India’s Worries and China’s Tibetan Dams

9 December 2020 Phoebe Sleet, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme

Chinese dams on the Brahmaputra River are just one more thorn in the side of India-China relations and India has good reason to be concerned.


India has said that it is ‘carefully monitoring’ the situation as China considers building up to 60 gigawatts of hydropower along the Brahmaputra River (known as the Yarlung Tsangbo in China), in Tibet. The river, which flows into India and Bangladesh, is a vital source of livelihood for many in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and is one of 12 of the world’s mega biodiversity hotspots. Both the 12th and 13th Chinese five-year plans proposed the expansion of hydropower projects in south-western China, including all of Tibet. Chinese authorities have claimed that there is no need for ‘anxiety’ over any hydropower projects and that care would be taken to maintain ‘good communication’ with India. Despite those reassurances, Indian officials have voiced concerns that projects in Tibet could be used to trigger floods or create water scarcity downstream.


There has been a degree of tension in India-China relations since the 1960s, but relations have been especially turbulent in 2020. In June, a clash between soldiers in the Galwan Valley, in the disputed territory of Ladakh, led to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and injured more than 70 others. Tensions in Ladakh have remained high and show no signs of easing. Both India and China have ruled out reducing troop numbers in the disputed territory and joint talks in November only resulted in an agreement to ‘exercise restraint’ to avoid misunderstandings. Meanwhile, India has positioned 50,000 troops, artillery tanks and air defence in Ladakh, matching the number of Chinese troops in the area.

The events of 2020 have led India to reconsider how it manages its relationship with China. India welcomed Australia to the Malabar exercises this year, after several years of reluctance, fearing China’s reaction to such strategic partnership in the region. India has also warmed somewhat to the United States, agreeing to buy US$3 billion ($4 billion) worth of US surveillance drones in October and assenting to a defence agreement between the US and the Maldives in September. India has historically opposed similar actions, and in 2013, blocked a similar defence agreement between the two. For its part, China has continued to antagonise India outside of the Himalayas, by repeatedly raising the issue of Kashmir at the United Nations Security Council. According to Beijing, India’s attempts to remove the special status of Jammu and Kashmir has impacted its territorial claims on Ladakh.

It is in this turbulent context that the dispute over dams on the Brahmaputra has taken place, especially as the river holds significant geopolitical importance for India. The river runs through another disputed area, Arunachal Pradesh (which China claims as “South Tibet”), between India and China. It is currently controlled by India, covers 90,000 square kilometres and has a population of around one million. In November, Xi Jinping ordered officials to expedite the construction of a major new railway to a city near the Chinese border with Arunachal Pradesh and has upgraded an airport 160 kilometres from the border.

Alarmingly for India, China has already blocked the flow of one of the Brahmaputra’s Tibetan tributaries and in May, blocked the flow of the Galwan River, preventing it from entering India. After the Doklam standoff occurred in 2017, China withheld hydrological data from India, which resulted in floods in two Indian states.

China has assured India that it has nothing to be concerned about from its proposed dams in Tibet. Current bilateral tensions and past actions by Beijing suggest that India’s concerns may not be so baseless.

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