The role of ideas in the China: India water dispute

Selina HO*, Neng QIAN, Yifei YAN

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Both the Chinese and Indian governments have made assiduous efforts to desecuritise their water dispute. This is puzzling, because both countries have securitised most of the disputes between them, including the border dispute, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama issue. The triggers for securitisation exist in the China-India water dispute. Both countries are water-scarce, prone to floods and droughts in their shared river basins, and the water dispute is inextricably linked to their border dispute. Power asymmetries between the two countries also incentivise both sides to securitise their water dispute. China, the upstream riparian and more powerful of the two, could use water as leverage in border negotiations, while India could use securitisation as a tactic to gain attention and offset China's greater aggregate power. The tendency is also for water disputes around the world to be painted as existential threats. Why, then, do China and India desecuritise their water dispute? Furthermore, despite desecuritisation, cooperation between them has remained low, confined to an expert-level mechanism, and memorandums of understandings on sharing hydrological data. This refutes the conventional view that desecuritisation is a normative good that can lead to genuine cooperation. This paper uses the Q methodology, which is a quantitative measure of ideas and perceptions, to address these puzzles. Based on a Q survey of Chinese and Indian experts on the water conflict, we argue that ideas are essential to shaping Chinese and Indian behaviour. Material explanations do not adequately explicate the complexities and nuances of the water dispute because they are too broad and general to be useful. The Q survey revealed in depth the myriad of ideas and debates surrounding the water dispute. These views and beliefs explain why the Chinese and Indian governments desecuritise their water dispute and why, despite desecuritisation, cooperation remains low.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)263-294
Number of pages32
JournalChinese Journal of International Politics
Issue number2
Early online date30 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

The authors are grateful to Wilmar International and the Centre on Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, for funding this study. We would also like to thank our research assistants, Avinibesh Sharma and Xu Shengwei.


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