Ms. Dai Qingli, the Press Counsellor in the Chinese Embassy in London wrote to The Financial Time to object to an article by Brahma Chellaney (“Water is the new weapon in Beijing’s armoury”) published in the same newspaper.
She wrote: "Even though the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses has not come into effect, China has followed its principles of equitable and reasonable utilization."
Well, it is not really true.
Let us remember some facts.
On 27 May, 1997, the General Assembly adopted a Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses aimed at guiding States in negotiating agreements on specific watercourses and invited States and regional economic integration organizations to become parties to it.
The Assembly took that action through its adoption, by 103 votes in favour to 3 against (Turkey, China, Burundi) with 27 abstentions.
China is one of the three nations which voted against the 37-article Watercourses Convention which will hopefully one day govern the non-navigational uses of international rivers.
The Convention addresses issues such as flood control, water quality, erosion, sedimentation, saltwater intrusion and living resources.
Several statements were made by the representatives of Japan, Mexico, the United Republic of Tanzania, Turkey, Bolivia, Pakistan, Czech Republic, China, Slovakia, France, India, Ethiopia, Egypt, Israel, Spain and Rwanda.
The draft framework convention was elaborated by the Working Group of the Sixth Committee at its second session, from 24 March to 4 April. It provides general principles and rules to guide States in negotiating future agreements on specific watercourses.
The six-part convention consists of an introduction; general principles; planned measures; protection, preservation and management; harmful conditions and emergency situations and miscellaneous provisions.
The Chinese Representative Gao Feng justified the negative vote of his country by stating: "there were obvious drawbacks in the draft convention. First, it failed to reflect general agreement among all countries, and a number of States had major reservations regarding its main provisions. Secondly, the text did not reflect the principle of the territorial sovereignty of a watercourse State. Such a State had indisputable sovereignty over a watercourse which flowed through its territory. There was also an imbalance between the rights and obligations of the upstream and downstream States".
He further said China could not support provisions on the mandatory settlement of disputes which went against the principles set out in the United Nations Charter. His Government favoured the settlement of all disputes through peaceful negotiations".
He then voted against the draft resolution.
For China, the principle of 'territorial sovereignty' seemed to prime over the concept that rivers belong to all the riparian States.
Prakash Shah, the Indian Representative spoke more on techincial grounds, expressing his regret that the Convention had not been adopted by consensus. He said that: "while a framework convention should provide general principles, the present Convention had deviated from that approach."
Further Shah pointed out said that "Article 32 presupposed regional integration and hence did not merit inclusion".
He went on to say and Article 33, on dispute settlement, contained an element of compulsion: "Any procedure for peaceful settlement of disputes should leave the procedure to the parties. Any mandatory third-party dispute procedure was inappropriate and should not be included in a framework convention".
In 1997, India abstained in the voting.
It is perhaps time to have a fresh look at the Convention and push for its final ratification.
With climate change and extensive construction of hydropower plants on rivers originating from the Tibetan plateau, some framework to settle bilateral or multilateral water issues is today badly needed.
The examples cited by Ms Dai Qingli are only eyewash, though interestingly, she speaks of 'our shared water resources for the benefit of our peoples'.
Here is Ms Dai Qingli's letter to the Editor of the Financial Times:
Sir, I am writing with regard to an article by Brahma Chellaney (“Water is the new weapon in Beijing’s armoury”, August 31) to set the record straight on the assertions made in this article.
China respects the right of other littoral states to reasonable utilisation of water resources in cross-border rivers. We would never take these resources as a 'political weapon' against our neighbours. Instead, China has made a huge amount of investment to improve water quality in cross-border rivers.
The assertion that China refuses to accept water-sharing arrangements is not true. Even though the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses has not come into effect, China has followed its principles of equitable and reasonable utilisation, obligation not to cause significant harm and international co-operation in working with our neighbours on the utilisation of cross-border rivers.
China signed agreements and set up joint commissions on cross-border water resources with Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Russia. It has also worked with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Vietnam, the Mekong River Commission and India in flood prevention and forecast, water quality monitoring, maritime management, navigation and shipping, and maritime disaster response.
According to international water law, all littoral states and peoples are entitled to equitable and reasonable utilisation of cross-border rivers. We are committed to building good-neighbourly partnership with our neighbours.
We would only continue to strengthen our dialogue and co-operation with them to ensure better utilisation and preservation of our shared water resources for the benefit of our peoples.