Analysis & Reviews

China's Soft Path to Transboundary Water

China’s Soft Path to Transboundary Water

China is upstream of most of its 40 major international transboundary waters, it shares with 14 neighbouring countries. This hydro-geographically advantaged situation not only offers China great advantages, but also important duties. With China’s new political leadership under President Xi Jinping, the past months have demonstrated a focused rolling out of China’s foreign policy as the ‘good neighbour’, seeking to deepen regional partnerships that promote enhanced regional peace, security and prosperity.

“China’s new political leadership under President Xi Jinping … demonstrated a focused rolling out of China’s foreign policy as the ‘good neighbour’, seeking to deepen regional partnerships that promote enhanced regional peace, security and prosperity”

The recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting (Bishkek, September 2013) provides ample evidence of China’s proactive stance joining with its neighbours, to “safeguard regional security and stability, advance regional development and prosperity, establish a more equitable international order and promote world peace and development.” President Xi has just completed bilateral visits to most of the Central Asian countries, having already paid visits to Russia, as one of China’s key strategic partners.

Separately, China’s new Premier Li Keqiang has remarked that China’s limited water resources have become serious economic and social development constraints and suggested that water conservation and improved water-use efficiency are priorities. Premier Li has also been busy with a series of bilateral visits, including visits to India and Pakistan, seeking to deepen cooperation.

At the Boao Forum for Asia gathering on 8 April 2013, President Xi stated, “… we should boost cooperation as an effective vehicle for enhancing common development… While pursuing its own interests, a country should accommodate the legitimate concerns of others. … We need to work vigorously to create more cooperation opportunities, upgrade cooperation, and deliver more development dividends to our people and contribute more to global growth.”

This focused regional outreach and consistent message aligned to China’s foreign policy is important. What remains to be seen is how it is played out in practice. Recent reports suggests that the world’s future water/food/energy security will be determined in large part by what happens across Asia. With China now the globe’s second largest economy, and growing, the increased pressure on water resources, which are essential for economic growth, must be addressed.

“Transboundary water resources shared with China’s many neighbours are largely unregulated by international agreements”

Transboundary water resources shared with China’s many neighbours are largely unregulated by international agreements, which could cause regional tensions in neighbourly relations. While there are a number of water-related treaties with its northern and western neighbours, Russia and Kazakhstan as two primary examples, the major transboundary waters across its southern reaches are covered only by some agreements on hydrological data exchange. This provides a basis for cooperation, but leaves the difficult issues of allocation of uses of shared transboundary freshwaters unresolved. Hence the current issues on the  Yarlung Zangbo/Brahmaputra River, shared by China and India.

China’s intention to build dams on its upper reaches has raised serious concerns in India and Bangladesh, both downstream on this major shared watercourse. There are similar issues related to China’s dam-building on the Lancang, upstream on the Mekong, shared with Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

“International law provides clear guidance on how transboundary freshwater resources should be shared and managed.”

International law provides clear guidance on how transboundary freshwater resources should be shared and managed. These are based upon the bedrock rule of international law, the ‘duty to cooperate’, espoused in the UN Charter and at the heart of international entitlements and obligations.

China’s development of its transboundary waters and relations with its neighbours are covered by this rule of law.

 

“It is hoped that the new generation of Chinese leadership … will find meaningful cooperative frameworks regarding its transboundary water resources.”

It is hoped that the new generation of Chinese leadership which now seeks positive, mutually beneficial engagements with its neighbours, will find meaningful cooperative frameworks regarding its transboundary water resources.

The treaty practice with Russia and Kazakhstan provide platforms for technical cooperation, but there is room for improvement in the remit of the joint river basin commissions created under these treaty regimes.

The southern transboundary waters originating in the Himalayan ‘water towers’ need more attention in terms of agreed legal regimes. The extensive work by the UN in this area of law, demonstrated by the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (soon to enter into force) and the 1992 UN Economic of Europe Transboundary Waters Convention (now open for universal accession) provides helpful guidance on how China might upgrade its international water agreements. This will contribute to realising China’s express foreign policy  to ‘energetically pursue regional cooperation’ – which will be to benefit of us all.


Further Reading

 

Patricia Wouters

About Patricia Wouters

Professor Dr Patricia Wouters is a Professor of Xiamen University School of Law, the Founding Director of China International Water Law programme (www.chinainternationalwaterlaw.org) and the Founding Director of the Dundee UNESCO Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science. Her research focuses on public international law and transboundary waters. She has served on the Global Water Partnership TEC and chairs the International Advisory Committee of the United Nations University Institute of Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH).

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