Academic journal article Boston College International and Comparative Law Review

International Water Law and China's Management of Its International Rivers

Academic journal article Boston College International and Comparative Law Review

International Water Law and China's Management of Its International Rivers

Article excerpt


China has within its borders the most international rivers and lakes in the world,1 and it lies within a staggering nineteen international water basins.2 With approximately 110 international lakes and rivers, China benefits from a rich supply of transboundary resources, which mainly are located in the northeastern, northwestern, and southwestern regions of China.3 The international rivers in the northeastern region are primarily contiguous watercourses-being border rivers that form boundaries between states-whereas the international rivers in the northwestern and southwestern regions are successive watercourses-being rivers that flow through more than one riparian state.4 These successive watercourses, starting from the northwest to the southwest, include the Har Us Nur River, Irtysh River, Ob River, Ili River, Tarim River, Indus River, Aral Sea, Yalung Zangbo-Brahmaputra River, Irrawaddy River, Lujiang-Salween River, Lancang-Mekong River, Beilun River, Hsi River, and Yuanjiang-Red River.5 To the northeast, there are the Heilong- Amur River, Suifen River, Ussuri River, Tumen River, and Yalu River.6 In total, China's international river basins constitute approximately 3,018,678 square kilometers in area, which is around a third of the territory of China.7 The presence of these international rivers in China has made this upstream riparian state the "water tower of Asia."8

Given its status as an important upstream riparian state and in light of the world's fresh-water crisis, China ought to focus more in its international relations with its 14 neighboring states on transboundary water issues,9 especially since there is a risk that water scarcity and resource inequality of use of an international watercourse may lead to conflicts with these neighboring states.10 In the interest of mitigating such risks, it would be logical to expect China to play a leading role in cooperating with its riparian neighbors within the existing international legal framework in managing its international rivers and lakes.11 The current reality is the opposite, as it appears that China plays a passive role and somewhat stands apart from the international legal order when it comes to international cooperation in the management of transboundary rivers and lakes,12 which arguably creates a greater risk of mismanagement of its international river basins that could worsen water security problems and lead to adverse environmental consequences in the region.13 By playing a more active role within the international water-law regime, China could mitigate these risks.14

This Article is divided into three Parts. Part I describes the international water-law regime so that the reader better understands the paradigm from which this Article is written and the realm in which this Article hopes China will become more active in the future. Part II explores the law and practice of China's management of its international rivers and lakes, with an eye towards evaluating China's behavior in light of the international water-law regime. Part III asserts that China needs to play a greater role in international cooperation when managing its international river basins if it is to fully enjoy its rights while avoiding the risk of international disputes.

I. The International Water-Law Regime

The international water-law regime is a complex one, made up of numerous treaties and softer regulations.15 This Part sets out the basics of those legal instruments, with particular emphasis being placed on the principles that govern the management of transboundary river basins. This overview of the international water-law regime is important inasmuch as it acts as the referent against which to assess China's management of its international rivers. Moreover, it is believed that adhering to the international water-law regime's standards for promoting cooperation, among other overarching principles, can help states realize the benefits of moving past the zero-sum mentality when it comes to the protection of shared resources. …

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