Nature and geopolitics can interact in nasty ways. The historian Geoffrey Parker has argued that changing weather patterns drove war, revolution and upheaval during a long global crisis in the 17th century. More recently, climate change has opened new trade routes, resources and rivalries in the Arctic. And now China, a great power that often appears bent on reordering the international system, is running out of water in ways that are likely to stoke conflict at home and abroad.
Natural resources have always been critical to economic and global power. In the 19th century, a small country — the U.K. — raced ahead of the pack because its abundant coal reserves allowed it to drive the Industrial Revolution. Britain was eventually surpassed by the US, which exploited its huge tracts of arable land, massive oil reserves and other resources to become an economic titan.
The same goes for China's rise. Capitalist reforms, a welcoming global trade system and good demographics all contributed to Beijing's world-beating economic growth from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. The fact that China was nearly self-sufficient in land, water and many raw materials — and that its cheap labor allowed it to exploit these resources aggressively — also helped it to become the workshop of the world.
Yet China's natural abundance is a thing of the past. As Michael Beckley and I argue in our forthcoming book, "The Danger Zone," Beijing has blown through many of its resources. A decade ago, China became the world's largest importer of agricultural goods. Its arable land has been shrinking due to degradation and overuse. Breakneck development has also made China the world's largest energy importer: It buys three-quarters of its oil abroad at a time when America has become a net energy exporter.
China's water situation is particularly grim. As Gopal Reddy notes, China possesses 20% of the world's population but only 7% of its fresh water. Entire regions, especially in the north, suffer from water scarcity worse than that found in a parched Middle East.
Thousands of rivers have disappeared, while industrialization and pollution have spoiled much of the water that remains. By some estimates, 80% to 90% of China's groundwater and half of its river water is too dirty to drink; more than half of its groundwater and one-quarter of its river water cannot even be used for industry or farming.
This is an expensive problem. China is forced to divert water from comparatively wet regions to the drought-plagued north; experts assess that the country loses well over $100 billion annually as a result of water scarcity. Shortages and unsustainable agriculture are causing the desertification of large chunks of land. Water-related energy shortfalls have become common across the country.
The government has promoted rationing and improvements in water efficiency, but nothing sufficient to arrest the problem. This month, Chinese authorities announced that Guangzhou and Shenzhen — two major cities in the relatively water-rich Pearl River Delta — will face severe drought well into next year.
The economic and political implications are troubling. By making growth cost more, China's resource problems have joined an array of other challenges — demographic decline, an increasingly stifling political climate, the stalling or reversal of many key economic reforms — to cause a slowdown that was having pronounced effects even before Covid struck. China's social compact will be tested as dwindling resources intensify distributional fights.
In 2005, Premier Wen Jiabao stated that water scarcity threatened the "very survival of the Chinese nation." A minister of water resources declared that China must "fight for every drop of water or die." Hyperbole aside, resource scarcity and political instability often go hand in hand.
Heightened foreign tensions may follow. China watchers worry that if the Chinese Communist Party feels insecure domestically, it may lash out against its international rivals. Even short of that, water problems are causing geopolitical strife.
Much of China's fresh water is concentrated in areas, such as Tibet, that the communist government seized by force after taking power in 1949. For years, China has tried to solve its resource challenges by coercing and impoverishing its neighbors.
By building a series of giant dams on the Mekong River, Beijing has triggered recurring droughts and devastating floods in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Laos that depend on that waterway. The diversion of rivers in Xinjiang has had devastating downstream effects in Central Asia.
A growing source of tension in the Himalayas is China's plan to dam key waters before they reach India, leaving that country (and Bangladesh) the losers. As the Indian strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney puts it, "China's territorial aggrandizement in the South China Sea and the Himalayas … has been accompanied by stealthier efforts to appropriate water resources in transnational river basins."
In other words, the thirstier China is, the more geopolitically nasty it could get.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.