Why is China Cooperative on Water Issues with Kazakhstan?

Why is China’s stance with Kazakhstan on water management issues more cooperative than towards its neighbours in Southeast Asia?  Selina Ho explains.

Kazakhstan is one of the most water-stressed countries on the planet. A complex system of shared energy and water resources that served the five Central Asian countries fell apart with the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Since that time, Kazakhstan and China have been trying to evolve a partnership on water resources that has been defined through the 2000s by a decidedly cooperative China.

China is clearly the hydro-hegemon in Asia; the country derives this power due to its military, economic prowess in Asia and the fact that it is an upstream country. As a result, China uses its water resources as it deems fit. For instance, it is unilaterally building a cascade of eight dams in the upper Mekong without consulting or informing its downstream neighbours.

China and Kazakhstan share 24 rivers along their 1700-kilometre border, but the Irtysh and Ili Rivers are the largest and the most significant (see map). Kazakhstan has been concerned about China’s persistence in transferring water to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, an autonomous territory in northwest China.

However, notwithstanding such concerns about the ecological and economic impacts of this diversion of water, the relationship between China and Kazakhstan is framed by mutual cooperation driven by concerns and policies that extend beyond water management issues.

The Basins at Risk (BAR) rating scale

Before we delve into the relationship between China and Kazakhstan, let’s examine the theoretical framework under which the question of riparian cooperation is defined; the Basins at Risk project (BAR) scale is such a framework. The BAR scale was created to address a series of overarching gaps in research on freshwater resources and international conflict by providing a “quantitative, global-scale exploration of the relationship between freshwater resources and conflict.”

Thus the BAR event-intensity scale examines the spectrum of riparian conflict and cooperation (Table 1), ranging from the highest level of conflict, “formal declaration of war and extensive war acts” (−7), to the highest level of cooperation, “voluntary unification into one nation” (7).  Cooperation and conflict at the river-basin level often exist on a spectrum between these two extremes.

Basins at Risk rating Event description
−7 Formal declaration of war; extensive war acts causing deaths, dislocation, or high strategic costs
−6 Extensive military acts
−5 Small-scale military acts
−4 Political-military hostile actions
−3 Diplomatic-economic hostile actions
−2 Strong verbal expressions displaying hostility in interaction
−1 Mild verbal expressions displaying discord in interaction
0 Neutral or non-significant acts for the inter-nation situation
1 Minor official exchanges, talks or policy expressions – mild verbal support
2 Official verbal support of goals, values or regime
3 Cultural or scientific agreement or support (non-strategic)
4 Non-military economic, technological or industrial agreement
5 Military, economic or strategic support
6 International freshwater treaty; major strategic alliance (regional or international)
7 Voluntary unification into one nation

Source: Wolf et al. (2003 Wolf, A. T., Yoffe, S. B., & Giordano, M. (2003). International waters: Indicators for identifying basins at risk. Paris, France: UNESCO.[Google Scholar])

On the BAR scale, MOUs and expert-level mechanisms are grouped together as minor official exchanges, talks or policy expressions (1), cultural or scientific agreement or support (non-strategic) (2), or non-military economic, technological or industrial agreements (3). Joint development, agreements on environmental and water quality protection, and joint-river commissions are categorised as non-military economic, technological or industrial agreements (4) or military, economic or strategic support (5). Water-sharing agreements fall under 6, as they form a critical component of international freshwater treaties.

It is clear from this comparison using the BAR scale that China and Kazakhstan have a higher level of institutionalised cooperation compared to the other riparian states of the Mekong and the Brahmaputra.

Based on the above categorisation of Chinese cooperation according to the BAR scale, China has cooperated most with Kazakhstan, followed by the Mekong states, and least with India.

Cooperation with Kazakhstan versus the rest of Asia

Let’s look at the evidence. In 2001, China and Kazakhstan signed a landmark agreement on the use and protection of transboundary rivers. Under this agreement, the Sino-Kazakh Joint Commission on the Use and Protection of Transboundary Rivers was established in 2003. This is a significant achievement, considering that China is party to only two other river commissions, with Russia and Mongolia. In 2011, China signed two agreements with Kazakhstan, the first on water quality protection and the second on environmental protection.

In 2011 as well, China finalised an agreement with Kazakhstan for a joint water diversion and water-sharing project on a border river, the Khorgos. China and Kazakhstan also started preparatory work in 2010 to discuss the distribution of shared water resources between them. Even though these negotiations on water allocation have been slow, the fact that China has agreed to put this issue on the table is an achievement in itself, since China has assiduously avoided discussing water-sharing arrangements with its other riparian neighbours.

On the BAR scale, Chinas cooperation with Mekong states ranges from 1 to the low end of 5 (sans agreements on water quality protection and joint river commissions).China is a signatory of the Lancang–Upper Mekong River Commercial Navigation Agreement, which aims to expand trade and tourism among China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. China also signed a Greater Mekong Sub-region agreement with Laos, Myanmar and Thailand for a trial programme shipping oil along the Mekong during the wet season. This is a strategic move on China’s part as the shipping route might become more significant in the future as a cheaper and safer alternative to the Malacca Straits.

On the other hand, Chinese cooperation with India on the Brahmaputra is dismal; limited to 1–3 on the BAR scale. Apart from an expert-level mechanism set up in 2006 and a number of MOUs on hydrological data sharing, there has been little cooperation between China and India.

It is clear from this comparison using the BAR scale that China and Kazakhstan have a higher level of institutionalised cooperation compared to the other riparian states of the Mekong and the Brahmaputra.

Why is China more willing to cooperate with Kazakhstan versus the rest of the region?

Issue linkages and incentives for cooperation

Since diplomatic relations were established in 1992, the Kazakh government has been trying to nudge China towards a more collaborative stance on shared water resources.  These efforts met with little success until the late 1990s. China’s decision to come to the negotiating table in May 1999 suggests that China’s cooperation on transboundary waters was quid pro quo for Kazakhstan’s support in the mid-to-late 1990s for China’s campaign against Uighur separatists as well as its facilitation of Chinese access to its energy resources.

Bordering Central Asia; the native Uighur population of Xinjiang has a long history of unrest making the region a strong national security concern. Indeed, the Uigher population in Central Asia has a history of funding and supporting separatists in Xinjiang.

As a result, since 1992 Kazakhstan has worked closely with China to contain the Uighur separatist movements in Xinjiang.

Another incentive for cooperation is energy cooperation. The land-locked country is a major oil producer: According to the Oil & Gas Journal (OGJ), Kazakhstan had proved crude oil reserves of 30 billion barrels as of January 2014—the second largest endowment in Eurasia after Russia, and the twelfth largest in the world, just behind the United States.

For the past 20 years, the country’s have been intensifying efforts in energy cooperation: China is a ready energy market for Kazakhstan’s oil and gas reserves. The energy sector has been the main focal point for bilateral cooperation for a long time, and related cooperation has been accelerated since Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt in Astana in 2013.

The tensions between the two countries on water issues will be a constant underlying factor but clearly, the benefits to cooperation are far too compelling to ignore.

Selina Ho is an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. 

This op-ed is based on the paper China’s transboundary river policies towards Kazakhstan: issue-linkages and incentives for cooperation
















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