by Brahma Chellaney

Unidentified Chinese upstream activities in the past have triggered flash floods in Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh and, more recently, turned the water in the once-pristine Siang – Brahmaputra’s main artery – dirty and grey as it entered India

China’s multi-pronged unconventional war against India has ranged from cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and furtive territorial encroachments to strategic information warfare and an ongoing village building drive to populate uninhabited but disputed borderlands. Water wars are a key component of such warfare because they allow China to leverage its upstream Tibet-centred power over the most essential natural resource.

China knows its troops cannot fight and win decisively against the battle hardened Indian military on a force-on-force basis, as the Galwan valley clashes underscored. So, to contain India, it has been applying asymmetric warfare techniques to attack India’s weak points, in keeping with what Sun Tzu said: “All warfare is based on deception.”

India, instead of looking at China’s new face of war in totality and devising a comprehensive and proactive counter-strategy, has brought its security under increasing pressure through a disjointed and fragmented approach. Such is the absence of long-term strategic thinking and planning that, each time China opens a new front or pressure point, India searches for a stopgap or, worse still, seeks to paper over its weak spot.

China’s newly approved Brahmaputra mega-project, which will dwarf its Three Gorges Dam by generating almost three times more electricity, should shake India out of its ad hoc, compartmentalised approach to Chinese aggression. The project is to harness the force of a nearly 3,000 metre drop in the Brahmaputra’s height when the river, just before entering India, takes a U-turn around the Himalayas to form the world’s longest and steepest canyon. By setting out to dam the Brahmaputra there, China is seeking to effectively weaponise water against India.

Unidentified Chinese upstream activities in the past have triggered flash floods in Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh and, more recently, turned the water in the once-pristine Siang – Brahmaputra’s main artery – dirty and grey as it entered India. Indeed, such is China’s defiant unilateralism that, to complete a major dam project, it halted the flow of a Brahmaputra tributary, the Xiabuqu, in 2016 and then started damming another such tributary, the Lhasa River, into a series of artificial lakes.

In 2017, China openly demonstrated its use of water as as a tool of coercive diplomacy when, in breach of two bilateral accords, it punitively cut off the flow of hydrological data to India, an action that undermined downstream flood early warning systems, resulting in preventable deaths in Assam. China reversed the data cut-off only after the 2018 Wuhan summit, which was held following its capture of Doklam behind the cover of the August 2017 disengagement agreement.

About a dozen small or medium sized Chinese dams are already operational on the Brahmaputra’s upper reaches. But with its dam building now moving to the river’s India-bordering canyon region, China will be able to manipulate transboundary flows and leverage its claim to the adjacent Arunachal.

The serious implications, however, are being obscured by misinformation or ignorance. For example, some in Indian policy and academic circles have conjectured that the Brahmaputra collects the larger share of its water in India. This water collection is mainly restricted to the four-month monsoon season. Fluvial ecosystems depend on perennial water sources, which, in the Brahmaputra’s case, are largely in Tibet.

The Brahmaputra, the world’s highest altitude river, gathers extremely rich silt in its almost 2,200km Himalayan run. The silt rich water from Tibet, not monsoon water collection, is central to the river’s unique hydrology and biodiversity support. The canyon mega-project, like the Three Gorges Dam, will trap downstream flow of nutrient-rich silt. It’ll also disrupt the Brahmaputra’s annual flooding cycle, which helps to re-fertilise farmland naturally by spreading silt, besides opening giant fish nurseries. That, in turn, is likely to cause subsidence and salinity in the Brahmaputra-Ganges-Meghna delta.

In the Mekong Basin, the environmental havoc unleashed by China’s upstream giant dams is becoming increasingly apparent. The environmental devastation could be worse in the Brahmaputra basin, especially in densely populated Bangladesh, triggering a greater exodus of refugees to India, which is already home to countless millions of illegally settled Bangladeshis.

The Brahmaputra mega-dam, ominously, will be built in a seismically active area, thus implying a ticking “water bomb” for downstream communities. The dictatorship in Beijing is not deterred even by the fact that the project will desecrate territory that is sacred to Tibetans: the major mountains, cliffs and caves in the canyon region, known locally as Pemako, or the “Hidden Lotus Land”, represent the body of their guardian deity, the goddess Dorje Pagmo (Vajravarahi in Sanskrit), and the Brahmaputra represents her spine.

The expanding water war is clearly part of China’s integrated, multidimensional strategy against India, which seeks to employ all available means short of open war. Its unconventional war is profoundly impacting every core Indian interest. To deal with this structural challenge, India, in Sun Tzu style, must give China a taste of its own medicine. Two US reports, The Longer Telegram (published by the Atlantic Council) and the state department’s The Elements of the China Challenge, underline the imperative to target China’s weak spots.

India has little choice but to asymmetrically out-compete China’s asymmetric war by exploiting its internal vulnerabilities, fissures and fragilities, including in Tibet, the main launchpad for its unconventional warfare. India has the capabilities to outwit and deter China; what it needs is the vision and resolve.