Tensions over water are rising in Asia—and not only because of conflicting maritime claims. While territorial disputes, such as in the South China Sea, attract the most attention—after all, they threaten the safety of sea lanes and freedom of navigation, which affects outside powers as well—the strategic ramifications of competition over transnationally shared freshwater resources are just as ominous.
Asia has less fresh water per capita than any other continent, and it is already facing a water crisis that, according to an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) study, will continue to intensify, with severe water shortages expected by 2050. At a time of widespread geopolitical discord, competition over freshwater resources could emerge as a serious threat to long-term peace and stability in Asia.
Already, the battle is underway, with China as the main aggressor. Indeed, China’s territorial grab in the South China Sea has been accompanied by a quieter grab of resources in transnational river basins. Re-engineering cross-border riparian flows is integral to China’s strategy to assert greater control and influence over Asia.
China is certainly in a strong position to carry out this strategy. The country enjoys unmatched riparian dominance, with 110 transnational rivers and lakes flowing into 18 downstream countries. China also has the world’s most dams, which it has never hesitated to use to curb cross-border flows. In fact, China’s dam builders are targeting most of the international rivers that flow out of Chinese territory.
Most of China’s internationally shared water resources are located on the Tibetan Plateau, which it annexed in the early 1950s. Unsurprisingly, the plateau is the new hub of Chinese dam building.