China veil on water data in flood season

China has not shared key river water data with flood-struck India this year despite bilateral agreements that require Beijing to pass on that information, the foreign ministry said today, marking a fresh source of friction for the already embittered relations between the Asian giants.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 19.08.17

New Delhi, Aug. 18: China has not shared key river water data with flood-struck India this year despite bilateral agreements that require Beijing to pass on that information, the foreign ministry said today, marking a fresh source of friction for the already embittered relations between the Asian giants.

India and China have signed a web of mutually reinforcing agreements starting in 2002 under which Beijing agreed to share data on water levels of the Brahmaputra and the Sutlej regularly during the flood season each year.

But three months into the flood season, which begins on May 15, China is yet to share the data it is required to, the foreign office said, though it refused to directly ascribe a motive.

Over 100 people have died in floods in Assam, sparked by an overflowing Brahmaputra. More than 100 have also died in floods in Bihar, from the Kosi. But the Brahmaputra and the Sutlej are the two major trans-border rivers that enter India directly from China. The Kosi starts in Tibet but cuts through Nepal - where too it has wreaked havoc - before entering India.

Hydrological data capture trends in water levels that help downstream countries like India prepare better for floods. China's decision to share the information on the Brahmaputra each year from 2002 till last year represented a major confidence-building measure between the neighbours.

China's refusal so far to share the data with India this year comes amid a two-month-long stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops on the Himalayan plateau of Doklam, which is claimed by both Thimphu and Beijing. The face-off is the longest at the border between India and China in three decades.

"As far as I know, we have so far not received that information (hydrological data) during the flood season this year," foreign ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said.

The breakdown of the mechanism for sharing river water data is the latest in a series of sparks threatening to set alight a carefully managed relationship that has allowed India and China to simultaneously emerge economic powerhouses despite a border dispute they once warred over.

Such are the tensions over the Doklam spat that China hit out at Japan's ambassador in New Delhi for suggestions yesterday that Beijing had unilaterally changed the "status quo" on the disputed plateau.

The Indian foreign office here, in the meantime, refused to categorically confirm that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend next month's Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) summit in Xiamen, eastern China. Never has an Indian Prime Minister skipped the grouping's annual summit since it was first held in 2009. South Africa was not a member at the time.

"It is India that has made efforts, by illegally crossing the border, to change the status quo - not China," Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunyung said in Beijing today. "I want to remind him (the Japanese ambassador) that he should know the facts first."

Tokyo's hint of support for New Delhi, and Beijing's response were not surprising given tensions between China and Japan over their own territorial spat - on the East China Sea.

But while Indian officials said they welcomed every bit of diplomatic support, the comments by the Japanese envoy don't alter the strategic balance at play in Doklam, because Tokyo isn't expected to assist New Delhi under a military scenario there.

In New Delhi, Kumar refused to confirm whether and when Modi would fly to Xiamen for the BRICS summit, scheduled between September 3 and September 5. "I am not in a position to share any information on that at the moment," Kumar said.

Officially, he was merely following a long-established protocol in the foreign ministry, under which the government does not formally announce visits by the Prime Minister and their dates till a few days before the trip.

The announcements are also made in coordination with the country that is hosting the Prime Minister. The foreign office has for the past month worked on logistical arrangements for Modi's prospective visit.

But other officials indicated India isn't averse to stoking insecurity in the Chinese government over New Delhi's options to pressure Beijing on the Doklam standoff - and that leaving the Prime Minister's travel plans open ended for now helps in that effort.

Stand-offs between India and China along their unsettled border are not infrequent - though their regularity has increased since 2013, when Xi Jinping took over as his country's President.

But the current spat is unprecedented, because Indian troops have crossed into what they argue is Bhutanese territory to stop Chinese soldiers from constructing a road. Never before have Indian soldiers faced off against Chinese counterparts beyond India's borders.

The uniqueness of the current spat is also reflected in the tensions that have now emerged over river water data - a subject that served as a show of confidence and continuity even during other periods of bilateral tension since 2002.

During then Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to India in November 2006, the two countries also set up an expert panel to exchange the hydrological data.

The panel last met in April 2016, at a time India was accusing China of shielding Pakistan-based terrorists from UN sanctions, blocking its passage into the Nuclear Suppliers' Group and infringing on its sovereignty by building a trade corridor through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Through the flood season - stretching from May 15 to October 15 under the bilateral agreements - last year, China shared the data in keeping with the pacts.

That changed in 2017.