Sharing Rivers: China & Kazakhstan

By Dr. Selina Ho 18 May, 2017

Do you know how many rivers China & Kazakhstan share? How are they managed? Dr Ho from NUS expands

China & Kazakhstan share 24 rivers; co-op grew from info exchange to water allocation agreements in 2010
By contrast China has no water-sharing discussions & joint river commissions with India & the Mekong states
China values a partnership with Kazakhstan on issues beyond water; is OBOR an opportunity for further co-op?

Editor’s note: On 17 May 2017, the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev noted the importance of rational water resource management of transboundary rivers at the roundtable summit at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing 

This contribution is based on the article published in Water International, Vol. 42, Issue 2 (February 2017), entitled “China’s Transboundary River Policies towards Kazakhstan: Issue-linkages and Incentives for Cooperation,” authored by Selina Ho

Of the 24 rivers that China and Kazakhstan share, the most significant are the Irtysh and Ili rivers (see map below). China’s water diversion projects on the two rivers have been cited as a major cause of the decline in the flow of these rivers and its consequent impact on the agricultural and aquatic ecosystems.1
Notwithstanding the problems that persist between China and Kazakhstan in managing their shared rivers, China has adopted a relatively cooperative stance towards Kazakhstan compared to its other riparian neighbours in South and Southeast Asia.

China & Kazakhstan share 24 rivers …
… the most significant are the Irtysh and Ili rivers

Ili & Irtysh
China’s relatively higher level of institutionalised cooperation with Kazakhstan became more visible from the early 2000s onwards (see table below). It began negotiations with Kazakhstan on transboundary water management in 1999. The first agreement on water cooperation was signed in 2001 as a result. The next set of key agreements was signed from the mid-2000s onwards. These include landmark agreements on water quality protection and information exchange, and joint development of the Khorgos River.

Cooperation started in 1999 with agreements focused on info exchange…

… later expanded to include water allocation from 2010

Sino Kazakh agreements (2)
Preliminary preparations for discussions on water allocation began in 2010, and by 2015, the two sides began consultations on a draft of a water allocation agreement. Each subsequent agreement represents a step-up in institutionalised riparian cooperation between the two countries in tandem with the overall intensification of Sino-Kazakh ties.

By contrast … “there are no water-sharing discussions & joint river commissions with India & the Mekong states”

By contrast, in the international river basins in South and Southeast Asia that China is a part of, there is a lower level of institutionalisation. Cooperation is mainly confined to non-binding Memorandums of Understanding on exchange of hydrological information and an expert-level mechanism with India, and participation in the Greater Mekong Subregion, and navigation, tourism, and infrastructure projects with the Mekong States. There are no water-sharing discussions and joint river commissions with India and the Mekong states.

Why cooperate? Issue-linkages & incentives strategies

Kazakhstan is a smaller and weaker state downstream from China – what are the incentives for China’s relatively higher level of cooperation? How does Kazakhstan persuade China to cooperate on transboundary water issues?
Growing interdependence between China and Kazakhstan facilitates issue-linkages and reciprocity, and helps explain Chinese cooperation with Kazakhstan. Linkages between water and broader political, strategic, and economic issues incentivizes China, as the upstream riparian, to cooperate with Kazakhstan, a weaker downstream neighbour.

“China sees a strong partnership with Kazakhstan on a range of security and strategic issues as critical to its interests”

China sees a strong partnership with Kazakhstan on a range of security and strategic issues as critical to its interests.
These issues include containing the separatist movements in Xinjiang, bilateral Sino-Kazakh economic and energy cooperation, and at the regional level, the competition for influence and power in Central Asia among Russia, China, and the United States.
In addition, China wants to avoid coming across as a bully in its dealings with Kazakhstan, in line with its “good neighbourliness” policy. The desire to create a reservoir of goodwill with the Kazakh government and people was a strong motivating factor in China’s decision to embark on water negotiations with Kazakhstan.

1992-2001: Establishing ties from energy, security to water

Since diplomatic relations were established in 1992, the Kazakh government has made attempts to nudge China to begin negotiations on the management of shared water resources. These efforts, however, 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 local separatists as well as its facilitation of Chinese access to its energy resources.

Sino-Kazakh oil talks started in 1994 …

Since 1992, Kazakhstan has worked closely with China on containing the separatist movements in Xinjiang. Energy cooperation was also stepped up with Sino-Kazakh negotiations over oil starting in 1994 and culminating  in the first agreement in the oil and gas sectors in 1997.
To ensure Kazakhstan’s continued cooperation on these issues, China increasingly sees it in its interest to maintain goodwill with Kazakhstan, including on water issues. The catalyst that prompted China’s decision to begin water negotiations with Kazakhstan in 1999 was the negative reaction to a string of Kazakh press reports on China’s construction of the Kara Irtysh-Karamay Canal.2

… bad press in Kazakhstan over upstream diversions prompted China to start water sharing talks in 1998

When China first started constructing the canal, there was little media and public attention on China’s water diversion plans. However, as a result of the negative press reports in 1998, the water diversion project drew national attention in Kazakhstan, and the Kazakh government came under pressure. Its increasingly negative image in Kazakhstan and fear of souring diplomatic ties with Kazakhstan eventually prompted China to begin negotiations with Kazakhstan.

2002-2015: Joint River Commission & water agreements 

The start of negotiations in 1999 resulted in the signing of the landmark Agreement the Use and Protection of Transboundary Rivers in 2001. Following the signing of the 2001 Agreement, the Sino-Kazakh Joint River Commission was established in 2003. From 2003 to 2016, 14 meetings were held, which resulted in many of the agreements listed in the table above ranging from water quality, joint development and water allocation negotiations.

The success of the Joint River Commission is concomitant with overall expansion of bilateral ties

The joint commission’s ability to achieve significant breakthroughs in institutionalising cooperation in the 2000s is concomitant with the overall expansion of ties.
In 2002, China and Kazakhstan fully settled their border issues by signing a protocol on border demarcation. In 2005, Kazakhstan was the first among Central Asian states to establish a strategic partnership with China.

China’s One Belt One Road – an opportunity for further cooperation? 

There are however, limitations to this issue-linkage strategy. Firstly, issue-linkage is generally more effective in a bilateral context. Quid pro quo’s become more difficult in a multilateral setting in which multiple interests could contradict each other. Secondly, there are limits to which a weaker state can exercise issue-linkage strategies against a stronger state. For instance, Kazakhstan’s economic reliance on China limits how far it will push China. Thirdly, the weaker side may have to make sacrifices in certain areas to gain cooperation from the stronger side on other areas. For instance, Kazakhstan has opened up its strategic energy sector to Chinese companies and its policy towards its Uighur population is very much dictated by Chinese concerns.

Despite limitations, issue-linkage is a useful strategy to gain the cooperation of more powerful upstream riparians

Nevertheless, weaker downstream countries can have leverages and issue-linkage is a useful strategy to gain the cooperation of more powerful upstream riparians. Moving forward, China’s Silk Road Economic Belt provides additional opportunities for Kazakhstan to use issue-linkages to seek greater Chinese cooperation on water issues. By linking water issues with issues “beyond” the river basin, cooperation between riparians of asymmetrical power can result, as issue-linkages can alter pay-offs and change the incentives for cooperation.3

1 For a detailed account of the environmental impact of Chinese activities, see Stone, R. (2012). For China and Kazakhstan: No meeting of the minds on water. Science, 337, 27. However, the environmental problems in the Ili and Irtysh are not the results of China’s actions alone. Kazakhstan has been criticized for its irrational usage of water – see for example, Baizakova, Z. (2015). The Irtysh and Ili Transboundary Rivers: The Kazakh-Chinese path to compromise. Voices from Central Asia, 21, pp. 6-7.
2 See Sievers, E. (2002). Transboundary Jurisdiction and Watercourse Law: China, Kazakhstan, and the Irtysh. Texas International Law Journal 37:1, pp. 7-13 for an account of the pressures the press reports exerted on the Kazakh government which in turn increase the pressure on China to come to the negotiating table.
3 See for example Daoudy, M. (2009). Asymmetric Power: Negotiating Water in the Euphrates and Tigris. International Negotiations, 14, 361–391; and Dinar, S. (2009). Power asymmetry and negotiations in international river basins. International Negotiations, 14, 329–360.

Further Reading

  • Pearl River Delta: 5 Water Must-Knows – China’s Pearl River Delta generates 9% of GDP but water challenges lurk behind the dazzling economic success. Don’t know what these are? China Water Risk’s Feng Hu shares 5 water must-knows for the region
  • Why Should PRD Business Lead In Water Stewardship? – With the Pearl River Delta set to lead China’s economic growth, China Water Risk’s Feng Hu & the Alliance for Water Stewardship’s Zhenzhen Xu explain why business should adopt water stewardship to ensure continued prosperity
  • Water Stewardship In Industrial Parks: TEDA Pilot – Industrial parks generate 22.5% of China’s GDP but can this last given water security and pollution concerns? An Chen, from the TEDA Eco Center & Zhenzhen Xu from the Alliance for Water Stewardship show how the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area leads in mitigating these risks
  • The Future Of Sustainability Reporting – With GRI replacing G4 guidelines with the first global sustainability reporting standard, we sat down with Global Reporting Initiative’s Ásthildur Hjaltadóttir to learn what this means & future trends in disclosure
  • Corporate Water Targets: A New Approach – More and more companies view water as a business risk and water stewardship as a solution but current water stewardship metrics for on-ground projects are inadequate. Tien Shiao from the Pacific Institute shares a new approach on setting corporate water targets
  • Integrating Climate & Water Diplomacy For Rivers – Climate change will likely intensify water-related challenges in river basins. Meanwhile, the Mekong River Commission is experiencing funding cuts. adelphi’s Sabine Blumstein shares 3 reasons for stronger integration of climate policy & water instruments
  • Yangtze Flows: Pollution & Heavy Metals: Areas along the Yangtze River dominate Chinese production but at what cost? With Grade V water in its tributaries, rapid growth in upstream wastewater plus concerns over a disproportionately large share of the nation’s heavy metals discharge, can the Yangtze River Economic Belt still flourish? CWR’s Hu takes a closer look
  • Water-nomics: Trade-offs Along The Yangtze – With significant economic, water use and pollution disparities along the Yangtze River, China Water Risk & the Foreign Economic Cooperation Office of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, publish a joint brief to explore strategies to find the right development mix. Check out some of the key findings in this review
Dr. Selina Ho
Author: Dr. Selina Ho
Selina Ho is Assistant Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. She specializes in Chinese politics and foreign policy, with a focus on resources and infrastructures. Her book, Thirsty Cities: Social Contracts and Public Goods Provision in China and India, is under contract with Cambridge University Press and is expected to be published in Sep/Oct 2018. She is simultaneously working on a book project funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation on China's construction of a high-speed railway from Kunming to Singapore. She has also published several peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters on China's international rivers. Selina has been appointed a Global Futures Council Fellow (Regional Governance) with the World Economic Forum from September 2017 to September 2018. Selina received her Ph.D. from The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, where she also received a Masters in International Public Policy (Honours). She did her undergraduate studies at the National University of Singapore, graduating with a B.A. in History (Honours). She was a Singapore public servant before joining academia.
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