While the latest border conflict between China and India seems to have come to a peaceful resolution, for now, the prospect for future tensions between the two nascent powers remains. While the rest of the world might scratch their heads and wonder why remote mountain peaks at the top of the world are worth fighting over, China and India understand their importance to controlling what will become an increasingly important resource in the future – water.
Many of the largest rivers in Asia have their source in the Himalayas, which is why that mountain range has often been termed the “Water Towers of Asia.” The major rivers having their source in the Himalayas include the Mekong, Yangtze, Indus, Ganges, and Irrawaddy. Glacial and snow melt coming from Himalayan peaks makes its way downhill to form the headwaters of what become the rivers which give Asia its lifeblood.
China has increasingly turned to damming the rivers within its territory in order to generate hydroelectric power and create sources of water for its settlements in the region. One effect this has on countries downstream is to reduce the flow of water in their rivers. Anyone who has watched the classic John Wayne movie Angel and the Badman remembers the scene in which Wayne’s character convinces an upstream neighbor to release the water he’s damming in order to allow downstream farmers to irrigate their fields. By controlling the headwaters, China can exercise significant influence on the agriculture, hydroelectric power generation, and industry of its downstream neighbors. Vietnam, for instance, begged China to release more water into the Mekong to alleviate drought conditions in 2016.
But each of those rivers also has periods of flooding. Normally that occurs during the rainy season and, while those floods can be devastating, they can also be anticipated. By damming the upstream water, and continuing to build more and more dams, China builds up huge pools of water that can be released at a moment’s notice, without any warning to those downstream. India has already blamed some flash floods on China releasing water without notifying the Indian authorities, and the fear is that the Chinese dams can be used in times of war to flood downstream areas and create widespread devastation, as Chiang Kai-Shek did in 1938.
The control of water is very powerful, which is why India, Nepal, and Bhutan continue to keep a wary eye on what they view as Chinese incursions into their territory. The disputed area of Arunachal Pradesh was even the scene of fighting during the 1962 Sino-Indian War. That state has great potential for hydropower generation, as it contains portions of the Brahmaputra River, a large river that eventually flows into the Ganges. This fight for water is the reason why China will never relinquish control of Tibet and will continue to try to chip away at its neighbor's holdings in the Himalayas. That will continue to create tensions in Asia, which may eventually boil over into outright warfare.