As if to highlight that Asia’s biggest challenge is how to manage the rise of an increasingly assertive China, Beijing has unveiled plans to build cascades of large new dams on major rivers flowing to other countries, including India, Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam. The decision by China’s State Council, or Cabinet, to ride roughshod over downstream nations’ concerns and unilaterally proceed with fresh dam building indeed shows that the challenge in Asia centers more on persuading Beijing to build institutionalized cooperation with its neighbors than on those countries’ readiness to accommodate China’s rise.

The damming plans also threaten the Salween River’s Grand Canyon — a UNESCO World Heritage site — and the pristine, environmentally sensitive areas through which the Brahmaputra and the Mekong flow. These three international rivers originate on the Tibetan plateau, whose bounteous water resources have become a magnet for Chinese planners.

China is at the geographical hub of Asia, sharing land or sea frontiers with 20 countries. Without bringing China on board, it is impossible to establish a rules-based regional order in Asia. The big question is: how can China are 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 reengineer cross-border flows through dams, reservoirs, barrages, irrigation networks, and other structures. China — the source of transboundary river flows to more countries than any hydro-hegemon elsewhere — 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 needs. By ramping up the size of its dams, China now boasts the world’s largest number of mega-dams. It 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 will come up in the biodiversity-rich southwest, where natural ecosystems and indigenous cultures are under increasing threat.

After slowing its dam-building program for a couple of years in response to the serious environmental effects spawned by the Three Gorges Dam — the world’s largest — China is now rushing to build a new generation of giant dams. This means that at a time when dam building has largely petered out in the West and run increasingly into grassroots objections in other democracies like Japan and India, China will remain the nucleus of the world’s mega-dam projects.

Such dam-building activities, however, draw unflattering attention to the zero-sum mentality seemingly characterizing 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 leave its frontiers.  

Asia, the world’s driest continent in per capita freshwater availability, needs a ruled-based system to manage water stress, maintain rapid economic growth, and protect environmental sustainability. Yet China remains the stumbling block to building institutionalized water cooperation and sharing.

Persuading this preeminent riparian power to accept water-sharing arrangements or other cooperative institutional mechanisms has proved unsuccessful thus far in any basin. China has refused to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any neighbor because it does not wish to lose its strategic grip on transboundary river flows through a regional regulatory framework. Instead, its unveiling of more dam projects shows that it is increasingly bent on upstream water appropriation, impervious to the concerns of downstream nations.

Among the slew of new dam projects approved are five on the Salween, three on the Brahmaputra, and two on the Mekong. China has already built six mega-dams on the Mekong — the lifeblood for continental Southeast Asia — with its latest addition being the 254-meter-high Nuozhadu, whose gargantuan reservoir is designed to hold nearly 22 billion cubic meters of water.
The Salween, which runs from Tibet through Yunnan into Burma and Thailand, will cease to be Asia’s last largely free-flowing river following the State Council’s go-ahead to the construction of a cascade of five dams, with work on the first project — the giant, 4,200-megawatt Songta Dam in Tibet — to begin shortly. The decision reverses the suspension of dam building on the Salween announced by Premier Wen Jiabao in 2004 after an international uproar over the initiation of multiple megaprojects in the National Nature Reserves, adjacent to the world heritage area — a stunning canyon region through which the Salween, the Mekong and the Jinsha flow in parallel.

The restart of dam projects on the Salween is in keeping with a pattern seen on other river systems, including the Yangtze — Beijing temporarily suspends a controversial plan after major protests to cool public passions and to buy time, before resurrecting the same plan.

Meanwhile, China’s announcement of three new dam projects on the Brahmaputra, the main river of northeastern India and Bangladesh, has prompted New Delhi to advise Beijing to “ensure that the interests of downstream states are not harmed” by the upstream works. Water has emerged as a new divide in Sino-Indian relations.

China’s new focus on building dams in the seismically active southwest also carries larger safety concerns.  In fact, the massive 2008 earthquake that struck the Tibetan plateau’s eastern rim, killing 87,000 people, was blamed by Chinese scientists on the newly constructed Zipingpu Dam, located next to a geological fault line. The weight of the water impounded in the dam’s massive reservoir was said to have triggered severe tectonic stresses, or what scientists call reservoir-triggered seismicity (RTS).

Politically, China’s rush to build more dams promises to roil inter-riparian relations in Asia, fostering greater water-resource competition and impeding the already snail-paced progress toward regional cooperation and integration.