Indian army vehicles cross a checkpoint on the Srinagar-Leh National highway on September 1, 2020. Photo: AFP/Faisal Khan/NurPhoto

The latest Chinese incursions into India’s Ladakh region support the view that the next world war will likely be fought over water. The mineral-rich northern region, which is adjacent to Tibet, is known as one of the world’s biggest natural reservoirs.

While the area in Ladakh encroached upon by the People’s Liberation Army may not be home to any single water body worthy of seizure, Tibet, which has been occupied by China since 1950, certainly is.

Described as the Third Pole or the Water Tower of the World, Tibet has the largest water reserves after the Arctic and Antarctica.

The plateau is the source of dozens of rivers that flow into China, Southeast Asia and South Asia, giving sustenance to about 45% of the world’s population. China depends on them to provide drinking water across the country and irrigate farms through a complex network of canals.

Ryan Clarke, senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute in Singapore, pointed out that China has one clearly identifiable Achilles Heel: its river systems. They are literally the lifelines of the country.

“For the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] the bigger the strategic buffer they can have around those key Tibet-origin river systems, the more comfortable they feel,’’ says Clarke. “The CCP would see it as an existential risk if undisputed control over these river systems is jeopardized or the south-north diversion is reversed to its natural state. ‘’

Indian troops, defending Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battleground for the past four decades, are a formidable enough force to make Beijing nervous. Not helping matters, a careless jingoistic minister said in August 2019 that India would reclaim Aksai Chin.

China uses water from the Yangtze and Yellow rivers to irrigate land and provide drinking water in the north. The Shoutian Canal carries water from Shoumatan Point in Tibet to Tianjin on China’s east coast. Geologists say China even plans to harness Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo River to redirect water to Xinjiang – almost in the opposite direction of its natural flow.

The many rivers originating in Tibet include China’s Yangtze and Yellow rivers, the Salween, Irrawaddy and Mekong of Southeast Asia, and South Asia’s Indus and Satluj. The Yarlung Tsangpo flows into India’s northeast and Bangladesh’s Brahmaputra before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.

Yet, increasing industrialization and the 1,100-km rail link from Beijing to Leh, which was established for tourism, is melting its glaciers, and reducing the quality and quantity of fresh water reserves even in Tibet.

Tibet is home to an estimated 94 different kinds of minerals, including vast reserves of uranium, lithium, copper, iron, lead, zinc, chromium, corundum, vanadium, titanium, magnesite, sulphur, mica, graphite and potash. One estimate values them at upwards of $100 billion.

Hydroelectric dams

The construction of a series of hydroelectric dams that alter the direction of rivers is having a negative environmental impact, especially for countries downstream. Experts cite the example of Mekong, where too many dams are causing droughts in downstream countries Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

India too is highly vulnerable as its northern rivers receive much of their water from Tibet. Any tampering with the natural flow of rivers by building too many dams could hurt it badly.  

The Tibet plateau’s bountiful water reserves and rich mineral deposits enticed the Chinese to invade and occupy it in 1950. Beijing has been brutally suppressing protests ever since.

In the mid- to late 1950s, China occupied 38,000 sq km of India’s Aksai Chin in north Ladakh. Pakistan later ceded to China 5,180 sq km of land in the Shaksgam Valley (also known as the Trans Karakoram Tract) close to Aksai Chin.

The Indus River, which flows from Tibet to India to Pakistan, is not far from one of the flashpoints of the latest incursions. China intruded from several points including the Galwan Valley, Hotsprings, and Pangong Lake, the scene of a major clash between the armies of India and China in the 1962 war. Some see a threat to the Galwan River from the Chinese.

The water security issue aside, the Chinese see India emerging as an economic and military power and a potential rival for leadership in Asia. The Ladakh attack is seen by some as a signal underlining China’s superiority.

The incursion was launched when India was at its most vulnerable. The coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, presented Beijing with a golden opportunity to strike at India in May when it let its guard down while grappling with Covid-19 and a slowing economy.

“Covid-19 has given them a window of opportunity to test out an experiment in a way they haven’t had before and may not get again,” says Clarke.

“By encroaching into Ladakh, they may like to solidify their holdings around Aksai Chin. They may feel it’ll help solidify positions closer to Pakistan. Covid-19 gave them the perfect opportunity, which their actions in the East China Sea, South China Sea have shown.”

By forcing India to commit resources to a military build-up in Ladakh, China is bleeding its neighbor’s economy and delaying its recovery.

“They are trying to keep India in check. In many ways they are terrified at India’s emergence and growth under a democratic system with decentralized governance structures as this is a living, breathing refutation that the top-down CCP authoritarian system is necessary and that democracy would lead to chaos and derail Chinese growth,’’ says Clarke.

China is also concerned that India is building roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects to improve its access to northern Ladakh’s Siachen Glacier, where India and Pakistan have lost hundreds of soldiers.

So, what next?

After being on the back foot since May, the Indian Army outmaneuvered Chinese troops on Aug 29-30 and took crucial positions in a battle. This leaves the Chinese looking defeated in the Pangong Lake area even though they still occupy other areas.

Gordon G Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, predicts that Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who had looked invincible until recently, now has something to prove and may be determined to launch another attack.

Rajnath Singh, India’s defense minister, cautioned in a briefing on Tuesday that his country’s forces are prepared to deal with any eventuality.