China and the Mekong: Future Flashpoint?

Main Image Credit Water taxis along the Mekong River in Pak Beng, Lao People's Democratic Republic, near the proposed site of a Chinese-led 912 megawatt hydroelectric dam. Courtesy of Wikimedia

The mighty Mekong river is a vital lifeline for Southeast Asia, a major source of trade, transport and sustenance for millions. However, the world’s twelfth longest river is emerging as an ecological and geopolitical flashpoint.

Environmental Tinderbox

On 16 June, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam agreed to establish a regional infrastructure fund at the eighth summit of the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy. While regional leaders sought to focus on enhancing connectivity and sustainable development, the overarching objective is to lessen reliance on their the commanding common neighbour to the north. In recent years, China has inexorably expanded its influence in the Mekong sub-region. Beijing has poured millions of dollars into building new hydroelectricity dams on the river, endangering the economic bloodstream of the region. A cascade of Chinese-led dam projects – both upstream and downstream – is threatening to turn a thriving rice bowl into an impoverished wilderness. Environmentalists have warned that continued hydropower development will impact fisheries and the ecosystem overall, aggravating food insecurity and poverty in the region. The Mekong is already witnessing declining fish stocks and reduced sediment loads, impacting rice-growing downstream, not to mention the loss of traditional livelihoods and the cultural identity of riverine communities.

Of the eleven dams planned for the Mekong’s lower mainstream, six are backed by China, according to US-based NGO International Rivers. Low-income Laos and Cambodia constitute the ‘ground zero’ of this dam-building frenzy, where Beijing has wooed policymakers with soft loans and investments. China is the biggest trade partner and investor in Cambodia, and is the largest investor and second largest trade partner of Laos. As part of its plans to become the prime electricity supplier of Southeast Asia, Laos is determined to convert its hydropower potential into export revenue. The communist state is building several major dams along its section of the Mekong. One of several projects, the Chinese-led Pak Beng dam, with an installed capacity of 912 megawatts, has sparked serious concerns about the environmental impact on local communities and fisheries. Further downstream in Cambodia, activists are up in arms over an even bigger Chinese-backed dam. A study commissioned by the Cambodian government warned that the Sambor Dam would ‘generate large power benefits to Cambodia, but at the probable cost of the destruction of the Mekong fishery, and the certain enmity of Vietnam’. The study also stated that the project would obliterate a population of nearly 80 critically-endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins, a majestic symbol of the Mekong and its striking biodiversity.

Regional Domination

In tandem with its ambitious South China Sea strategy, Beijing's Mekong gambit is also aimed at cementing its geopolitical control over Southeast Asia. China’s control of the water upstream constitutes a chokehold on lower riparian states, which can be utilised as a strategic lever to achieve political objectives. In a not-so-subtle display of its clout, Beijing discharged water from a dam in its southwestern Yunnan province to help Vietnam mitigate a severe drought in 2016; while this was a humanitarian gesture, it was also a reminder that as the country furthest downstream, Vietnam will have the most to lose from Beijing’s moves to control the flow of the river. The same applies to other nations whose economies rely on a thriving Mekong delta.

Through its formidable diplomatic and economic resources, Beijing is also exercising firm control over connectivity and cross-border initiatives in the region. China has instituted a new body to implement economic projects in the Mekong sub-region. Since the formation of the Lancang–Mekong Cooperation (LMC) in 2014, Beijing has pledged over $2 billion in soft loans and credit to the five Mekong countries. With Beijing in the driver’s seat, the LMC has virtually upstaged the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in shaping the rules of cooperation in the region. The MRC, established in 1995, is a sub-regional organisation that facilitates cooperation between the lower riparian states to jointly manage the Mekong and promote sustainable development. When China refused to join the MRC, the organisation was effectively crippled. But a politically splintered Mekong sub-region makes Beijing’s job that much easier. Vietnam doggedly resists Chinese forays in the region, while Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar enjoy more cordial ties with the Middle Kingdom – largely mirroring the current position of these stated in the contested waters of the South China Sea. Ongoing boundary disputes and ethnic tensions continue to dog relations between the lower riparian states, often spilling over into the regional arena and complicating efforts to cooperate over the Mekong.

Keeping Tensions in Check

For all these reasons of economic dependency and regional rivalries, Mekong riparian states are unlikely to present China with any challenge. Nevertheless, downstream states can adopt several measures to boost equitable development and increase their bargaining power vis-à-vis Beijing.

Multilateral forums such as the MRC, the Greater Mekong Subregion, the US-led Lower Mekong Initiative, and the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy must be strengthened to promote sustainable development in the region. These forums have, in the past, largely proved toothless in the face of national divisions and rigid definitions of what constitutes national sovereignty principles. Nonetheless, government officials should promote greater exchanges with civil society representatives and researchers to discuss the latest data on the Mekong with a view to share best management practices.

Regional states must also bridge their political divisions to gain leverage and speak with one voice regarding economic initiatives in the Mekong basin, for a fragmented regional polity will be especially susceptible to Beijing's manipulations.  Above all, government worldwide should pay more attention to the economic and geopolitical flashpoint that the Mekong currently represents. Allowing China a free hand in the region will only encourage it to replicate the South China Sea model in the Mekong, asserting hegemony through bellicose conduct in complete violation of international law. Chinese expansionism in the Mekong must be countered, for leaving matters as they are will be a recipe for disaster.

Brijesh Khemlani is a Bangkok-based analyst specialising in Southeast Asian issues.

The views expressed in this Commentary are those of the author, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution. 


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