China and India's Slow-Moving Path to 'Water Wars'

The Brahmaputra from Ganden Monastery, Tibet. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Antoine Taveneaux

There’s a smarter way to handle the Brahmaputra conflict.

India may be the more reluctant riparian multilateralist regarding the Brahmaputra. Its middle-riparian position means it sees upstream China as the source of problems, but wishes to pursue its own dam-building and water-management practices without constraints from downstream Bangladesh. Still, India’s gains from predictability and commitment by its northern neighbor could be matched by the political gains of reassuring its southeastern neighbor—with which relations have been improving over the past few years. Finally, Bangladesh may be the critical player to achieve a multilateral solution. As the lowest riparian and most impacted country, it has the moral authority to implore its upstream neighbors—both rising powers on the world stage, concerned about their reputations—to engage in more responsible behavior in the basin.

CNA’s report lists various options for laying the foundation for multilateral cooperation at official and unofficial levels, including regular technical exchanges between scientists, that could someday evolve into a “Brahmaputra Basin Commission.” To be sure, a multilateral calculation is messier than a bilateral one—but the latest Brahmaputra contretemps could afford an opportunity for increased, useful cooperation.

Satu Limaye is Director, East West Center in Washington and Senior Advisor, CNA Corporation. Joel Wuthnow is a Research Fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University. He is on Twitter @jwuthnow. Nilanthi Samaranayake is a strategic studies analyst at CNA, a nonprofit research organization in Arlington, VA. She is the project director of the CNA study, “Water Resource Competition in the Brahmaputra River Basin: China, India, and Bangladesh.” The views expressed are the authors’ own and do not reflect the official policy or position of their respective organizations, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Image: The Brahmaputra from Ganden Monastery, Tibet. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Antoine Taveneaux