Free Flow of Water at Issue in India–China Skirmish, Expert Says

India honors its soldiers killed in fight with People's Liberation Army last year on its 73rd Army Day
January 15, 2021 Updated: January 17, 2021

NEW DELHI—The IndiaChina border standoff that intensified with a bloody skirmish in June of last year was actually a Chinese pilot project to test a global expansion strategy based on the stoppage of trans-border rivers, an Indian defense analyst says.

“[China] blocked the water of the Galwan river, and there was a massive build-up, I suspect, in response to the massive infrastructure build-up that started in 2019 [by India],” Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, a senior research fellow with the New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, told The Epoch Times over the phone.

On its 73rd Army Day, India honored on Jan. 15 its 20 soldiers killed in the June 15, 2020, bloody clash in the Galwan valley, which Iyer-Mitra said occurred in response to the stopping of the Galwan river 100 meters on the Chinese side of the disputed border.

He said India’s action saved the interests of the wider world.

“We made it very, very clear that stopping water is a cause for war. We’ll kill, and we’ll be killed, to prevent the stoppage of water,” he said.

“The Chinese are going to use this as a precedent to start blocking all the waters of all the rivers that originate in Tibet.”

The Galwan valley has more geopolitical value than any intrinsic agricultural or mineral value, he said, and India confronted Chinese aggression to give a strong message that there’s no way the regime will be allowed to get away with its plans.

“The point is if they take one inch, what is to prevent them from taking a whole foot. If they built a dam here, what’s to prevent them from damming all the other rivers. So the value of Galwan is geopolitical,” Iyer-Mitra said.

The Tibetan plateau is a major water supplier to the world, and all 10 of the major river systems of Asia—including the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Irrawady, Salween, and Mekong—originate in the Tibetan plateau. They together constitute a lifeline for more than 2 billion people, according to the New Delhi-based Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses.

“If we accept the principle that the Galwan river can be blocked, then they will block the Brahmaputra, they will ultimately block the Irrawady,” Iyer-Mitra said. “They will block all the Southeast Asian rivers, and the Southeast Asian rivers are much more dependent on the Himalayas than we are.”

India’s response saved the whole of Southeast Asia as well as Bangladesh, he said.

“It’s purely geopolitical—the strategic control of water,” he said. “If India allowed it in Galwan, they could then start doing it everywhere.”

Epoch Times Photo
A satellite image of the point where the Galwan River meets the Suyok River. According to retired Lt. Gen. Rakesh Sharma, who The Epoch Times interviewed immediately after the conflict that resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers. The conflict occurred 1-2 miles from the intersection. (Google maps)

India’s Infrastructure Building

Indian Army Chief Gen. M.M. Naravane, in his speech at the 73rd Army Day on Jan. 15, said that when China tried to change the “status quo on borders” last year in Galwan, India gave it a “befitting reply.”

“We are committed to finding the resolution of our disputes through discussions and political efforts, but no one should commit the mistake of testing our patience,” Naravane said.

While China has built a lot of infrastructure on its border with India in Ladakh, it’s objecting to India’s buildup of infrastructure on its side, Iyer-Mitra said.

“The Chinese are saying we will keep our entire existing infrastructure. You don’t build any new infrastructure, and we’ll also not build any new infrastructure,” he said. “They want to freeze the advantage we have.”

Two to three years ago, India absolutely had no infrastructure there, and the current government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is trying to correct that, Iyer-Mitra said.

“India’s infrastructure construction started literally within a month of this government taking oath for the second time in 2019. India is saying we can prolong the negotiations just so that we can finish building our infrastructure,” he said.

When the bloody Galwan incident happened, India had just finished building a 65-yard-long bridge on the Galwan River, and India’s impetus to improve its infrastructure on the border was the primary reason behind the Chinese aggression. The bridge was meant to consolidate India’s footprint in the region and threatened Beijing’s agenda.

The bridge was also important for the movement of the Indian infantry in the sensitive region and for protecting a 158-mile road that linked India’s access to remote military posts in the Karakoram Pass.

Three weeks after the Galwan incident, India’s defense minister, Rajnath Singh, held a meeting with officials from the country’s Border Roads Organization to access infrastructure development in the border regions.

Epoch Times Photo
A man walks past a poster depicting portraits of Indian soldiers killed in a hand-to-hand fight with their Chinese counterparts on June 15, in a market area in New Delhi on Aug. 31, 2020. (Jewel Samad/ AFP via Getty Images)

‘Fight for Water’

Iyer-Mitra said what happened in Galwan can’t be called a war, but it was a “fight for water.” Two days after the conflict, the flow of water resumed.

He said the Indian experts aren’t clear on what kind of structure the Chinese built to block the river; he called it a “rudimentary dam” and said the water was stopped just to intimidate the Indian establishment.

“The point is what we have seen is, before the dam, the water flow is the same as, after the dam. This means there is absolutely no [ongoing] attempt at blocking it. There is also no diversionary channels or outlets to take water away,” Iyer-Mitra said.

He said that he extensively traveled around Tibet and studied suspected river diversions or stoppage but didn’t find any evidence.

“What we saw in Galwan, when our troops were killed, was the first evidence of some kind of water stoppage that we had seen. In every other dam that I saw personally on the ground in Tibet, as well, as I’ve seen from the satellite. I’ve seen a lot more from satellite because there were places we could not go [like] sensitive military areas, which they would not allow us to go and that was at the height of Doklam,” he said.

Another standoff between India and China occurred in June 2017 in the high-altitude Doklam plateau, a tri-junction between India, China, and Bhutan. China was aggressively attempting to extend a road on the plateau, and India acted to stop it on Bhutan’s behalf.

Iyer-Mitra, who said small incidents like the “fight for water” in Galwan can sometimes have “disproportionate effects,” compared it with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria that provided the spark for World War I

“In this case, you know, it was the stopping of a much bigger Chinese block by small action, which nobody will thank India for, nobody will. But it doesn’t matter,” he said.

“That is a huge service we have done not just to India, but to Bangladesh and all the Southeast Asian countries, because it’ll make China think long and hard about blocking any more rivers ever again,” he said.

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