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Both China and India are regional hegemons1, China in East, Central, and South-east Asia, and India in South Asia. Adding to their influence and power is the role they play in many of Asia's international river basins. China is clearly the ‘upstream superpower’ (Nickum, 2008), as several important rivers including the Mekong, Brahmaputra, Sutlej, Indus, Salween, and Irrawaddy have their source in the Tibetan plateau. In South Asia, India is a middle riparian; it is upstream from Pakistan and Bangladesh on the Indus and Ganges rivers, respectively, but downstream from Nepal on the Ganges, and China on the Brahmaputra. Although not an upper riparian like China, India is nevertheless a hydro-hegemon in terms of resource utilization and employing resource control strategies. Particularly with respect to the Ganges, this paper will show that India dominates over Bangladesh and Nepal. Riparian position has some influence but is not a determining factor in characterizing a hydro-hegemon (Zeitoun & Warner, 2006). Rather, it is China's and India's respective preponderant material power that gives them significant leverage over smaller and weaker co-riparians. Whether in terms of population size, economic development, or military strength, there is substantial power asymmetry between China and India, and their respective riparian neighbors. This paper seeks to answer two related questions: what constrains China's and India's behavior as hydro-hegemons, and under what conditions do they cooperate with smaller co-riparians? The Mekong and the Ganges are chosen as case studies as the other riparians of these rivers are significantly smaller and weaker than China and India, respectively. See Table 1.

Table 1.

Power distribution among riparian states in the Mekong and the Ganges (as of 2012*).

The Mekong
The Ganges
CountriesGDP per capita (US$)PopulationMilitary Spending (US$ in millions)CountriesGDP per capita (US$)PopulationMilitary Spending (US$ in millions)
China 6,264.60 1,350,695,000 169,604 India 1,481.20 1,236,686,732 47,217 
Thailand 5,479.80 66,785,001 5,492 Bangladesh 862.10 154,695,368 1,600 
Myanmar 1,414.70 52,797,319 2,969 Nepal 686.10 27,474,377 257 
Cambodia 945.50 14,864,646 217     
Vietnam 1,755.30 88,772,900 3,361     
Laos 1,408.30 6,645,827 20     
The Mekong
The Ganges
CountriesGDP per capita (US$)PopulationMilitary Spending (US$ in millions)CountriesGDP per capita (US$)PopulationMilitary Spending (US$ in millions)
China 6,264.60 1,350,695,000 169,604 India 1,481.20 1,236,686,732 47,217 
Thailand 5,479.80 66,785,001 5,492 Bangladesh 862.10 154,695,368 1,600 
Myanmar 1,414.70 52,797,319 2,969 Nepal 686.10 27,474,377 257 
Cambodia 945.50 14,864,646 217     
Vietnam 1,755.30 88,772,900 3,361     
Laos 1,408.30 6,645,827 20     

Source: World Bank Database, SIPRI Database.

*2012 figures are used because the military spending figures for Laos in 2013 and 2014 are unavailable.

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