THE MEKONG RIVER rises on the Tibetan plateau, flows through Yunnan as the Lancang river and then on to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before discharging into the South China Sea.
Some of those countries have been involved in its cooperative management since the 1950s and all six since the mid-1990s. But the vehicle for that, the Mekong River Commission, wasn’t Beijing’s creation and China only held ‘dialogue partner’ status. Cue a standard response from Beijing’s international relations playbook: set up an alternative institution of its own.
The first Lancang-Mekong Cooperation summit has just been held in Sanya, the resort city on southern Hainan island. Premier Li Keqiang made it clear who was paying the piper when he promised the five other Mekong countries $1.5 billion in preferential loans and $10 billion in credits for infrastructure and industrial projects, $200 million in poverty-alleviation aid and $300 million for small and medium-sized cooperation projects.
The largesse was not only to ensure that the China-led summit got off to a well-oiled start. It was also intended to offset some of the regional tensions over the South China Sea, thus defusing the potential appeal of Washington’s ‘Asia pivot’. But most of all, Beijing wanted its generous development aid to provide the wherewithal for the five countries to buy the infrastructure development envisioned under China’s One Belt, One Road’ initiative.
That is the point where the summit runs directly in the controversial development of the Mekong and its tributaries as a giant generator of hydroelectric power to fuel power-hungry South-east Asia’s industrial expansion, likely at a devastating cost to the river’s sustainability. Between its headwaters and estuary, 32 dams have been built along the Mekong and its tributaries since the first was commissioned in 1971 — 20 of them since the turn of the century. At least another dozen are under construction.
China’s stretch accounts for no more than around a seventh of the total length of the river, but its upstream location gives it considerable impact on downstream waters, especially where the river flows along the Thai-Lao border.
China completed its first hydroelectric dam on the Mekong in 1993. The five it has since built (with two more under construction and another planned) have made it subject to voiciferous downstream criticism for the ecological and riparian damage they cause to the river and to the livelihoods of those living along it.
China regulates the flow of water on grounds of ‘flood control’. The most recent example was the release of water from the Jinghong dam in Yunnan announced on March 10, with further releases planned until April 10, purportedly to help ease drought downstream.
Their critics say that these releases causes the river’s level to rise and fall between seasons far more rapidly than in the pre-dam era, endangering fisheries. The longer-term concern is that the dam-building will change the river’s hydrology, blocking fish migration and affecting the river’s ecology throughout its length.
One of the outcomes of this month’s summit was an agreement on a water resource centre to manage hydropower development, floods and droughts. The question is whether that will prove to be a way for China to institutionalize its control of the river’s management while allowing the Mekong River Commission to atrophy.
The Lancing-Mekong Cooperation framework makes the management of the river a matter of government-to-government negotiations, to the exclusion of non-governmental and community groups who might question whether large hydropower dams continue to be sustainable development model. By increasing its political sway over its neighbours, Beijing may succeed in keeping domestic political priorities in those countries tilted in favour of meeting their energy needs through hydropower over the interests of sustainable management.
This Bystander recalls a telling incident in the mid-1990s when China held back the Mekong’s waters upstream by filling a dam reservoir. This just happened to coincide with a ceremonial sailing from Thailand to Vietnam to mark the establishment of the Mekong River Commission. The vessel ran aground, so shallow were the river’s waters downstream. Today, Beijing finds it can cause much the same policy effect by controlling the flow of money.