The People’s Republic of China and the ‘Third Pole’ Water Resources Management

Map of the main fault zones and blocks of the Tibetan Plateau where China has focused its interests (Credits: Mikenorton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 23 Issue 3
Author: Riccardo Rossi

In recent years, the People’s Republic of China has heavily invested in renewable resources, particularly in the hydropower sector. Under the Xi Jinping administration, this energy sector has progressively assumed a role in sustaining part of the electricity demand of both the industrial and civil sectors. This report aims to clarify why Beijing considers the Tibet Autonomous Region a strategically important area for its national and energy security.

The water resources of the Third Earth Pole

Geographically, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is characterised by an uneven distribution of energy sources, which in the case of water, are primarily concentrated in the Tibetan plateau. Geologists defined Tibet as the Third Pole of the Earth due to the high presence of glaciers and water sources, from which the most important national (Yangtze and the Yellow) and cross-border (Mekong, Salween) Chinese rivers originate.[1]

Under Xi Jinping’s presidency, Beijing adopted the twelfth (2012-2016) and thirteenth (2016-2020) five-year development plans, which stressed China’s necessity to increase renewable energy production, including water resources. In this regard, the Chinese Administration classified the Tibetan Plateau as a strategically vital area and defined a project to build an articulated network of hydroelectric power plants.[2] Therefore, Beijing supported this project by constructing large dams in the Yangtze and Salween rivers, as happened in 2009 when the People’s Republic of China inaugurated the Three Gorges Dam costing 24.6 billion dollars and with a capacity of 18,200 megawatts; it is considered among the most powerful hydropower plants in the world of energy production.[3]

In the case of the Salween River, Xi Jinping’s presidency had planned to build thirteen dams causing initial protests which blocked the work until the approval of the twelfth five-year plan (2012-2016), which put five of the thirteen planned dams on site.

Beijing’s strategy to build water structures and improve the national water system with dams constructions aims to:

1) Meeting national energy needs (as indicated in the 12th and 13th five-year development plans) of the Chinese population and industrial sectors.[4]

2) Exploiting the dams’ construction in its transboundary rivers (Mekong, Salween) as a geopolitical tool to increase Beijing’s influence over the economies and management of the water flows that cross the territories of five South East Asian countries: Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Therefore, Beijing adopted a new energy foreign policy to develop bilateral relations with regional governments and, at the same time, envisage a forum with the Chinese-led Mekong River riparian states (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam) for participatory and cooperative management of the Mekong River’s water flows.

Thus, it is possible to state that Beijing has had fluctuating interactions with regional partners, alternating some moments of diplomatic cooperation with other moments of political confrontation, as happened between China and Burma over the exploitation of the water resources of the Irrawaddy River through the construction of the Myitsone Dam.[5]

Chinese interests and strategy with Burma

Beijing and Naypyidaw reached an understanding thanks to the contract signed by the China Power Investment Corporation (CPI), the Asia World Corporation and the Burmese Ministry of Energy Product in 2009. This agreement established that the ICC would be responsible for providing almost all of the 3.6 billion dollars needed for the construction of the plant, while the Burmese government would be entitled to 10%of the energy produced, 15 per cent of the dividends from royalties, and the exclusive ownership of the infrastructure 50 years after its construction.[6]

In the following two years, relations between the PRC and Burma were cooperative, but in 2011, in the face of protests by the local population against the project, the Burmese government decided to suspend the work. This decision generated a diplomatic crisis between China and Burma, prompting Beijing to describe Naypyidaw’s choice as tangible evidence of its desire for reconciliation with the West and the United States. This situation persisted until the 2013 appointment of Xi Jinping as PRC President, who initiated a reconciliation program with Myanmar because of its importance to the realisation of Chinese national interests in Southeast Asia.[7] Within this strategy, Beijing attempted to reach an agreement with Naypyidaw to resume Myitsone Dam’s work without success.

The Xi Jinping presidency’s political action vis-à-vis Myanmar aroused considerable concern among both states in the region and the United States about the importance of protecting the water resources of the Mekong River. The Obama Administration (2009-2017) established the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), a special international forum aimed at promoting both cooperation and development between the countries across the river, such as Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, to share engineering expertise for the construction of a complex network of hydropower plants.[8]

In 2016 China elaborated a strategy to contrast Washington’s regional policy. Indeed, Beijing established the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam to officially foster economic development, coordinate water resources management and promote the construction of hydroelectric plants. In addition to the objectives mentioned above, this association represents Beijing’s important instrument to exploit relations with other member states and develop in the framework of technology and energy and control the entire Mekong River route. [9]

Controlling the Mekong River route demonstrates how is essential for the Chinese Administration to exploit hydropower obtained from national and transnational rivers.

Conclusions

As highlighted before, Xi Jinping’s presidency attributes a dual purpose to the Third Pole of the Earth’s water resources policy and management to reduce energy dependency on fossil resources and control the Mekong and Salween rivers. Therefore, if the People’s Republic of China gains control of the Third Pole of the Earth, Beijing would have the possibility to impose its influence on regional economic and diplomatic dynamics by transforming the Chinese water dam system into a coercive tool against other regional actors. Furthermore, China might counter the United States’ regional strategy by improving its business and political presence in the area.

Sources

[1] Plateau Maps | Meltdown in Tibet (2022) Link: https://www.meltdownintibet.com/f_maps.htm

[2] U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (2016) Report to Congress. Link: https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/annual_reports/2016%20Annual%20Report%20to%20Congress.pdf

[3]  Lynn M. Highland (2018) Geographical Overview of the Three Gorges Dam and Reservoir, China -Geologic Hazards and Environmental Impacts, USGS. Link: https://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2008/1241/pdf/OF08-1241_508.pdf

[4] International Hydropower Association – China. Link: https://www.hydropower.org/country-profiles/china

[5] Ba Kaung (2011) Burmese President Halts Myitsone Dam Project, The Irrawaddy. Link: https://www2.irrawaddy.com/article.php?art_id=22172  

[6] Bryan Titl (2014) Dams and Development in China, Columbia University Press.

[7]Nyi Nyi Kyaw (2020) Sinophobia in Myanmar and the Belt and Road Initiative, Perspective N.9, Yusof Ishak Institute. Link:  https://www.iseas.edu.sg/images/pdf/ISEAS_Perspective_2020_9.pdf

[8] Felix Chang (2013), The Lower Mekong Initiative & U.S. Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia: Energy, Environment & Power, Orbis Volume 57 Issue 2, pp. 282-289.

[9] Richard Grünwald (2020) Lancang-Mekong Cooperation: Present and Future of the Mekong River Basin, Politické vedy [online] Volume 23, Issue 2, 2020, pp. 69-97.