Is Mekong River Set To Become The New South China Sea For Regional Disputes?
Foreign ministers from the six countries through which the Mekong flows met in southwestern China last month to approve a draft of a five-year development plan for the river. But as state leaders prepare to finalise the proposal at a meeting in Cambodia later this month, environmental groups have expressed concern over what it could mean for Southeast Asia’s longest waterway.
Speaking at the end of the latest Lancang-Mekong Cooperation meeting in Dali, Yunnan province, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the Beijing-led body had the potential to boost economic development in all six Mekong nations, and that China had made provision to help finance dozens of projects along its route.
He was joined at a press conference by Prak Sokhonn, the foreign minister of Cambodia – one of China’s biggest supporters within Asean – who thanked Beijing for its leading role in the LMC and described the progress it had made as “unprecedented”.
Wang did not engage in any public discussion of the various environmental concerns linked to the river’s development.
From its origins in the snowfields of Tibet, the Mekong – known as Lancang in Mandarin – passes through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – all five of which are members of the LMC and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – before draining into the South China Sea.
A huge economic resource for the region, it provides livelihoods for an estimated 60 million people living in the lower Mekong basin where it nurtures one of the world’s most fertile areas for agriculture and fishing.
Most experts agree that controlling the waterway means controlling much of the economy of Southeast Asia. As a result, observers have said that it has the potential to become the biggest flashpoint between China and Asean after the South China Sea.
Beijing established the LMC in 2015. It was seen by many as a rival organisation to the long-standing Mekong River Commission, which has been around in various guises for more than 60 years. Its members are the same as those of the LMC, except for China and Myanmar.
China was invited to join the MRC but opted instead to act as a “dialogue partner” – as did Myanmar. That means Beijing can sidestep the commission’s rule that member nations’ dam-building project proposals must be presented for discussion.
While the LMC was designed to serve as a communication channel and development platform, its effectiveness remains to be proved and concerns over its geopolitical intentions are simmering.
The development of hydropower projects by China and other countries has muddied the future for both the Mekong and its dependants as the construction of large dams upsets the ecosystem and threatens the livelihoods of millions of people.
“For downstream communities, dams upstream drastically change the river’s natural flood-drought cycle and block the transport of sediment, which affects the ecosystem,” said Pianporn Deetes, Thailand Campaign Coordinator for the environmental pressure group International Rivers.
“The impact on water levels and fisheries has already been recorded along the Thailand-Laos border,” she said.
Since opening its first mainstream dam – known as Manwan – on the Mekong in 1995, China had built a further seven hydropower dams and had more than 20 others – in Yunnan, Tibet and Qinghai – either in development or planning, Deetes said.
Environment experts have said that the lack of consultation with downstream neighbours and a lack of assessment of the dams’ likely impact on the river and its people have complicated the development of the region.
While the LMC has attracted little attention from the international media, Beijing has been quietly promoting its agenda through the platform, claiming it is one of the best ways to boost its ties with Asean.
“China’s establishment of the LMC reflects a belated recognition that the policies China has followed in relation to the Mekong/Lancang River have paid far too little attention to the interests of the downstream countries through which the river flows after it leaves Yunnan,” Milton Osborne, a former Australian diplomat and Southeast Asia specialist, said.
In the two years since the LMC’s creation, China has hosted three foreign ministers meetings and set aside billions of dollars to support 45 projects under the mechanism, from water resource research centres to cooperation on connectivity projects, industrial capacity, border trade, agriculture and poverty alleviation.
Driven by a growing appetite for energy in the region, some countries along the river have been happy to follow in China’s footsteps.
The poor, landlocked country of Laos, for instance, is pushing ahead with its plan for a third dam on the Mekong despite opposition from its downstream neighbour Vietnam and the MRC after setting itself the goal of becoming “the battery of Southeast Asia” by exporting hydropower.
“Chinese companies are directly investing in more than six mainstream dams on the Lower Mekong, including Don Sahong and Pak Beng in Laos,” Deetes said. “Development of these dams has not followed international good practice for considering, and avoiding or mitigating social and environmental impact.”
Tensions rose in 2016, when Vietnam experienced its worst drought in 90 years, resulting in widespread rice crop failures and water shortages for 1.8 million people.
While the problem was caused mainly by an unusually strong El Niño weather pattern, environmental experts said China was partially responsible as its reservoir dams had increased evaporation rates upstream. To help resolve the drought, Vietnam asked China to release water from its upstream dams.
The hope for the LMC among some observers is that it can achieve important objectives that the MRC has been unable to, such as regulating the building of dams on the mainstream Mekong.
Osborne said it would also be a positive development for downstream countries if China agreed to be part of a notification agreement that would alert other nations when it released water from its dams, though Beijing has yet to agree to such a system.
Marc Goichot, an adviser to the WWF’s Greater Mekong Programme, said the MRC’s problems provided justification for the existence of the LMC.
“The problem is that the Mekong River Commission has too many limitations, notably that it only has four out the six riparian countries as signatories,” he said.
“[Also] its mandate is limited to water resources, when rivers are about much more than water, and the economic and investment planners, and the private sector need to be much more involved.”
The LMC, therefore, “is much more inclusive in its scope”, he said.
Other regional experts argue that despite China’s efforts to portray itself as a benevolent provider, the LMC is unlikely to help ease Southeast Asian countries’ concerns about Beijing’s geopolitical intentions.
Elliot Brennan, an independent researcher on Southeast Asia affairs, said the Mekong issue had the potential to be the largest China-Asean conflict flashpoint after the South China Sea, and that Beijing regarded controlling the river as a strategic objective.
“After more than a decade of ham-fisted diplomacy, Beijing has finally learned how to wield both the carrot and the stick in the region.” he said.
“Beijing understands better than ever what Asean countries want and has far greater penetration into influencing their decision-making. If Beijing manages to achieve control of the Mekong’s development it would quickly become a crucial artery for China’s rise and exportation of influence into Asean.”
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an international studies professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said that China’s moves on the Mekong were “analogous” to its tactics on South China Sea disputes.
“The LMC is a way of showing that China only plays by its own rules. It creates fait accompli by building dams upstream to the detriment of downstream countries and then sets up its own governing body as a rejection of the MRC,” he said.
“China has dealt with Mekong countries bilaterally so that these countries are not able to unite and stand up to China as a regional grouping.”
Brennan said that the current discussions on how to preserve the environment and health of the river system, had not gone far enough.
“It is for these reasons that China has all to gain and Asean member states have everything to lose in regional cooperation on the Mekong,” he said.
“Relevant Asean member states can’t however turn their back on geopolitical realities and must drive a hard bargain for the right sort of cooperation.”