The Mekong River – China’s stranglehold on Southeast Asia

The Mekong River is a vital lifeline for the countries of Southeast Asia. It is one of the world’s most productive inland fisheries, with an annual catch of 2.6 million tonnes, and the wider Mekong Delta is also home to the Vietnamese rice fields, contributing to the country’s position as world’s third largest rice producer.

The Mekong River Basin is seen by the riparian states as key to regional development. The 1990s were supposed to mark a turning point for the region. The Cold War had ended, Cambodia emerged from civil war in 1991, and the future looked bright. Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan argued that the battlefields of Southeast Asia should be turned into marketplaces, particularly within the Mekong River Basin.

Utilising the region’s natural resources wasn’t as easy as the developing countries of the area first thought. The River was already in use, and being physically and metaphorically drained by an emerging global superpower: China.

In this article we will examine how China’s dominant position on the river has allowed them to essentially hold the countries of the region to ransom.

Privatisation of industry within the region led to an economic boom in the 1990s. Fuelled by the international push to reduce carbon emissions at the turn of the century, regional governments have prioritised renewable energy projects.

Its capacity for hydroelectric dams makes the Mekong prime renewable energy real estate.  While the economic case for the dams is clear, the ecological and geopolitical ramifications of the projects has been severe.

International Rivers, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) protecting rivers and the rights of communities that depend on them, published a report back in 2011 which noted that dams obstruct the migration flows of fish, threaten the biodiversity, reduce sediment loads and have severe impacts for both people and livestock.

On a geopolitical level, the dams can also obstruct the flow of the Mekong itself downstream out of China. There are eleven dams along the Chinese section of the Mekong, and the downstream countries are China could use its capacity to ‘turn off the tap’ as a tool for political blackmail.

Between June and November of last year, the Mekong ran dry at the Thai-Laos border. In Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, millions of people are currently without access to freshwater. You might think that this could simply be a natural phenomenon, but evidence shows that there are more sinister reasons.

A new study from the U.S-.based climate consultant Eyes on Earth provides us with a different reason. The study shows that for six months in 2019, Chinese dams blocked an unprecedented amount of water from flowing downstream. The study also shows that while an extreme drought persisted downstream, China’s section of the river was wetter than expected.

A narrow section of water flowed through the dried-out riverbed of the Mekong near Sangkhom, Thailand, in January.Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times

The study also concludes that the upper reaches of the Mekong Basin received above-average amounts of water throughout the same period, nearly all of which was held back. The study not only concludes the fact China has been holding back water in 2019, but has been doing so for years, especially during monsoon season.

However, despite the light shined by the Eyes on Earth study, Chinese influence throughout the region remains strong. 

In 2007 the government of Laos signed an agreement with the Chinese investment company Datang in order to construct a new hydropower project on the lower Mekong river mainstream. The Pak Beng hydropower project is the northernmost of eleven dams proposed for construction on the Lower Mekong River.

Situated in northern Laos, the dam is funded by both Thai and Chinese investment companies. Construction will start in 2022, and is expected to be complete by 2029.

Proposed Pak Beng Hydropower dam in Laos (Photo credit: Pak Beng Hydropower Project)

The planning process leans on the Mekong Agreement of 1995, which was signed by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The agreement saw the creation of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which ostensibly focuses the sustainable development and management of the Mekong River and its tributaries. An analysis of the Agreement highlights the mechanism of cooperative development which aims at equitably distributing the main production ‘good’ (water) among the lower riparian Mekong states. China however is only an observer to the agreement, and isn’t bound by any commitments related to the Mekong Agreement of 1995.

Regarding environmental implications, the priority of the delegation is on the macro-level in which it stresses the positive impacts of the hydropower project. Pak Beng, it claims, will lead to a reduction of carbon emissions and aid the sustainable control of the river’s water flow

China is not so concerned when considering micro-level implications, such as regional flooding and displacement, and focuses predominantly on rapid completion of the project.

Despite protests by the other regional powers, the dam is going ahead. There is undoubtedly a huge potential benefit from damming in the region, but China’s practice of limiting the flow of water can only exacerbate the social and economic issues of the region.

The CCP has one focus: Chinese dominance. By allowing Beijing to hold the key to the Mekong, the countries downstream are also putting their economic and ecological future in Chinese hands.


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