In the past, India and China have disputed numerous issues, from trade to territory. Notably, in 1962, disputes over their Himalayan border regions sparked the brief Sino-Indian War. In the 21st century, a new issue has the potential to become a flashpoint between the world’s most populous nations: their shared rivers.
China has planned, and in some cases begun construction on, major hydropower and water diversion projects in its southern regions, including Tibet, which is making the water security of its downstream neighbors more fragile. The glacial Tibetan Plateau, largely controlled by China, is the source of rivers that supply water to approximately 1.5 billion people. Many of Asia’s major rivers—including the Mekong, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Yellow, Indus, and Salween Rivers—begin in the Tibetan Plateau, and supply water to people living in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, and mainland Southeast Asia. Thus, China exerts powerful hegemony over Asia’s water resources.
China views the development of rivers originating within its borders as a matter of national sovereignty, not international cooperation. According to one telling Chinese proverb, “Upstream doesn’t suffer.” China does not have river treaties with other nations, making downstream countries vulnerable to water supply disruptions and other environmental damages. In the absence of treaties, downstream nations have no forums for formally resolving water disputes with China, and cannot use international legal institutions to ensure they receive their fair share of water.