As if to highlight that Asia’s biggest challenge is managing the rise of an increasingly assertive China, the Chinese government has unveiled plans to build large new dams on major rivers flowing to other countries. The decision by China’s State Council to ride roughshod over downstream countries’ concerns and proceed unilaterally shows that the main issue facing Asia is not readiness to accommodate China’s rise, but the need to persuade China’s leaders to institutionalize cooperation with neighboring countries.
China is at the geographical hub of Asia, sharing land or sea frontiers with 20 countries; so, in the absence of Chinese participation, it will be impossible to establish a rules-based regional order. How, then, can China be brought on board?
This challenge is most striking on trans-boundary rivers in Asia, where China has established a hydro-supremacy unparalleled on any continent by annexing the starting places of major international rivers — the Tibetan Plateau and Xinjiang — and working to re-engineer cross-border flows through dams, reservoirs, barrages, irrigation networks and other structures. China — the source of trans-boundary river flows to more countries than any other hydro-hegemon — has shifted the focus of its dam-building program from dam-saturated internal rivers to international rivers after having already built more large dams than the rest of the world combined.
Most of China’s dams serve multiple functions, including generating electric power and meeting manufacturing, mining, irrigation, and municipal-supply water needs. By ramping up the size of its dams, China now not only boasts the world’s largest number of mega-dams, but is also the biggest global producer of hydropower, with an installed generating capacity of 230 gigawatts.
The State Council, seeking to boost the country’s already large hydropower capacity by 120 gigawatts, has identified 54 new dams — in addition to the ones currently under construction — as “key construction projects” in the revised energy-sector plan up to 2015.
Most of the new dams are planned for the biodiversity-rich southwest, where natural ecosystems and indigenous cultures are increasingly threatened.
After slowing its dam-building program in response to the serious environmental consequences of completion in 2006 of the Three Gorges Dam — the world’s largest — China is now rushing to build a new generation of giant dams. At a time when dam building has largely petered out in the West — and run into growing grassroots opposition in other democracies such as Japan and India — China will remain the nucleus of the world’s mega-dam projects.
Such projects underscore the zero-sum mentality that seemingly characterizes China’s water-policy calculations. By embarking on a series of mega-dams in its ethnic-minority-populated borderlands, China is seeking to appropriate river waters before they cross its frontiers.
Asia, the world’s driest continent in terms of per-capita freshwater availability, needs a rules-based system to manage water stress, maintain rapid economic growth and ensure environmental sustainability.
Yet China remains the stumbling block, refusing to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any neighbor — much less support a regional regulatory framework — because it wants to maintain its strategic grip on trans-boundary river flows.