Asia China Defense & Security

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Trials and Tribulations of Confronting China’s Weaponization of Water in Southeast Asia

Chinese construction of hydropower dams along the Mekong River has been labeled the “next South China Sea” as a catalyst for conflict.

Chinese construction of hydropower dams along the Mekong River is challenging regional interests, and has been labeled the “next South China Sea” as a catalyst for conflict. China’s geography offers a unique geopolitical advantage in Asia by allowing control of the Tibetan Plateauーthe source of the majority of Asia’s freshwater. Along the rivers connected to the Plateau are hydropower dams, which are dubbed ‘weapons’ hidden in plain sight. These dams not only power China with renewable energy, but offer a point of leverage over other states as they have the power to ‘turn the tap off’ for downstream nations. Despite this, regional states in Southeast Asia (SEA) have been largely ineffective in preventing these hydropower projects, risking water insecurity and vulnerability to coercion. In turn, this is a considerable challenge to foreign interests in the region, including both the U.S. and India. This has led to U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, calling for the need for a “free and open Mekong” in a tongue-in-cheek nod to the slogan of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. So far, China’s damming projects only appear to be increasing, and more concrete options need to be implemented by U.S. and regional policymakers in order to counter this broader regional challenge. If not, China is likely to achieve regional hydro-hegemony and will be able to unilaterally dictate terms to the downstream periphery.

The Tibetan Plateau and Asia’s Looming Water Crisis

The Tibetan Plateau is often referred to as the “Third Pole,” because it holds the largest concentration of ice and glaciers outside of the Northern and Southern poles. Consequently, it is where the lion’s share of Asia’s rivers originates. The plateau’s glaciers give birth to Asia’s major river systems: the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow Rivers, which provide freshwater to a population of over two billion people.

Tibet’s vast water resources, along with its strategic position within the region were a large part of the rationale for its annexation by China in 1950. By controlling the plateau, China manages the headwaters of transboundary rivers that stretch across East Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, and SEA, giving them a significant point of leverage over other regional powers. Chinese water managers have reportedly maintained that “not one drop of China’s water should be shared without China using it first or without making those downstream pay for it.”

China is also largely an arid country, and water security is regarded as essential for ensuring internal political stability and national security. In 2005, China’s Minister for Water Resources contended that “to fight for every drop of water or die: that is the challenge facing China.” This challenge is evident by the fact that two-thirds of China’s cities already face difficulty in accessing water, and that this is only going to get worse, with an expected 25 percent supply gap on projected water demand by 2030. The World Bank’s working paper on water scarcity, notes that “China will soon become the most water stressed country in East and Southeast Asia.” 

The arid climate in China’s northern regions has already created the need for it to redirect water from the Tibetan Plateau through the creation of dams and water diversion projects. Furthermore, these projects have the dual advantage of providing efficient renewable power to meet China’s substantial energy requirements and its international emissions reduction obligations. China’s total energy demands just recently surpassed the U.S. and are expected to increase by 75 percent over the next 25 years. In this context, damming on large downstream rivers makes perfect sense, as it is essential for their current and future water, irrigation and power needs. 

This is not to say that China is the only country to utilize hydropower dams in this way. Many other countries in SEA have also rapidly developed their own hydropower facilities, largely assisted by China. Laos is one major beneficiary of this assistance, with its own goal to become the ‘battery’ of SEA, providing power for both itself and for export. This, by itself, would not be alarming, and the equation of hydropower dams in SEA has always been about prioritising electricity over food. Yet, China’s weaponization of water may also act as a trigger for downstream powers armed with the capability to follow their example. This would inevitably lead to the securitization of water throughout a less united region and the potential for “water wars” to erupt. 

Climate change is only expected to increase water scarcity in Asia, which will mean two salient issues are likely to emerge for countries downstream. As the downstream periphery becomes more reliant on water coming from upstream Tibet, they will become more vulnerable, and therefore prone to coercion. Similarly, as China becomes more dependent on these flows, they will be increasingly reluctant to provide large amounts of water for their downstream counterparts. The Tibetan Plateau is evidence of the changing climate as its glaciers are depleting faster than anywhere else on earth. If this current trend continues, many scholars believe that 40 percent of the plateau’s glaciers could disappear by 2050. This well-justified concern may compel China to utilize transboundary rivers to meet its water scarcity challenge and extract the water before letting it go downstream. Currently, there is no formal agreement between China and these countries over the use of shared river systems and nothing in international law to govern their use. By 2025, water scarcity is predicted to affect 1.8 billion people, namely in Asia. As this volume of water decreases, the probability for conflict in the region is likely to increase unless clear agreements are ratified. Until this step is taken, these rivers are seemingly destined to become “Asia’s new battleground”. 

Regional Implications for Southeast Asia

SEA is most vulnerable to the impacts of China’s coercive actions and downstream hydro-hegemony. With little more than the flick of a switch, China could substantially limit the flow of water entering into SEA. China’s hydropower dams along the Upper Mekong give them not only control over the flow of water, but the accompanying nutrient-rich sediments essential to the livelihoods of 60 million people. Since Chinese dams trap silt flowing out from the Himalayas, the nutrient-rich sediments cannot be carried downstream, where historically it has been essential to soil fertility in the floodplains of the Lower Mekong. 

These dams thus provide China with de facto control over SEA water and food security. These countries are vulnerable as they are already in a constant battle against poverty, hunger, population density and extreme pollution, and adding another scarcity issue to this combination would be disastrous. Cambodia, a friendly Chinese partner, is a perfect example of the potential threat facing SEA. Being one of the poorest and most rapidly growing populations in SEA, its vulnerability to water scarcity issues is significant. SEA security expert Marvin Ott argues that this threat puts the Cambodian government “entirely at the mercy of Beijing” and “for Cambodia, the question becomes how they can curry China’s favour to avoid coercive use of the Mekong”. In contrast, India has made far more substantial complaints about Chinese hydropower projects, because it can afford to do so and has less to fear than SEA. 

Through these dams, Beijing could leverage the threat to extract greater deference from SEA states, using it as a diplomatic tool to ensure the region complies with China’s wishes. Despite this, it is somewhat limited. China cannot selectively turn off the water supply for one country alone. Rather, any such move would be made as a collective punishment against all of SEA, in comparison to just one nation. The impact of such actions is exemplified in the 2019 drought in the Lower Mekong, which presented major challenges to countries across the region. The Lower Mekong basin depends on water from Chinese territory the most during the dry season and times of drought, which will become more pertinent due to climate change. Yet, as shown by a study from the U.S. based climate consultant Eyes on Earth, for six months in 2019, China’s dams blocked an unprecedented amount of water from entering the Lower Mekong. While the Lower Mekong was experiencing severe drought, China’s portion was slightly higher than usual, and if China’s dams had not restricted the flow, portions of the Mekong would have experienced significantly higher flows instead of suffering through severe drought conditions.

The effect of the drought in the Lower Mekong nations was catastrophic. Fishing communities in the Tonle Sap in Cambodia reported that they caught 80 percent less from previous years. In Vietnamese cities along the Mekong delta, the holding back of water by Chinese dams equated to the total loss of freshwater access. However, China’s weaponization of these dams is a double edged sword. The European Parliament noted that “China does not consult downstream countries on its dam-building projects; it also regularly releases large quantities of water from reservoirs with little advance warning, wreaking havoc downstream.” This was recently demonstrated on the Brahmaputra River in 2017. China refused to supply hydrological data to India in violation of two bilateral agreements on upstream flows, while allowing substantial flows to go unchecked. The data denial was intended to punish India for boycotting China’s inaugural BRI summit and for a broader military stand-off in the Himalayas. The withholding of this data crippled India’s flood early-warning system, which resulted in the monsoon-swollen Brahmaputra overrunning its banks, leaving a major trail of destruction and preventable deaths. These examples, both in India and SEA, clearly demonstrate China’s capability to weaponize water and the serious implications that this can have on the region.

The rapid securitization of water in SEA, poses fundamental challenges to the region’s peace and security. Scholars argue that as the volume of water decreases, the likelihood for conflicts between China and downstream countries will exponentially increase. For years, the World Economic Forum’s global risk reports have ranked water-related crises to be among the most probable and consequential coming-risks to the future. This is particularly obvious in Asia, where transboundary water dynamics threaten to erode regional cooperation, risk worsening geopolitical competition, and increase the likelihood of domestic and interstate conflict. Whereas, in South Asia this has the potential to act as a flashpoint leading to a possible future “water war” between China and India. In contrast, this will likely have more internal effects in SEA. A 2012 US Intelligence Community Assessment of Global Water Security hypothesized that water insecurity contributes to destabilizing states “when combined with poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions.” This is clearly the case in SEA, where an increase in water scarcity could contribute to internal conflict and social disruptions that “result in state failure.” 

This also poses major issues for powers such as India and the US, whose strategic interests in the region are threatened at a time of increasing geopolitical competition.   Even more so if China is able to use its hydro-hegemony to dictate terms in the strategic SEA region and shape it into its own sphere of influence. However, as water becomes more scarce this rationale may change. While it might be currently in China’s strategic interest to use water to continue consolidating power in SEA, in what way will this change when China’s own internal demand for water surpasses this periphery consideration? While China’s hydro-hegemony is already a significant threat, it will only become more dire with climate change if there is not adequate water management and water sharing in SEA. If China is not leveraged into abandoning its current approach in favor of institutionalized cooperation with downstream states, the prospects of a rule-based order in Asia will be undermined, and downstream countries will face a much drier future. Thus, there is a clear need to act on this issue, before it approaches the point of no return. 

Countering Chinese Coercion 

Therefore, regional and U.S. policymakers must implement steps to counter China’s hydro-hegemony in SEA, and advocate for the use of water as a shared resource to be cooperatively managed. To do this, there is a need for greater consultation and communication within the region to facilitate peaceful cooperation over shared water sources. However, there have been previous attempts at collective bargaining in SEA by Mekong-riparian states. In 1995, they launched the Mekong River Commission (MRC) which was designed as a way to develop a shared policy for the river, as well as a multilateral instrument to manage transboundary river conflicts. Nevertheless, the MRC has been unsuccessful in containing divergent national interests in the region. Moreover, as it has no real oversight and enforcement power; many scholars question whether the MRC would even be able to effectively manage transboundary water disputes surrounding the Mekong if they did arise. In keeping with its reluctance to enter multilateral forums not of its own making, China has refused to formally become a member of the MRC as well as to negotiate jointly with SEA states. While China is a “dialogue member”, its exclusion is significant as it poses the biggest threat to water cooperation on the Mekong River. The MRC’s fate was sealed in 2016 when Beijing launched its own Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) mechanism, which is financially better-positioned to push its interests over the downstream nations and more accommodating of Chinese strategic interests, leaving the issue of upstream damming largely unaddressed. This reluctance to sign these multilateral water cooperation agreements and their refusal to address the issue of their hydropower dams clearly signals Beijing’s desire to control the water in Asia, and the difficulty for SEA states challenging it. 

One of the major barriers for SEA countries confronting China over its control of water resources is that it is not an issue that can be settled by international law. Whereas Chinese gray-zone operations can be (and are) challenged on these grounds, SEA countries do not have the same option. This is due to the fact that rivers originating from the Tibetan Plateau fall indisputably under Chinese national sovereignty. There have been previous attempts pushed by SEA nations to change this. In 1997, the United Nations Watercourses Convention, which pushed for an international agreement on the governance of transboundary watercourses, was put to a vote. Many SEA nations voted in favour of this agreement, however, China notably voted against it on the grounds that it did not support its territorial sovereignty. The results demonstrated the inherent difficulty in achieving regional cooperation when downstream nations have a strong interest in ensuring their water sources are protected, yet upstream nations hold all the cards. This is compounded by the problem of the power dynamics in the region. It would be one thing if China were a geopolitically-weak upstream country facing a more powerful downstream country, analogous to the Nile River and Ethiopia’s historic weakness as the upstream riparian relative to the historically more powerful downstream Egypt. Yet, China is the largest, most technologically-advanced, and geopolitically dominant power in the region, enabling it to have relative hegemony over the downstream periphery in SEA. Thus, for downstream states, it has to become not a question of national sovereignty, but one of common ownership, which is a far less clear framework and concept under international law. Through this, SEA countries must continue to make an argument for a water management framework, which can be used to counter future Chinese coercion. 

U.S. policymakers should assist in countering China’s hydro-hegemony in SEA, and shaping the narrative in the region. Recent actions by both the Biden and Trump administrations demonstrate that this is a growing concern in Washington. The Tibet Policy and Support Act, signed into law by Congress and President Trump in December 2020, outlined the U.S. commitment to “encourage a regional framework on water security… to facilitate cooperative agreements among all riparian nations… on the Tibetan Plateau.” President Biden appears to be following his predecessor’s approach in regards to the Tibetan Plateau, supporting the legislation, seeing it as another opportunity for the U.S. to forge a common approach with like-minded nations in Asia. This new legislation is consequential in the geopolitics of water in SEA, and aims to defend small states in the region from China’s blackmail.

The Biden administration must now expand its scope of assistance in SEA. One example of where the U.S. has had some success is the recently launched Mekong Dam Monitor, which employs remote sensing and data-monitoring levels along the river to provide real-time data on the Mekong River. This monitor is operated by the Washington-based Stimson Center and American research firm Eyes on Earth, being partly funded by the U.S. State Department. This allows for policymakers and researchers outside of China to monitor the operations and impacts caused by China’s dams, and what is happening in upstream reservoirs. It also allows for the Chinese narrative to be disproven with open sources, enabling Chinese government justifications based on climate change, such as was the case of the 2019 drought, to be discarded. This is important as it can shape the narrative in the region if China deliberately holds the flow of water back, and might help compel Beijing to make an embarrassing retreat. Through shaping the narrative, the U.S. government is also presented with the opportunity to unite regional opinion against China and hold the country accountable to the global community. U.S. policymakers should also support processes in SEA leading to the creation of an intergovernmental forum that results in proper water management and water sharing in the region. For the U.S., an important part of the strategic challenge is preventing water from contributing to both state fragility and being used as a diplomatic tool to shape the region alongside China’s interests. Both these measures will do much to assist in preventing this goal.

Ultimately, the most realistic pathway for SEA to counter China’s hydro-hegemony is through coalition-building and collective action to bring the Chinese government to the table. China must be pushed to embrace transparency and collaboration, centered on water sharing, uninterrupted hydrological data flow, and dispute-settlement mechanisms. India, which also faces a water security threat from Chinese hydropower damming, could lead a counter-coalition of countries that share transboundary rivers in order to offer greater bargaining leverage with China. This could be expanded to include all countries that are downstream of China and therefore vulnerable to Chinese actions. While they may hold weak bargaining power when standing individually (explaining the Chinese preference to deal with countries bilaterally), united they present a sizable coalition against their mighty neighbor. A truly multilateral approach will see China as just one player at the table, reducing the disproportionate imbalance of regional power. This opportunistic alliance could collectively impose economic sanctions for any upstream violations and hold the regional hegemon accountable to international norms. While this would certainly be a major escalation in protest for many countries in SEA, the risk of not acting is severe, with China in the future being increasingly able to coerce desperate nations. This will go a long way to convince China-friendly states in SEA that action needs to be taken and that they must seek to leverage China to accept institutionalized cooperation on water management. If they do not, it must be communicated to the Chinese government that this will not be in their best interest, and that they will risk instability and a united front on their doorstep.                                                                                                          

The Future of Water Security in Southeast Asia.

SEA states must use evidence gained from initiatives such as the Mekong Dam Monitor to reshape the narrative around the need for international river-management governance, and build a united coalition on water-resource sharing with other downstream countries throughout Asia. This can certainly make it much harder for China to coerce other countries by blocking or diverting the water. However, China is unlikely to ever be willing to be yoked to any type of formal agreement. 

It seems that unless the current trajectory is changed, it is inevitable that China will achieve fundamental control over much of the water resources to SEA. The UN has predicted that 75 percent of the world’s population will face freshwater scarcity by 2050, and much of that will be in SEA. If water resources continue to decline due to damming and climate change, water scarcity and food insecurity may become the biggest transboundary challenge in SEA. This will only raise regional instability and the potential for “water wars” in Asia to erupt. It will also have huge consequences for outside powers such as the U.S. One can make a calculated guess of what this might look like. 

It is the year 2049, and China is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic. Climate change has led to significant water scarcity throughout Asia, and China is exploiting the waters from the Tibetan Plateau before letting it go downstream. Every year, water downstream is at lower levels and increasingly worse quality. SEA nations are desperate for water, and China’s control over their water resources guarantee their good behavior and subservience. SEA states are increasingly more fragile, and autocratic. Talks of “water wars” between SEA states are now legitimate discussions of mainstream conversation. U.S. presence has been undermined and the region has been molded into a leadership structure that puts Beijing in the driving seat. Western powers are in retreat, and nothing opposes the dragon’s hegemony in the region.  

It is with this in mind that U.S. and regional defense policymakers ignore the implications of water security at their own peril. If this issue is left unchecked, many of these SEA states will experience a cataclysmic awakening to the realities of ‘’water geopolitics’’ in the 21st century.

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By Cameron Smith

Cameron is a graduate of a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in History and International Relations from the University of Wollongong. He serves at the Parliament of Australia and co-founding and acting as Chief Operations Officer at the Australian Pacific Youth Dialogue. He has strong interests in U.S. global affairs, international security and Australian foreign policy.

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