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Trickle-Down Geopolitics: Chinese Foreign Policy Through an Aquatic Lens

Trickle-Down Geopolitics: Chinese Foreign Policy Through an Aquatic Lens

. 6 min read

China’s 11th five-year plan (2006-2010) allocated one trillion yuan to the development of water infrastructure. Premier Wen Jiabao declared at the time that water scarcity was a threat to the very “survival of the Chinese nation.” Much of China’s foreign policy is a reflection of its domestic priorities, and thus, today, in China’s push for regional hegemony, water is crucial to its expansionist aims.

Ili River

At the start of the 20th century, the Aral Sea was the fourth-largest lake in the world. In the 1960s, in an attempt to boost agricultural production, the Soviet Union irrigated the barren plains of Central Asia by diverting the Aral’s two main tributaries. In a few short decades, the sea shrank to a fraction of its original size, devastating the surrounding communities. Today, China is faced with a similar choice in the same region. The Ili river, which feeds Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash, the 15th largest lake in the world, is existential for the region. One-third of Kazakhstan’s population lives in the Ili-Balkhash basin, and Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, draws on the Kapchagay reservoir fed by the Ili.

The Ili-Balkhash basin borders Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province and a site of intense domestic development. Xinjiang is a key launching point for Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Central Asia, such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and thus stability in the region is paramount. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is attempting to promote migration to the region as a way of diluting the Uyghur Muslim population, which it views as a destabilizing threat to state control. To attract Han Chinese migration, the Chinese government is expanding farming—particularly rice production—and industrial development, both water-intensive endeavors. As this particular region of Xinjiang is the only area in the province with enough access to water to make a project of this scale feasible, moving the development elsewhere would mean walking back Beijing’s ambitions.

In 2000, China and Kazakhstan entered into a water-sharing agreement meant to prevent either country from exploiting the Ili River. Almost immediately, China violated the terms of the agreement, overdeveloping the Chinese side of the river. Since then, China has built 13 reservoirs and 59 hydroelectric plants along the river and plans to keep developing. Kazakhstan has been trying to negotiate with China for over a decade over sustainable water use but has made little progress. Russian researchers found that because of Chinese development, the flow of the Ili river will decrease by 40 percent by 2050. The water that flows into Kazakhstan is increasingly polluted as a result of new heavy industry along the Ili. Estimates of exploitation, however, are complicated by China’s unwillingness to cooperate with research—they have restricted information on much of their activities in the region.

There has been a strong backlash in Kazakhstan to China’s activities in Xinjiang. Many in Kazakhstan are ethnically and religiously connected to oppressed Uyghur populations within Xinjiang, and a majority are wary of Chinese encroachment. When the Chinese foreign minister visited in June, protestors surrounded the Chinese embassy in Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan, holding pictures of Kazakhs currently detained in Xinjiang. China is the largest foreign investor in Kazakhstan which has become a significant player in Central Asian geopolitics. China is forging ahead with economic development despite popular resistance and Kazakh warnings of environmental degradation.

Spratly Islands

China’s century of humiliation, stretching from the First Opium War until the founding of the CCP, was a period in Chinese history marked by foreign concessions and internal turmoil. Crucially, the South China Sea was a key entry point for foreign militaries and merchants. As a result, China argues it has a historical claim over the region, which it demarcates with the “nine-dash line,” a loose marking over much of the South China Sea. Over 60 percent of global maritime trade passes through the South China Sea every year, but equally as important is the access to fishing it provides. The UN Law of the Sea Treaty (UNCLOS) establishes an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that extends 200 miles from the coast of a country and grants that country exclusive rights to economic activities within that zone such as drilling, mining, and fishing. Since 2014, China has been dredging sand and piling it on top of shallow reefs and banks to construct islands. China claims that these islands, known as the Spratly islands, extended their EEZ under UNCLOS and established a fleet of militia fishing boats to deter fishermen from other countries, particularly the Philippines, from accessing long-fished waters.

One particularly crucial area, the Scarborough shoal, serves as an excellent example. A once-plentiful source of reef fish for fishermen in the Philippines, Filipino fishermen along the shore who previously relied on the shoal can now barely break even. Their average income per trip fell from around 17 USD to just five. Then-president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has been blamed for trading fishing rights and the livelihood of coastal communities in exchange for good relations and economic aid from China. China’s regional hegemony makes opposing its demands costly, and thus many leaders opt to accede to CCP demands. To his credit, Duterte’s government lodged 388 official protests over China’s encroachment, and the Philippines’ new president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., has lodged another 52 in just the last two months.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague, which resolves UNCLOS disputes, ruled that the Philippines had a legitimate claim to fishing around the Spratly islands. Far from being deterred, however, China began constructing military bases on the islands with new vigor despite promises by President Xi Jinping that the islands were just meant to stake land claims. There have been rising tensions between the US Navy presence in the region and the Chinese troops and ships stationed at Spratly island military bases. US ships frequently conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) that involves “buzzing” the islands, flying planes or steering ships within China’s claimed jurisdiction, often provoking a response from Chinese fighter pilots. Chinese expansion is aggressively destabilizing the region, as well as hurting surrounding communities.

Myitsone Dam

Since its coup in 2021, Myanmar has been under junta military rule, reigniting fears that the Myitsone dam project in the north of the country could be restarted to curry favor with China. Construction of the dam has been stalled since 2011 over fears of flooding and displacement. The dam would restrict the flow of Myanmar’s “mother river,” the Irrawaday, as it is planned to be constructed at the headwaters of the river to generate hydroelectric power for the region, which includes parts of southern Yunnan province in China. The Myitsone confluence has great power in the origin myth of the local Kachin people, who first started protesting the dam in 2008. Through 2019, there were extensive protests against the Chinese government over rumors of resumed construction. In April of that year, 8,000 protestors who lived in the Myitsone region demanded the project be halted. One key talking point of the protestors was the claim that over 90 percent of the electricity produced by the dam was set to be exported to China, not benefitting Myanmar.

The project has not died yet, in large part because Myanmar is heavily dependent on China and cannot easily buck their influence. China is Myanmar’s largest foreign investor and a key advocate in the UN Security Council. Crucially, China shielded Myanmar from greater UN and Western criticism over the country’s genocide of Rohingya Muslim populations. In practice, this influence allows China to direct the flow of the project, editing a Strategic Environmental Assessment published in 2018 that originally warned the dam would “break river connectivity, trap sediment, and alter the river flow on a wide scale.” The Chinese Government advised Myanmar’s Ministry of Electricity and Energy directly and downplayed concerns about environmental degradation.

Xi Jinping has been exerting pressure on Myanmar since 2011, but the dam is no longer relevant. Other energy projects have been built since that would make Myitsone’s hydroelectric contributions negligible. Xi’s calculus, however, is that backing down on a foreign policy ambition because of pushback from a target state would appear weak. He is a leader chiefly concerned with projecting strength both domestically and internationally, and those two dimensions are inherently linked. A failure in Myanmar would reflect poorly on his abilities as a leader for all of China. Half the funds for the dam have already been spent, but it remains to be seen if the project will be successful.

Three Lessons

These three case studies—a water diversion project in Kazakhstan, an aggressive military and economic expansion in the South China Sea, and a dam in Myanmar—all share three key characteristics. First, they are each a reflection of domestic policies. In Kazakhstan, the impetus for development is China’s demand for complete state control. In the South China Sea as in Myanmar, economic development and strength projections operate in tandem to legitimize Chinese actions and boost domestic, nationalist perceptions of the CCP. Second, these projects have a wanton disregard for international law, norms, and agreements. China violated a bilateral agreement in Kazakhstan, ignored a ruling by the PCA on the South China Sea, and directly influenced the internal machinations of the Myanmar Government to ensure the project continued. Lastly, China’s actions in all three regions sparked widespread protest and backlash. China is a determined and transparently motivated global actor with immense domestic strength. Its soft-power expansionism is marked by a lack of popular support in the regions it intervenes in and a dearth of benevolent diplomatic relations. Beyond its immediate neighbors, will the same tactics of power and pressure succeed?