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Control over hydropower will probably become a key element of growing geopolitical competition between China and Southeast Asian states over the coming years.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 22 June 2022.

The main fault line of this competition lies between China and India, with the former having the de facto ability to determine water flows into the latter through dam construction. This dynamic is likely to shape the strategic and operational context in both countries, including climatic risks such as droughts in northern parts of India and the Mekong region, as well as the potential for interstate conflict between India and China.

China’s hydropower approach

China is the source of most key rivers that flow into other countries in the Asia Pacific and South Asia regions. And it has built enough dam capacity over the past decade to substantively restrict or divert water flows to its southern neighbours. It operates at least several dozen major dams on rivers into the south (see map). Last year, it solidified plans to build the ‘Medog Super dam’ on what becomes the Brahmaputra River in India.

Beijing is unlikely to actively seek to ‘weaponise’ water by cutting off access for the region in the coming years. According to a source who works on regional hydropower and climate issues, this is not in its interests or agenda. We agree. China has built most of its dams to help industrialise Tibet, and choking neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Laos or Cambodia of water would destroy its own investments and alliances.

However, control of water does give China political leverage over its southern neighbours. And the ways in which it exercises this have the potential to accelerate drought and related economic hardship in northern parts of both South and Southeast Asia that are largely reliant on farming.

The Chinese authorities are highly likely to maintain a strong national security approach to water, which will probably cause disputes with many neighbouring countries in the coming years. Unlike most countries around the world, the Chinese government tends to engage in diplomacy on water issues only bilaterally rather than multilaterally. And our source has told us that it is generally more keen on artificially changing water flows for its own economic and security purposes without following international norms. Little data exists on these trends to alter water flows within China.

Risks flowing south

We anticipate that water issues including hydropower dynamics between India and China will deepen regional geopolitical tensions over the coming years. The Indian government has criticised China’s future plans to build the ‘Medog Super dam’ as it says this will create potential risks for both flash floods and water scarcity in its northwest. It has in turn announced plans for a dam on the Brahmaputra River to ‘mitigate the adverse impacts of the Chinese dam projects’ and control its water flows. These and similar future projects are likely to continue to erode mutual trust between Beijing and Delhi.

The resulting regional race to build dams means that there is potential for Medog County in China and the Upper Siang District in India to become a hotspot for future border disputes, militarisation and skirmishes between India and China. The ripple effect of water disputes related to dams will probably also spread to water-intensive economies like Bangladesh and particularly Pakistan. India is a source of key rivers to both of these countries, which would probably in turn blame Delhi for worsening climatic and water issues, for example in Kashmir.

We assess that water disputes are unlikely to lead to a sustained military confrontation between India and China over disputed border areas even in the long term. But with competition over the control of water likely to intensify beyond this timeline, the chance of a full normalisation of ties between the two countries or a resolution to contested borders appears remote. On the contrary, some of the scenarios that our source suggested might emerge should India perceive China to be ‘weaponising’ its hydropower advantages include:

  • India antagonising Chinese troops at disputed border areas, like in Ladakh
  • India heavily militarising its Andaman and Nicobar islands for control of trade routes from the South China Sea over the Malacca Strait

On current indications, these both appear to be reasonably likely.

Beyond geopolitics, the growing buildup of dams regionally and related economic activity also pose operational challenges through increased climatic and unrest risks. Dam-building and the restriction of water flows will very likely compound regional water scarcity. Our source says that it will lead to intensified droughts, as well as periodic flash flood risks along rivers in northern parts of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Furthermore, water scarcity in India’s and Pakistan’s northern regions, which heavily rely on agriculture, will probably form the undercurrent to a sustained risk of mass protest movements like the farmers’ movement throughout this decade.

Debilitated Southeast Asia

Water disputes in northern regions of Southeast Asia are very likely to become another expression of US-China competition in the region. The US and affiliated organisations have in recent years criticised China’s dam buildup, saying that it would exacerbate severe droughts in the Mekong region. China has rejected these claims. Both countries are engaging with affected countries through separate regional organisations. But with the exception of Thailand, most countries are hesitant to antagonise China over water issues given their economic dependence on the regional superpower.

Climatic risks will very likely be at the forefront of issues related to hydropower in the region. A body of studies and international media reports suggest that water management and industrial activity from both China and regional countries are increasingly depleting water levels along the Mekong River. If these trends continue apace in the coming years, this will probably make manufacturing in Laos, Cambodia, southern Vietnam and northern Thailand less viable. And it would also likely threaten the food security of roughly 200m people in the region who depend on farming and fishing along the Mekong River.

The periodic release of water from dams also poses flash floods and related risks for travel in parts of the region. This is particularly in northern Laos, where water released from Chinese dams upstream has reportedly caused the destruction of property and loss of human life along the Mekong over the past few years. The local authorities would typically warn of such events, albeit only with less than 24 hours’ notice in some instances. Another environmentalist source based in South Asia told us in April that this is also a growing issue with Indian dams releasing water into western parts of Bangladesh.

Image: This aerial photo taken on 26 June 2021 shows the 289-metre (948 ft.) tall Baihetan Hydropower Station in Zhaotong, in China’s southwestern Yunnan province. Photo by CNS/AFP via Getty Images.