The transboundary water cooperation between China and neighboring Central Asian countries should be enhanced continuously
The main transboundary rivers between Northwest China and Central Asian countries are Ili River, Irtysh River, Emin River, and Aksu River. Similar to the neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Northwest China belongs to an arid inland area of Central Asia and faces prominent conflicts between socioeconomic development and water supply–demand. Although China possesses relative geographical advantages in water resources development, transboundary rivers in Northwest China have been developed and utilized slightly in the past (Hao 2012). Therefore, no evident transboundary water problem between Northwest China and the neighboring countries has taken place. Recently, China cooperated with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in transboundary river utilization and protection to differing extents. Under the comprehensive development of strategic partnership between China and Kazakhstan, cooperation in the development of transboundary rivers has achieved important progress through the China-Kazakhstan Joint Commission in the field of use and protection of transboundary rivers (Joint Commission), which was established in 2003. In the past two decades, China and Kazakhstan contributed by collaborating on technical issues, negotiating the creation of and process for effective comprehensive mechanism in the use and protection of transboundary water resources. Under the joint efforts of China and Kazakhstan, ecosystems in the Ili River and the Irtysh River are healthy. These rivers are the transboundary rivers that have been protected most effectively in Central Asia. During 2003–2015, 12 meetings of the Joint Commission were held, following the results of which important agreements and outcomes were reached. Work has been launched on the draft Agreement on water apportioning in transboundary rivers between China and Kazakhstan, which is being developed by a special working group established in 2014.Footnote 1 China and Kazakhstan have signed a series of agreements or minutes on joint use and protection of transboundary rivers at the level of the President, Minister, or expert.Footnote 2 The completion of the China-Kazakhstan Khorgos River Fellowship Diversion Pivotal Project (2013) is an important sign of comprehensive China-Kazakhstan transboundary river cooperation. China-Kazakhstan cooperation has become the model of transboundary river cooperation in Central Asia. As to China and Kyrgyzstan, with the aim of further enhancing the scale and level of economic cooperation, both sides are accelerating the negotiations on the inter-governmental cooperation agreement of transboundary river (Aksu River) utilization and protection. All of these friendly transboundary river cooperation practices have laid the foundation for further expanding water-energy cooperation in Central Asia.
The energy imports of China from Central Asian countries can grow gradually
With the gradual growth of global energy demands, five Central Asian countries have become more and more positive in attracting foreign investments. On one hand, they reinforce exploration to increase reserves and take the initiative to seek cooperation to cope with periodic energy shortages and to reduce dependence on non-renewable energy resources. On the other hand, they expand infrastructure construction for energy transmission more actively and realize diversified energy exports continuously, thus taking the initiative on energy supply and to expand new international markets. Therefore, they can achieve a stable balance between energy exports and foreign currency earnings (Zhang 2012).
Energy security is a key global problem. The energy demand of China, which is experiencing rapid economic development, is increasing day by day. China takes various forms of international cooperation as one of the important means to solve the energy security problem. The energy cooperation between China and Central Asian countries plays an extremely important role (Zhang 2009a, b).
China makes full use of its close geographical position to reinforce and expand energy cooperation with Central Asian countries. The energy imports of China from Central Asian countries have grown gradually in recent years. Central Asian countries have become one of the important energy strategic partners of China. China mainly exports light industrial products (e.g., textile) to Central Asian countries, and, in turn, imports crude oil, natural gas, and industrial raw materials from them. Such complementary resources and trade structure facilitate economic and trade contact between China and Central Asian countries. The export commodity structure of Central Asian countries have only changed slightly in the past. Energy resources and minerals are still the major export commodities of Central Asian countries. For instance, the principal export products of Kazakhstan are petroleum and natural gas, whereas the main export products of Turkmenistan include natural gas, petroleum products, textile, and electricity. Uzbekistan mainly exports natural gas. According to statistics of the China Customs Statistical Yearbook (2001–2011) (Bernauer and Siegfried 2012), the value of energy trade between China and Central Asian countries grew continuously. Particularly, the value of energy trade between China and Central Asian countries achieved rapid growth in 2007 and 2010 since the opening of the China-Kazakhstan oil pipeline in 2006 and the Central Asia-China natural gas pipeline in 2009.
The “Silk Road Economic Belt” strategy may bring huge development space
On September 17th, 2013, Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, stated during his visit to Kazakhstan that China and Kazakhstan shall adopt an innovative cooperation mode and construct the “Silk Road Economic Belt” together, to reinforce economic ties of Asian-European countries and expand the development space. This Economic Belt covers a vital Asian-Pacific region in the east, a Central Asia rich of resources in the middle, and developed European economic entities in the west. Countries along this Economic Belt have strong economic complementation and great potential for mutually beneficial cooperation. With attractive geopolitical interests, the “Silk Road Economic Belt” will expand strategic space for the economic development of China significantly and is conducive to the development of Xinjiang and the West China. It could promote China-Central Asia cooperation in economics, water resources, and energy resources, thus providing strategic support for the steady development of the Chinese economy. Meanwhile, it will facilitate economic and social development of countries along the belt. Under this background, Central Asian countries with rich resources and strategic geographic positions maintain a unique status in the world economy. However, they also desire regional economic cooperation based on the Silk Road Economic Belt to solve the long-term small economic growth (Gang and Ren 2015). For example, they can carry out cooperation in advancing scientific research in technologies such as water-saving irrigation, enhanced education and personnel training, and investment of infrastructure maintenance. Thus, the strategy may provide a broader platform and great opportunities for Eurasian countries along the road.
While the “Silk Road Economic Belt” strategy brings historical opportunities for the socioeconomic development of China and Central Asian countries, further reinforcing trans-regional cooperation, it also brings about challenges, such as water and energy security, to related countries.
Dry climate, water shortage, and uneven spatial and temporal distribution of water resources
In arid and semi-arid regions, water resources are key strategic resources that have profound a influence on geopolitical relations among countries in the region. The Asian hinterland is a region short of water resources historically. Northwest China and Central Asia covered in the “Silk Road Economic Belt” have similar arid climate and experience water shortage, which can restrict socioeconomic development greatly (Guo et al. 2015; Shi and He 2015). Given the uneven spatial–temporal distribution of water resources, human activities further intensify the prominent imbalance between water supply and demand and the vulnerable ecosystemt (Chen et al. 2011, 2012). Because of different geographic positions, countries in the Aral Sea basin possess significantly different quantities of water and land resources. With tremendously high mountains, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan occupy about 80% of the water volume of the whole basin, but their farmland area is only 13% of the land resources in the basin. Territories of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are mostly plains and lowlands. They possess few water resources but extensive farmland area. Agricultural development in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan depends highly on upstream water. Similarly, Northwest China is also faced with extremely uneven water and land distribution, water shortage, and difficult development and utilization of water resources during socioeconomic development. The increasing pressure from population growth and climate change in Central Asia and Northwest China has substantially decreased the total water resources in the region (Siegfried et al. 2012). This situation, in turn, may bring the region into a precarious situationin the future, where the decreasing water availability coexists with the increasing water demand.
Acute structural imbalance of water supply and demand
In Central Asia and Northwest China, precipitation is inadequate to maintain local rain-fed agriculture. Irrigation agriculture becomes the only choice of countries (or regions) in the river basin. Agriculture is the main water user. Water competition between the economic system and ecosystem is very acute, and structural water shortage has become an important constraint against sustainable economic and social development of these countries (or regions). Under the centralized planning economic system of the Soviet Union, upstream countries of the Aral Sea basin (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and downstream countries (Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) complement each other. Upstream countries offer water resources to downstream countries for farmland irrigation, while downstream countries supply energy resources (petroleum, natural gas, and coal resources) to upstream countries. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, conflicts of energy structure, agriculture mode, and economic structure between upstream and downstream countries became increasingly prominent. With population growth and the economic rehabilitation of five Central Asian countries, the imbalance of water supply and demand as well as water competition among different countries was further intensified. Similar with most arid regions in the world, Northwest China has problems of an unsustainable water consumption structure and low water-use efficiency and benefit. The economic structure of the “Oasis economy and irrigation agriculture” leads to a high proportion of agricultural water use in Northwest China, valued at 95, 91, 78, and 90% in Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu, and the whole Northwest China, respectively (Deng et al. 2011). Moreover, the conflict between water and natural resources utilization and ecological protection in Northwest China sharpened due to the lagging water conservancy construction, which brought severe challenges to water resources management (Li and Kang 2011).
In history, large-scale agricultural development and water conservancy construction in Central Asia not only created miracle economic development but also caused big changes in a series of hydrological geographical systems and ecosystems (e.g., river cutoff and lake dry-up). Moreover, irreversible ecological disasters in the Aral Sea Basin (Xia et al. 2013). Arid regions along the Silk Road Economic Belt have vulnerable environment. Ecological security is influenced by local climate change features, water resource distribution characteristics, water development and utilization modes, water-use efficiency, and water resources allocation. Improper water development and utilization will deteriorate the ecosystem. The ecosystem of Northwest China and Central Asia will become one of critical constraints of the establishment of the Silk Road Economic Belt and poses strict requirements on resource development and protection.
Complicated transboundary water problem
There are several transboundary rivers in Central Asia. Countries in the basin have been dealing with complicated transnational water conflicts. Particularly, conflicts of upstream hydroelectric generation and downstream irrigation water demand of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya among five independent Central Asian countries have taken place continuously. Northwest China, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, which are in the arid inland region of Central Asia, are all faced with the prominent conflict between socioeconomic development and water supply–demand. However, transboundary rivers in Northwest China are far less developed and developed at a later time than local non-international rivers and foreign parts of these transboundary rivers (Hao 2012). In the future, the development and utilization of international rivers in Northwest China will suffer from great pressures from downstream countries and international public opinion. There may be potential transboundary water conflicts between China and neighboring Central Asian countries. Under these circumstances, how China effectively participates in transnational water-energy cooperation with Central Asia is an important strategic problem of China now and in the future.
Due to establishment of the Silk Road Economic Belt, involved regions, especially countries in transboundary river basins in the arid region and neighboring countries in the same region, have to cope with water resource problems and environmental problems caused by rapid economic growth. Therefore, countries or regions along the belt urgently need to carry out coordinative development and effective cooperation of water resources. Common economic interests of the countries should align them toward the possibility of cooperation in protecting water resources and ecological security.
As an initiator of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” strategy and a responsible great global power, China has to establish a strategic framework for collaborative development of water resources with Central Asia as soon as possible, based on an existing international water cooperation mechanism and current energy cooperation conditions. Additionally, China should reasonably plan water-energy cooperation projects along the belt, reinforce water and energy cooperation with Central Asian countries, make full use of its water management experiences, technologies and financial strength, learn lessons from water cooperation among Central Asian countries, and build a safe water cooperation corridor oriented to the Silk Road Economic Belt. Implementation of a collaborative water development strategy between China and Central Asian countries is not only an important solution to water resource security along the belt but also the important driving force of promoting socioeconomic growth of countries in Central Asia.