Water (and) diplomacy: the Chinese conceptualization

In the context of discussing transboundary river management, possible interpretations of the notion of “water diplomacy” can range from: (a) access to water being used by one actor as leverage for diplomatic/ political gains, to (b) the geological reality of water sharing between upstream and downstream states being an impetus for cooperation,

China for water governance 261 which may or may not yield gains in diplomatic/political relations. A strong and even dominant stream of interpretation by observers outside China sees (a) as a fitting frame, whereas such assumptions and/ or arguments are often met with protests from Chinese interests which tends to try to prove (b) true.

Regardless, generally, in international relations, practicing water diplomacy is not a smooth process. Bifurcated views can be found with regard to water diplomacy in terms of conflicts and political tensions,8 and cooperation as an opposite position to conflict.9

In this chapter, water diplomacy refers to the rationale of countries’ water-related foreign policy processes, which may see cooperation and conflict occur simultaneously in negotiating over how river basins are shared.10 In comparison to other international issues, transboundary rivers pose greater challenges to cooperation, particularly in regions where instability is seen among nation-states.11 Asymmetries are likely to be displayed in countries’ dependence on water resources as well as their possession of policy information over the use of shared rivers.12 In contexts where socio-political conditions are complicated, nation-states’ cooperation in the water sector cannot be isolated from cooperation in other major sectors, such as trade and transportation, etc.13 Institutional cooperation in the water sector alone may well be the very first step toward long term interstate collaboration over transboundary river sharing.

The legal aspect in Chinese water diplomacy with its Mekong River Basin neighbors is an insistence on domestic law taking priority over such international instruments as multinational treaties. Flowing from the country’s adherence to the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” China has continued its support of the United Nations as a key platform for addressing interstate affairs and conflicts, including cooperation on environmental issues. For instance, it has adopted the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 6, “to ensure access to water and sanitation for all.”14 What then explains the fact that China continues to be a nonparty to the UN Watercourses Convention, given that decades have passed?15

Part of the answer can be found in the Chinese representative’s four-point objections on 21 May 1997. The first point of objection was over procedural matters. The second was based on seeing territorial sovereignty as a basic principle of international law: “A watercourse State enjoys indisputable territorial sovereignty over those parts of international watercourses that flow through its territory.” Thirdly, in terms of rights and responsibilities, the Chinese position is based on seeing “an imbalance between those [rights and responsibilities] of States onthe upper reaches of an international watercourse and those of States on the lower reaches.” The fourth and final point of objection had to do with the compulsory fact-finding requirement in dispute settlement: “The Chinese Government...are not against fact-finding as an optional means of settlement, but we cannot agree to any mandatory means or procedures for the settlement of a dispute without the consent of the countries parties to the dispute.”16

However, insistence on an upstream state’s right over water in its territorial space does not imply disregard of “no significant harm” and other commonly held principles. As a matter of fact, those principles are enshrined in China’s water treaties, albeit of a bilateral nature.17 Some scholars find China to be contesting the definition and practicality of the no harm principle, which has caused difficulties with some states.18 China specified the upper limits of water withdrawals from transboundary waters in a 1996 Ministry of Water Resources circular—which remains in effect.19 Still, as a philosophical matter, Chinese water policy scholars continue to question if the right of upstream states such as China are legally protected, suspecting that the UN Watercourses Convention has adopted principles that favor downstream countries.20

Nevertheless, Chinese authorities have adopted cooperative policies on its shared river basins. On a regular basis, China cooperates with India, Mongolia, Russia, and Kazakhstan—on the basis of respective bilateral arrangements and agreements—to provide them with hydro-logical data. China has consistently complied with these agreements by ensuring timely collection and release of seasonal water data in order to alert downstream countries and help them prevent flooding.21 Hydrological data provision is also a pillar of cooperation between China and the MRC (see below).

The same pattern can be found in China’s interactions with India in the handling of bilateral issues involving transboundary water. The core of sensitivity is seen to lie in the unsettled border between the two countries. Before the water dispute is resolved, it is impossible for a fact-based assessment of the amount of water flow from China into India. As a result, on the one hand, Chinese observers are generally unhappy with Indian voices making broad-stroke claims that China is turning off the water tap, but at a “total loss” as to how to respond to such claims.

Over the years, the tendency has also been for water disputes around the world to be painted as existential threats. However, China and India have chosen to “securitize their water dispute.” Water-based cooperation between them has remained low, confined to an expert-level

China for water governance 263 mechanism, and memoranda of understanding on sharing hydrological data.22 Still, it fits into the same Chinese pattern of pursuing pragmatic cooperation regardless of dividends generated.

In summary, the Chinese conceptualization of water diplomacy is as follows. First, the upstream riparian state does have reasons for insisting on its rights to water resources within its territorial boundaries, as the sharing of water is a natural choice dictated by gravity. This stance does expose China to criticism due to the vastly greater number of human and animal inhabitants within the riparian regions, raising questions about the notion of equitable use of water withdrawal. Second, China selectively applies key principles enshrined in such multilateral water treaties as the UN WC. As a political tactic, China could have later on signed onto the treaty, as its neighbor Vietnam (a significant upstream state in relation to Cambodia) did in 2014. Third, China has been consistent in cooperation with its neighboring states and the MRC through the provision of hydrological and flood data. The scope for cooperation can perhaps be deepened. Still, being a nonparty to either a UN treaty or a multilateral agency has not prevented China from conducting cooperation in areas it sees as feasible.

All in all, water diplomacy with Chinese characteristics does not see China conforming to the norms of formal/multilateral diplomacy centered on transboundary water governance. Furthermore, cooperation has evolved by treating water-related matters as they are, rather than as leverage in relation to broader diplomatic concerns.

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