Hydropolitical Trouble in Asia: The Sino-Indian Conflict Over The Third Pole
by Boran GÖHER
Hosting the third-largest perennial mass of ice in the world, the Tibetan Plateau, deservedly, holds the title of being the “Third Pole” of the Earth. This sizable quantity of ice acts as a water source for most rivers in the surrounding region such as the vitally important Brahmaputra. Also, the vast basins of water the plateau contains are very important in shaping the monsoons around the region, affecting the overall weather greatly. Holding this much geopolitical importance, it is not surprising that the plateau is a hotspot for international conflict.
Ever since China occupied Tibet in the midpoint of the 20th century, many neighbouring countries were left worried as to whether China would, in some way, tamper with the headwaters in an attempt to harm their neighbours. Now, 70 years later, we can see that these worries were not baseless. The control of the Tibetan Plateau has become an antagonizing situation for not only between India and China but all countries being fed by the water of the plateau. The image below demonstrates the magnitude of countries which are prone to strain international relations due to this issue.
Still, 48% of all this water runs into India (1), making India’s relationship with China as the upstream controller of much of its waters additionally strenuous when combined with the already ongoing border disputes between the two countries. In the Doklam standoff of 2017, we were able to observe how both issues fed into each other, and, ultimately, created a 73-day military standoff between India and China. Located near the tri-border of India, Bhutan, and China, Doklam is a disputed territory between Bhutan and China. In response to Chinese roadbuilding efforts in the area, India had sent armed personnel. When the Chinese retaliated in the same way, the result was a 73-day standoff. Doklam is, strategically, of utmost importance for the Tibet region, and the standoff demonstrated how seriously both sides took Tibet. At the height of this crisis, China suddenly stopped sharing hydrological data with the Indian government, which in turn left India unprepared for the subsequent flooding of the Brahmaputra in Assam. (2)
More recently, China has moved its engineers to alter the flow of the Galwan River in such a way that would enlarge the areas of Chinese control. Although the Chinese government denies this, the satellite images clearly show alteration. (3) This is not the first such case, years ago, China even went so far as to use a “liquid bomb”, if Indian scientists are to be believed. In this event, a sizeable lake began to form on Parechu, a tributary river of the Tibetan Plateau. The Indian request to send in teams to the site was denied by China stating that it was very difficult to reach the area. (4) The crisis was not as massive as some thought it would be, but it still forced many people to evacuate the region and dealt a blow to India.
From all this, it is clear that the hydro political situation in Tibet will give rise many more conflicts if Sino-Indian cooperation is not established. But both sides are persistent in their aggression and the region is undergoing a border dispute to boot. Presently, border skirmishes near the aforementioned Galwan River have been ongoing for a little over three months, with no significant signs of stopping. The undeniable truth is that as long as these border disputes and water control problems continue, the local people will never able to call themselves truly secure from natural disasters, water shortages, and possible military conflicts. For now, the best we can do is to hope that these problems come to a swift diplomatic solution, even if naïve.