reasonable” and “unavoidable”, as a result of China’s unilateral use of water resources upstream.

Currently, the Chinese government is not party to any major global water norms, but provides its riparian neighbours, including Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan, with hydrological data through bilateral agreements. For the most part, China has provided annual hydrological data to help the Indian authorities formulate flood forecasts. For the Chinese authorities, such activities help provide adequate warning and minimize potentially adverse ecological effects caused by China’s upstream damming activities.

Compared to China, India has shown a rather more ambiguous attitude toward water sharing. India sits in a dual position of being both a ‘lower’ riparian state in regard to China and an ‘upper’ riparian in regard to Bangladesh, meaning that its water relations with both states are asymmetrical in different ways. Acute competition has so far occurred between India and Bangladesh, but not between India and China. Much like China, India has not committed to global water norms, instead adopting a ‘bilateral cooperative’ approach to securing its interests with most of the countries with which it shares water, like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal.

The Indian government is aware of the politicizing of water issues. “Rivers, in effect, can no longer be viewed as a soft component of a country's foreign policy. Rather they are intricately linked to developmental goals and domestic needs and thus impact bilateral relations”.[3] New Delhi has felt its regional influence being challenged by China’s unilateral moves to develop hydropower projects on the upstream of the GBM. Indeed, India’s current leader, Narendra Modi, has taken a tough stance on the issue of water sharing with China by abandoning the position of his predecessor, Dr. Manmohan Singh, which involved full acceptance of China’s claims to non-strategic water use. The Modi administration has questioned whether China’s damming activities are blocking upstream water. Further, the Modi government has demanded “all-year-round” hydrological data, a move that would allow India to monitor China’s plans and management of the GBM from the upstream. He has then challenged Beijing’s claim that it has a right to exploit resources in its territories. However, this strategy has not won Modi much favor, nor has it lasted long.[4] In 2017, Indian and Chinese troops were stuck in a 73-day face-off at Doklam. Foreign relations between the two countries deteriorated as military frictions grew, leading China to pause its sharing of key river data. In so doing, China effectively used hydrological data as a weapon to counter the military threat posed by India, while at the same time also putting pressure on New Delhi to re-think its foreign policy stance vis-à-vis China.[5]

India has been faced with a pressing need to tackle a water crisis that encompasses issues of water quantity and quality. Furthermore, problems relating to both water usage and the environment are becoming increasingly important in Indian elections.[6] Accordingly, Indian authorities have been forced to re-examine the management of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, as well as national water policies in general. Nevertheless, traditional security issues remain high on the Modi government’s agenda, as can be seen, for example, in the construction of a bridge over the Brahmaputra River which could potentially be used to facilitate the transportation of troops to the disputed border area.[7]

In the case of water sharing along the GBM, we can see that India and China have taken different approaches to dealing with the issue. For both countries, water has become a matter of vital national interest and a strategic resource to be defended. This is in contrast to the mutually beneficial approach of dealing with the water issue as a matter of day-to-day multi-lateral politics, to be resolved through careful resource management and scientific endeavour. However, given their ongoing border dispute, both countries have been reluctant to fully adopt the latter path when dealing with the GBM basin. Instead, both sides seem to be taking the dangerous path of moving towards strategically securitizing water. Unsurprisingly, neither side has benefitted from this approach. India has been distracted from addressing its environmental vulnerabilities and has also missed out on opportunities to negotiate with China over harvesting the potential economic benefits of the two countries’ shared water resources. Likewise, China is unnecessarily distracted in its prioritizing water – for its multiple infrastructure and hydropower projects in the region, as part of its Road and Belt strategy. As the water-sharing issue continues to unfold between India and China, it has the potential to become a dangerous flashpoint for future conflicts.

[1] Golam Rasul, “Water for growth and development in the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna basins: an economic perspective,” International Journal of River Basin Management 13, no. 3 (2015): 387-400; Aditya Sood and Bala Krishna Prasad Mathukumalli, “Managing international river basins: Reviewing India-Bangladesh transboundary water issues,” International Journal of River Basin Management 9, no. 1 (2011): 43-52.

[2] Lei Xie and Shaofeng Jia, China’s International Transboundary Rivers: Politics, Security and Diplomacy of Shared Water Resources (London and New York: Routledge, 2017).

[3] Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Water Security for India: The External Dynamics (New Delhi: IDSA, 2010).

[4] Jagannath P. Panda, India-China Relations: Politics of Resources, Identity and Authority in a Multipolar World Order (London: Routledge, 2017); Lei Xie, Yanbing Zhang and Jagannath P. Panda, “Mismatched Diplomacy: China-India Water Relations over the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna River Basin,”Journal of Contemporary China 27, no. 109 (2018): 32-46.

[5] Yusha Zhao, “China has to halt river data sharing as India infringes on sovereignty: expert,” Global Times, Aug 20, 2017.

[6] Mayank Aggarwal, “Environment gets voted into party manifestos,” Mongabay, April 12, 2019.

[7] The Sentinel, “Guwahati Should Be Headquarters of NE Water Management Authority: Assam Govt,” Apr 30, 2019.; Northeast Now, “Draft National Policy on Sediment Management in final shape, Arunachal MP told,” May 6, 2019.

Lei Xie, PhD, is a Professor at Institute of Governance, Shandong University. She also works as a Research Associate at Nottingham University (UK). Her research focuses on global environmental governance and transnational environmental movement. She has developed an area of particular interest on the international cooperation of transboundary river basins. Lei Xie is author of Environmental Activism in China (Routledge, 2009) and China’s International Transboundary Rivers: Politics, Security and Diplomacy of Shared Water Resources (with Shaofeng, Jia, Routledge, 2017).

The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.

News Reports

Bilateral relations

China says willing to enhance political mutual trust, cooperation with new Indian gov't
Xinhua, May 24

China stands ready to work with the new Indian government to deepen political mutual trust and carry out mutually beneficial cooperation, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said here Friday (May 24).

Xi congratulates Indian PM Modi on party's election victory
CGTN, May 24

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday (May 23) sent congratulations to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the victory of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the general elections.

Indian and Chinese armies hold border meet in Ladakh
The Economic Times, May 22

Indian and Chinese armies held a border personnel meeting in eastern Ladakh sector of Jammu and Kashmir, a defence spokesperson said on Wednesday (May 22).

Modi charms China, but at arm's length
Nikkei Asian Review, May 20

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to demonstrate deft diplomacy on the international front amid crucial parliamentary elections at home. Modi's astute approach has been especially notable in his handling of China, meeting repeatedly with Chinese President Xi Jinping to lure investment while launching a security dialogue with Australia, Japan and the U.S.

India Has Been Submissive to China Under Modi, Rahul Gandhi Says
Bloomberg, May 17

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “panicked” when faced with Chinese aggression two years ago and has consequently “trivialized” the country’s foreign policy for domestic political gains, opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi said.

News Reports

China and India in the Region

China seeks security guarantees for Pakistan belt and road projects after terror attacks
South China Morning Post, May 28

Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan has urged Pakistan to bolster security for Beijing’s major development drive in the country, following the deadly terror attacks two weeks ago which appeared to target Chinese projects, including the strategic deep-sea port at Gwadar.

China Faces New Competition As India, Japan Eye Sri Lanka Port
NDTV, May 28, 2019

India, Japan and Sri Lanka are weighing the development of a terminal at the bustling port of Colombo in a country that's seen ongoing political controversies related to investments from China's Belt and Road initiative.

China-Nepal Friendship Bridge to be finished for reopening port
CGTN, May 25

The China-Nepal Friendship Bridge is being topped up in preparation for the reopening of Zhangmu (Khasa) Port in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The main structure of the bridge is said to be ready for vehicles to pass next week. The 82-meter-long bridge is the main passway to link China and Nepal.

Modi's election win signals closer India-US ties
The Straits Times, May 24

Political and administrative continuity in India signals closer ties with the United States, said India's Ambassador to the US, Mr Harsh Shringla, after general election results saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi winning a sweeping mandate for a second five-year term.

India, Singapore conduct naval drill in South China Sea
The Economic Times, May 19

Indian Navy ships Kolkata and Shakti took part in the bilateral naval exercise with Singapore, along with long range maritime patrol aircraft Poseidon-8I (P8I).

News Reports

Trade and Economy

Modi needs to make India a ‘highly competitive manufacturing hub,’ says top businessman
CNBC, May 26

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to improve the country’s manufacturing competitiveness to attract global investors, following his resounding victory at the recently-concluded parliamentary elections, according to R. C. Bhargava, chairman of Maruti Suzuki — one of India’s largest automobile manufacturers.

Strategy in the works to woo companies looking to exit China
The Economic Times, May 25

India has prepared a strategy to gain market access in China for its farm and pharmaceutical exports and attract foreign companies looking to shift out their manufacturing bases from there in the wake of the trade war between the US and China.

India’s lead over China as world’s fastest-growing economy will widen in coming years
Quartz India, May 23

Even as the Chinese economy cools due to global trade tensions, India’s GDP growth will hover near 7.5% by 2020, compared with 7.25% in 2019, says a recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

China seeks to join WTO talks over ICT products tariff in India
The Hindu Business Line, May 23

China has sought to participate in the dispute consultations requested by Japan with India on import duties imposed on certain IT and telecom products, including mobile phones, on the ground that the duties have hit Beijing’s exports worth $2.5 billion annually.

News Reports

Energy and Environment

What China must do to clean up its act on waste water
South China Morning Post, May 26

A shortage of waste water pipelines, lax local government oversight and a lack of industry standards are holding back efforts to cut industrial water pollution in China, according to a new joint study.

China retains crown as most attractive renewable energy market
Asian Power, May 24

Despite subsidy cuts which dramatically stalled the growth of solar installations, China retained the global distinction as the most attractive renewable energy market in 2019, according to EY’s latest Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index (RECAI) report.

Ozone layer: Banned CFCs traced to China say scientists
BBC, May 22

CFC-11 was primarily used for home insulation but global production was due to be phased out in 2010. But scientists have seen a big slowdown in the rate of depletion over the past six years. A new study says this is mostly being caused by new gas production in eastern provinces of China.

China to build multi-billion-dollar offshore wind farm near east coast
Xinhua, May 20

China will build an offshore wind power project with an investment of 160 billion yuan (about 23.5 billion U.S. dollars) in waters off eastern Jiangsu Province, according to the provincial government of Jiangsu.

India To Surpass Paris Agreement Commitment, Says Moody’s
Clean Technica, May 17

Moody’s stated in a report titled ‘Power Asia – Climate goals, declining costs of renewables signal decreasing reliance on coal power’ that India would likely see the share of non-fossil fuel power generation capacity to 45% by 2022 against a commitment of 40% by the same year.


A Very Tight Spot: India faces a huge security challenge with the possibility of a two-front conflict
DailyO, May 28, 2019

By Gurmeet Kanwal, Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi

The foremost national security challenge in the field of conventional conflict confronting the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is that the country must be prepared to fight a two-front war. The factors that drive such a threat perception and the challenges in facing a two-front situation need to be dispassionately analysed.

China-India: Yes to civilisation exchanges, no to trade bullying
The Times of India, May 24

By Luo Zhaohui, Chinese Ambassador to India

As ancient eastern civilizations, both China and India share the philosophy of harmonious relations, inclusiveness, mutual benefits and win-win outcomes. In the future, China and India should comprehensively deepen mutual political trust, economic and trade cooperation as well as people-to-people exchanges.

US-China spat presents little opportunity for India, will aggravate the economic slowdown
The Indian Express, May 23

By Bhaskar Chakravorti, Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context and non-resident senior fellow of Brookings India

Theoretically, India ought to emerge as a beneficiary from a US-China trade war, since Indian exports could become more competitive. However, there is relatively limited overlap between India’s primary exports to the US and China’s primary exports to the US.

China’s debt trap? The true story of Hambantota port
Global Times, May 20

By Xu Wenhong, Member of Pangoal's Academic Committee, and Deputy Secretary General of the Belt and Road Research Center, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The fate of Hambantota port, which the Sri Lankan government leased to a Chinese firm for 99 years, has been hotly debated since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Western experts and media have used the port as proof that China is using the BRI as a tool for creating a debt trap and gaining ownership of vital infrastructure.

Dialogue, not clash of civilizations, is what the world needs
CGTN, May 16

By Xu Qinduo, Former Chief Correspondent of China Radio International to Washington, and a Senior Fellow of the Pangoal Institution

As said by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations on Wednesday, “the thinking that one's own race and civilization is superior, and the inclination to remold or replace other civilizations is just stupid. To act them out will only bring catastrophic consequences.

Books and Journals


Did India Lose China?
The Washington Quarterly 42, no. 1 (2019): 71-87

By Rajesh Rajagopalan, Professor of International Politics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

For years, an Indian debate has raged over whether deteriorating relations with China has been caused by India’s improving relations with the United States. Indeed, there are signs the Modi government itself may even have recently reached such a conclusion, but there are at least two reasons India-China relations are about Beijing itself rather than New Delhi or Washington.


Compiled and sent to you by Centre on Asia and Globalisation and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

Have any feedback or comment? Email us decb64_Y2FnQG51cy5lZHUuc2c=_decb64