Update: No need to read too much into the development of China’s Yarlung Zangbo River downstream development: Chinese Embassy to India
Published: Nov 30, 2020 10:28 PM

Aerial photo taken on June 27, 2020 shows a shelter forest along the Yarlung Zangbo River in Shannan, southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region. (Xinhua/Jigme Dorje)

China has always taken a responsible attitude towards the development and utilization of cross-border rivers, and adopts a policy that protection goes together with development, China’s  Embassy to India said in relation to China's Yarlung Zangbo River hydropower project plan. 
China's plan to build a large hydropower project on the Yarlung Zangbo River has raised concerns in India over potential political and ecological threats as the river passes through Southwest China, India and Bangladesh. 

Any project will be scientifically planned and demonstrated, taking into account the full downstream impact, the embassy said. Downstream river development is still in the early stage of planning and demonstration, so there’s no need to read too much into it, the embassy said in a statement issued on Wednesday. 

Chinese experts refuted the claim that Chinese hydropower project have political aims, and said the project could help alleviate power shortage problem in northern India and boost regional economy. 

An official of the Medog government confirmed with the Global Times on Monday that the project will be built in Medog county, Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region. The Global Times also learned from a source that the project will be designed by the Chengdu Engineering Corp under the Power Construction Corp of China, or POWERCHINA. The Chengdu company is helping Medog to build the second highway entering the remote county, according to the company's official website.

The head of POWERCHINA suggested the planned hydropower station - which is expected to have three times as much generating capacity as the world-leading Three Gorges power station - aims to maintain water resources and domestic security, according to an article on the WeChat account of the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of China on Sunday.

However, the news raised India's concerns, with some experts and media worried that Chinese activities in upstream areas may hurt interests downstream. Some are even concerned that China will use the hydroelectric project as a tool to serve its political strategy in the region, along with the border military conflict in Ladakh, or to curb India's right to explore downstream water resources.

Analysts suggested that India has always been overly sensitive to China's actions in the region, and India tends to make threat-oriented, politicized interpretations. But these energy projects can benefit the entire regional economy, if properly coordinated.

"Such projects can provide a large amount of electricity for the economic development of neighboring countries, including India," Liu Xiaoxue, an associate research fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Monday.

The facility could provide power to northeast India and boost its economy, which is suffering from power shortages and poor generation equipment, said Liu. "Given that China currently has almost enough power within its borders, it is expected that a large portion of the electricity generated from the project could be exported to neighboring countries."

"Based on the power station, we can expect a new economic growth point at the border area and booming cross-border trade between Tibet and northern India," Liu noted.

India is developing similar hydropower projects upstream of rivers it shares with neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh, Liu noted. India has been criticized by downstream countries for its control over the water resources for its own sake.

"India's concern indeed stems from a lack of political trust in China. India should regard the project as a potential chance for cooperation with China to rationally promote common economic prosperity and enhance mutual trust. But unfortunately, India has let its domestic nationalist sentiment be swept along with the border conflict," said Liu.

Moreover, Indian is opposing the project out of concern that China's hydropower projects may affect the ecosystem downstream.

Analysts said that China has always been a responsible country on the ecological and environmental issues of hydropower projects, considering its mature technology and measures to protect animals and plants in the process. 

Many technological breakthroughs were achieved in building several water conservancy projects in ecologically fragile areas such as Southwest China's Yunnan Province, Zhou Zhanggui, a researcher in non-traditional security and peaceful development studies from Zhejiang University, told the Global Times.

Zhou noted that China hopes to tap the rich hydropower resources of the Yarlung Zangbo River, and the projects won't dam the river and will not cause any water shortage downstream.

China and India also have well-established mechanisms to share hydrological information during the monsoon season for each other to prepare for flooding risks.

Experts noted that China has rich experience in exchanging and updating information with downstream countries via multi-level mechanisms set up to resolve potential conflicts and challenges. The Lancang-Mekong cooperation mechanism is one of those successful models from which to learn about more efficient ways to promote comprehensive mutual trust through dialogue, Lin Boqiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University, told the Global Times.