China’s Rivers of Sand
With twenty percent of the world’s population, China only has seven percent of the freshwater. However, it controls the freshwater needed by three billion people in Asia and it will not share it.
As Chinese troops swept into Korea in 1950, Mao Zedong was seizing control of Xinjiang and Tibet and gained control of the headwaters of six rivers which come from the mountains of Tibet and are needed by nearly fifty percent of the world’s population.
Two of the rivers, the Yangzi and the Yellow are critical to China with 580 million Chinese dependent upon the Yangzi. In seventy years, the Yellow River has lost ninety percent of its flow, which is symptomatic of what has turned into a national crisis. Over the last quarter-century, the rapid industrialization and urbanization of China has resulted in twenty-eight thousand bodies of water disappearing. Seventy percent is being directed to agriculture, and fifteen percent to resource extraction and industrial processes. If new sources cannot be located, resource rich industries, such as rare earth processing that uses a great deal of water and manufacturing, will suffer.
Mao Zedong was aware in 1952 of the poor distribution of water with eighty percent in the south and two-thirds of agricultural production in the North. To redistribute the water, he advocated what has become a seventy-billion-dollar canal system. The South–North Water Transfer Project is transferring water through a twelve hundred kilometer canal system to the Beijing region, but the additional water is simply serving as a stop-gap until other sources are located. Late in the game, the Chinese have come to realize that they have been squandering their scarce resource by allowing extensive pollution from agricultural runoff and industrial waste. Half of the population does not have access to safe drinking water with ninety percent of cities dependent upon polluted underground water. Fifty cities, including Beijing, are experiencing land subsidence due to the exhausting of underground water sources.
Former Premier Wen Jiabao said that “the very survival of the Chinese nation is threatened by lack of a water supply.” Already, China is seeking a solution by tapping the flow of the four major rivers that supply the nine bordering countries, the Mekong, the Brahmaputra, the Indus, and the Ganges. Eleven damns have been constructed on the Mekong. Seventy million people in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam rely upon the river. China controls the headwaters and Beijing is showing little interest in the impact downstream. By the time the river reaches Vietnam, it is scarcely more than a trickle.
Next on the agenda is the Brahmaputra. In August, Jiacha Dam, the second hydroelectric dam was completed and future dams are expected to begin directing the water through alternate channels to replenish the Yellow River.
With only three percent of the Indian population dependent upon the river, its real value is political. India is developing the river in Arunachal Pradesh along the Tibetan frontier. The ninety thousand square kilometer territory is claimed by China as Southern Tibet and Beijing objects to any project that indicates that Delhi intends to remain.
Delhi is accusing China of supporting a fifth column in the form of a separatist movement, the United Liberation Front of Assam. The long-neglected impoverished region is linked to Western India by a narrow corridor known as the Chicken’s Neck. If China severs the corridor, India lacks the means to reclaim its territory and many of the ethnic minorities will not oppose separation from the rest of India.
More than India, China has invested in a rail and road network in the high mountains and is backing land forces with aircraft from local airfields. A skirmish in the Galan Valley near the Chicken’s Neck in June when twenty Indian soldiers were killed is a warning that China sets the rules of engagement.
India is facing the underground movement in Assam, the Chinese forces with their more advanced weaponry near the Galan Valley and Pakistan ground units along the Kashmir frontier as well as a Pakistani supported insurgency inside of Indian control Kashmir. Should there be a coordinated assault by the Chinese and Pakistani armies, India will face another defeat at the hands of the Chinese as had happened in 1962 when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru asked President John Kennedy for military assistance. The collapse of the Indian army was so thorough that it appears as if the PLA would push all of the way to the Bay of Bengal until Washington intervened. Aid from the U.S. and from the UK rescued India, although China did keep forty-thousand square kilometers at Ladakh and is claiming even more of the territory.
Facing an economic contraction and a far more powerful China, Prime Minister Narendra Modi after hesitating for several years, has decided to join the Quad, an alliance with Japan, the U.S., and Australia to deter China. China views India as an inferior rival. Linked in an alliance with the U.S. changes the equation and is leaving China with a dilemma. Is the need to acquire water worth the risk of a war with nuclear-armed India and potentially the United States with which China is experiencing hostile relations? Xi Jinping is the man with the answer.