Just as China has aroused international alarm by wielding its virtual rare-earths monopoly as a trade instrument and by stalling multilateral efforts to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea, it is raising deep concern over the manner it is seeking to fashion water into a potential political weapon vis-à-vis its riparian neighbors.

China, the geographical hub of Asia, is the source of transboundary-river flows to the largest number of countries in the world — from Russia to India, and from Kazakhstan to the Indochina Peninsula. This unique status is rooted in its forcible absorption of sprawling ethnic-minority homelands, which make up 60 percent of its landmass and are the origin of all the important international rivers flowing out of Chinese-held territory.

Getting this preeminent riparian power to accept water-sharing arrangements or other cooperative institutional mechanisms has proven unsuccessful so far in any basin. In fact, as epitomized by its construction of upstream dams on several major international rivers, including the Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Arun, Irtysh-Illy, and Amur, China is increasingly headed in the opposite direction — toward unilateralist actions impervious to the concerns of downstream nations.

No country in history has been a greater dam builder than China, which boasts not only the world’s biggest dam (Three Gorges) but also more total number of dams than the rest of the world combined. China thus is the most “dammed” country in the country, boasting slightly more than half of the nearly 50,000 large dams in the world.

Yet far from slowing its dam-building spree, China has stepped up its reengineering of river flows by portentously shifting its focus from internal rivers to international rivers. It also has graduated from building large dams to building mega-dams.

For example, its newest dams on the Mekong are the 4,200-megawatt Xiaowan — taller than Paris’s Eiffel Tower and producing more electricity than the installed hydropower-generating capacity of all of the lower Mekong countries together — and the 5,850-megawatt Nuozhadu, which when complete will be even bigger in storage volume but not in height.

Last summer, China’s state-run hydropower industry published a map of major new dams approved for construction, including one on the Brahmaputra at Metog (or “Motuo” in Chinese) that is to be twice larger than the 18,300-megawatt Three Gorges. The Metog site is almost on the disputed border with India.

In the next one decade, according to international projections, the number of dams in the developed countries is likely to remain about the same, while much of the dam building in the developing world, in terms of aggregate storage-capacity buildup, will be concentrated in just one country — China.

The consequences of such frenetic construction are already visible. First, China is now involved in water disputes with almost all its riparian neighbours, ranging from big countries such as Russia and India to weak client-states like North Korea and Myanmar. 

Second, its new focus on water megaprojects in the traditional homelands of ethnic minorities has triggered fresh tensions along ethnic fault lines over displacement and submergence issues at a time when the Tibetan plateau, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia have all been wracked by revolts or protests against Chinese rule. And third, the projects threaten to extend the serious degradation of China’s internal rivers to international rivers.

       Yet, as if to underpin its rise as the world’s unrivalled hydro-hegemon, China is also the largest dam builder overseas. From Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to Burma’s troubled Kachin and Shan states, China has widened its dam building to disputed or insurgency-torn areas, even in the face of local backlash. While units of the People’s Liberation Army are engaged in dam and other strategic projects in the restive, Shiite region of Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-held Kashmir, China’s dam building inside Burma has contributed to renewed bloody fighting recently, ending a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army and the government.

For downriver countries, a key concern is China’s opacity on its hydroengineering projects. It usually begins work quietly, almost furtively, and then presents a project as an unalterable fait accompli and as holding transboundary flood-control benefits.

Worse still, China rejects the very notion of a water-sharing arrangement or treaty with any riparian neighbour. The terms “water sharing,” “shared water resources,” “treaty” and “common norms and rules” are an anathema to it. It is one of only three countries that voted against the 1997 United Nations Convention that lays down rules on the shared resources of international watercourses.

It is thus no accident that there are water treaties among co-riparian states in South and Southeast Asia, but not between China and any of its neighbours. That the country with a throttlehold over the headwaters of major Asian rivers is also a rising superpower, whose muscular confidence is increasingly on open display, only compounds the regional security challenges.

In this light, China poses the single biggest obstacle to the building of institutionalized cooperation in Asia to harness internationally shared rivers for mutual and sustainable benefit.

Water indeed has emerged as a source of increasing intercountry competition and discord in Asia, the most-populous and fastest-developing continent whose per-capita freshwater availability is less than half the global average. The growing water stress threatens Asia’s continued rapid economic growth. And for investors, it carries risks that potentially are as damaging as nonperforming loans, real estate bubbles, infrastructure overbuilding, and political corruption.

Because of China’s centrality in the Asian water map, international pressure must be exerted on Beijing to respect the rights of subjacent states and halt further unilateralist appropriation of shared waters. It should accept institutionalized basin cooperation, which demands a coextensive restraint among all parties so that no state utilizes shared waters in a way to injuriously affect a co-riparian.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor at the independent Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author of the just-released Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Georgetown University Press).