Did China Use Water as a Weapon in the Doklam Standoff?


Editor’s Note: This is the tenth installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a new series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competition — military, economic, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series

A concerning, if little-noticed, sub-plot to the recent Sino-Indian military standoff in Doklam was China’s alleged suspension of hydrological data sharing with India during the crisis. The crisis began in June when Chinese army engineers attempted to extend a road through disputed territory along the tri-junction between China, India, and Bhutan. Indian forces quickly intervened and departed only when a mutual withdrawal was agreed upon in late August. Observers in both countries claim that Beijing cut off delivery of data related to the Brahmaputra River as a way to exert leverage on New Delhi. Data on the river, which originates in Tibet and traverses both countries as well as Bangladesh, helps India improve flood forecasts. If these allegations are accurate — Chinese officials have denied them — China’s politicization of the data could set a worrisome precedent in its evolving use of coercive “sticks” in regional disputes and should be opposed within and beyond the region.

Sino-Indian Water Worries

The data cutoff came at a time when Sino-Indian cooperation along the Brahmaputra was already precarious. The border dispute and low levels of trust between the two countries (as well as between India and Bangladesh) has long prevented a water-sharing treaty or a more formalized water management system of the sort that exists in the Nile, Mekong, or Danube basins. A particular source of tension has been China’s recently planned construction of hydropower dams in rural Tibet, which some Indian observers contend might be capable of diverting water and silt and thus denying those valuable resources to downstream users. Beijing counters that its dams are not capable of storing or diverting water.

Nevertheless, the two countries have established limited cooperation and communication regarding the Brahmaputra over the past two decades. Momentum for this cooperation grew out of a June 2000 flood in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam that claimed 30 Indian lives. India contended that the flood’s impact could have been reduced if China had been more transparent about upstream river conditions. Although China rejected that assessment, to improve relations it agreed in 2002 to share hydrological data with India during the flood season, between May and October. That accord was slightly expanded during a visit by Indian premier Manmohan Singh in October 2013. (Under separate agreements, China also provides the same data to Bangladesh.) China and India also agreed to establish a working group that meets annually to discuss river issues. Although small in scale and ambition, the agreements are regularly cited in Sino-Indian summits as evidence that the two states have been able to achieve practical cooperation despite their differences.

Coercion During Doklam

The controversy started on Aug. 18, two months after the Doklam standoff began, when India’s External Affairs Ministry disclosed that China had failed to provide hydrological data as required under the various agreements. China’s Foreign Ministry did not acknowledge the data cutoff for nearly a month after India raised it, only explaining in mid-September that the delay in providing data was due to “upgrading and renovations” of the monitoring stations and would resume when that work was completed (which has apparently yet to occur). However, doubts about that explanation arose when a Bangladeshi official confirmed that his country had received hydrological data from China without interruption. That revelation, along with the timing of the incident relative to the Doklam standoff, suggests that the cutoff was intended as either punishment or as a negotiating ploy, albeit with at least a fig leaf of deniability to prevent overreaction from India and the broader international community.

Indian officials, perhaps seeking to avoid escalation, downplayed the incident. An External Affairs Ministry spokesman reiterated that China had failed to meet its reporting obligations, but also admitted that there had indeed been valid “technical reasons” for previous delays in data provision. However, both Indian and Chinese analysts interpreted the episode in terms of the ongoing crisis. Indian scholar Brahma Chellaney, who has written extensively about the prospects of “water wars” in Asia, condemned China for “embarking on a dangerous game of water poker,” concluding that Beijing could no longer be trusted to enforce bilateral and regional agreements. Chinese analysts themselves conceded a linkage between the two issues. One Shanghai-based expert was quoted in the nationalistic-leaning Global Times saying that China “can’t fulfill our obligations to India when it shows no respect to our sovereignty,” while another argued that Beijing would be “hard pressed” to cooperate given India’s damage to “mutual trust” during the dispute.

The sad coda to the story is that the data cutoff might have already contributed to a flooding disaster in northeastern India. A wave of floods that hit Assam in August led to 71 deaths and 400,000 displaced persons, who were forced to find shelter in relief camps. Local officials attributed the calamity to China’s refusal to share water level data, since, they argued, rainfall within Indian territory was below expected levels and thus could not have led to the floods. As one official said, “Where did all the water come from?”

The Emerging Chinese Playbook

Politicization of hydrological data sharing, if it did take place, would represent both continuity and change in how China practices coercive diplomacy. Most broadly, it conforms to China’s increasing use of non-military tools to advance its agenda in regional conflicts. Those tools include political and legal warfare, creating new “facts on the ground” through infrastructure development (including construction of the road in Doklam and land reclamation in the South China Sea), and using civilian law enforcement vessels to prosecute territorial claims.

The water data cutoff also fits within a narrower category of tactics in which China has applied subtle (or not-so-subtle) pressure without explicitly connecting that pressure to desired strategic objectives. Most prominent are economic tools, such as restrictions on rare earth mineral exports to Japan over a 2010 incident in the East China Sea, limits on Filipino agricultural imports during the 2012 Scarborough Shoal crisis, reductions of Chinese tourism to Taiwan since 2016 targeting Tsai Ing-wen’s refusal to endorse the ”1992 Consensus,” and policies detrimental to South Korean businesses in China that were designed to pressure Seoul over its decision to deploy THAAD batteries earlier this year. Failure to supply hydrological data to India likewise represents an apparent escalation to an unrelated arena while avoiding an explicit tit-for-tat bargain.

Nevertheless, suspension of hydrological data sharing would set a new, and alarming, precedent because of its impact on civilians. Admittedly, there is nothing inherently unusual about politicization of hydrological cooperation, especially by major powers. Last September, India itself threatened to pull out of the Indus Treaty with Pakistan after Pakistani gunmen killed 18 Indian soldiers in the Kashmiri town of Uri. However, China’s actions are notable in two respects. First, Beijing has maintained at least low-level cooperation with India on river management issues, even during periods of increased tensions. Abrogating the data-sharing agreement suggests that China might have a lower threshold for politicizing run-of-the-mill intergovernmental cooperation, including when it is related to human safety, in order to gain advantage in high-profile disputes. That possibility should give all of its neighbors pause.

Second, the politicization of river data contravenes China’s historical emphasis on cultivating “soft power.” Beijing has generally tried to maintain a positive international image both to reduce foreign suspicions about its geopolitical intentions, and to boost support for China-led economic initiatives. For instance, Chinese analysts have argued that a “charm offensive” of sorts is needed to quell Indian opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Economic coercion bears smaller costs for China’s image because it affects only narrow segments of the population. Denying provision of data used to prevent floods, even if done without explicitly linking it to the Doklam standoff, would indicate Beijing’s willingness to impose humanitarian costs on a vulnerable civilian population, and thus put its reputation as a responsible regional power in even greater jeopardy. That is all the more ironic given China’s principled opposition to sanctions it claims may trigger humanitarian disasters—an argument it made most recently to oppose heavy-hitting measures on North Korea.

Although overshadowed by the main events of the Doklam crisis, the data cutoff should be concerning for all of China’s neighbors and the United States. It raises questions about Beijing’s willingness to selectively disregard existing agreements, as well as a growing readiness to risk its status as a responsible state by harming civilian populations (although it might mitigate that risk by denying direct linkages to strategic goals). New Delhi, Washington, and others should consider the cutoff a cautionary tale and be prepared to respond more vociferously — and collectively — if and when Beijing seeks to use similar tactics in future disputes. Although Washington often has reasons to keep a low profile in regional conflicts, its failure to call out impermissible actions in remote locations, such as the Himalayas, could encourage greater Chinese adventurism closer to home.


Joel Wuthnow is a Research Fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University. Along with Nilanthi Samaranayake and Satu Limaye, he is co-author of a forthcoming book on security in the Brahmaputra basin (Marine Corps University Press), based on their 2016 CNA study. He is on Twitter @jwuthnow. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Image: Wikimedia Commons