Three years ago Chinese engineers began a series of surveys of the headwaters of a Tibetan river known in India as the Brahmaputra and known as Yarlung Tsangpo to the Tibetans. Alarm bells rang in India and Bangladesh at the possibility that China might be planning to dam the river, which is a major and irreplaceable source of their fresh water.
Chinese government officials insisted these were simply surveys. No dam was planned, and a mechanism of consultation over water and rivers between New Delhi and Beijing was set in train. This "expert-level mechanism" was designed to discuss trans-border river issues in an institutional way, and there have been three formal meetings, according to India's Foreign Ministry. At each meeting "the Chinese side has categorically denied that there is a plan to build any such large-scale diversion project on the Brahmaputra River."
India remained skeptical. Last year Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Beijing for the ASEM summit meeting and devoted almost the whole of his bilateral session with Chinese President Hu Jintao to the waters of the Brahmaputra and China's plans for dams. At the same time, there is growing tension on the disputed Indo-Chinese border in India's Arunachal Pradesh province, where China has even protested a recent visit by Singh and has tried to block Asian Development Bank projects.
Now India has the evidence. China began pouring concrete for the Zhangmu hydroelectrical project on April 2, under a $150 million contract with the China Gezhouba Group along with NIDR (China Water Northeastern investigation, design and research) and the Huaneng power group. The dam, the first of a planned five, will be 118 meters high, and the whole complex should produce 540 MW of power. The Tibetans have told the Indians this has been long planned, and that the Nanshan Regional Administration issued orders two years ago for evacuation of people from the area.
China is desperate for water and is prepared to be very tough with its neighbors about securing it. China's dams on the upper Mekong have reduced that river's flows so severely that the traditional Luang Prabang river festival has had to be canceled for lack of water flow. But the Brahmaputra is close to a matter of life or death for India and Bangladesh.
The broader context of this is even more alarming because China is looking once more like an imperial power in both Tibet and Central Asia. Unrest among Tibetans and among China's Uighur minority of Muslims has been sternly repressed in the last two years, and China is starting to pay a diplomatic price for this. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Beijing of "a kind of genocide" against the Uighurs and referred the crackdown to the United Nations.
This month al-Qaida's leading theologian, Abu Yahya al-Libi, who is seen as a possible successor to Osama bin Laden, declared holy war against China for its "satanic oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang." Al-Libi, who became a radical Islamist hero after escaping U.S. custody at the Bagram air base prison in Afghanistan in 2005, was a Libyan-born chemistry student who joined the Afghan mujahedin in the 1980s.
"The state of atheism is heading to its fall. China will share the same fate as the Russian bear," al-Libi said in a speech posted as video and text on Islamic militant Web sites. He went on to accuse China of trying to "sever the link between the people and their history" as a part of the Muslim world.
Al-Libi's speech, produced and distributed over the Web by al-Qaida's media wing al-Sahab, was titled "East Turkistan, the Forgotten Wound." In it he repeated Uighur claims that Beijing was seeking to swamp them and their culture and religion by flooding the region with ethnic Chinese Han immigrants. The Chinese were given "jobs and homes and farms and lands that it forcibly expropriated from the hands of their Muslim Turkestani owners," al-Libi said.
East Turkestan is a name that Beijing angrily rejects, and China was successfully able to persuade the United States to describe the East Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist organization. Although rooted among the Uighurs, ETIM is supposedly now based as an organization in Pakistan's North-West Frontier tribal districts alongside al-Qaida and Taliban sympathizers.
This all makes for a heady brew, in which the great power tensions between India and China swirl alongside both China's colonial challenges in Tibet and Xinjiang and China's daunting environmental problems. Although China shrugs off Western critiques of its human-rights policies, it is not accustomed to being targeted as an imperial power by other developing countries in the way that Turkey has done, and the Beijing regime's dependence on imported oil complicates its relationship with the Islamic world.
So from the headwaters of the Brahmaputra to the cave refuges of al-Qaida, and from the Indian border to the ditches that irrigate the rice paddies of Bangladesh, China's geopolitical future is taking on some ominous and potentially new forms. And despite Beijing's vaunted strategy of a "peaceful rise" as its economic growth propels it to great-power status, China is making some very worrying enemies.