Changes in China’s Attitude toward Sharing Transboundary Rivers? On the Trusteeship Obligations of Upper Riparian States

Although in 1997 China voted against the adoption of the UN Watercourses Convention, there are encouraging signs for shifts in its general attitude toward transboundary cooperation. In a recent article, Patricia Wouters notes that China “appears to be edging closer to demonstrating its commitment to take into account other countries’ transboundary water needs, albeit in an incremental way.” In her recent study titled “The Yin and Yang of International Water Law: China’s Transboundary Water Practice and the Changing Contours of State Sovereignty” (RECIEL 23(1), 2014) Wouter explains that China “relies heavily on its diminishing water resources as it presses forward with development” and suggests that among China’s responses to this challenge is dealing with its riparian neighbors on the basis of “dialogue, consultation and peaceful negotiations, and crafted around the notion of restricted territorial sovereignty – a view that has been expressed both in legal scholarship and confirmed in foreign policy statements under China’s new leadership.”

As examples for this approach Wouter refers to the Sino-Kazakhstan Joint Declaration on Further Deepening Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, and to a memorandum of understanding between the respective Chinese and Indian Ministries of Water Resources concerning the “Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-border Rivers,” both concluded in 2013.

In that MoU and also in the China-India Joint Statement, India recognized its “deep appreciation” for China’s commitment, as the upper riparian, to make available data on and emergency management of the trans-border rivers. The two sides also agreed “to further strengthen cooperation and … work together on provision of flood-season hydrological data and emergency management.”

In the same issue of RECIEL, Ruby Moynihan and Bjørn-Oliver Magsig note that “few experts would have considered it possible for China and India to ever agree on sharing information regarding the state of their glaciers” and regard that MoU as a “trust-building” measure that “is a valid step towards a more regional approach to freshwater interaction.”

Both articles remind us that the road toward regional cooperation in this area is still long and there are remaining obstacles, particularly with respect to the transboundary waters shared by China and its southern neighbors.