China has had a setback in its infrastructure building along the Mekong River after Thailand cancelled a project on the vital Southeast Asian waterway. But observers say that without more coordination between downstream countries, China’s influence in the region will continue to go unchallenged.
In a win for locals and activists concerned about the ecosystem and their livelihoods, Thailand’s cabinet called off the Lancang-Mekong Navigation Channel Improvement Project – also known as the Mekong “rapids blasting” project – along its border with Laos.
Proposed back in 2000, the project aimed to blast and dredge parts of the Mekong riverbed to remove rapids so that it could be used by cargo ships, creating a link from China’s southwestern province of Yunnan to ports in Thailand, Laos and the rest of Southeast Asia.
But it drew strong opposition from local communities along the river and environmentalists, who feared it would destroy the already fragile ecosystem and would only benefit Chinese.
The decision two weeks ago came as a prolonged drought has seen the river drop to its lowest levels in 100 years, depleting fish stocks in downstream communities.
The 4,800km Mekong, which is known as the Lancang in China, flows from the Tibetan plateau through six nations to the South China Sea. Its biologically diverse habitats provide livelihoods for river communities and a food source for 80 per cent of the 60 million people living in mainland Southeast Asia.
Beijing has long seen the Mekong basin as a gateway to the Indian Ocean and beyond, as it seeks to reduce reliance on the Strait of Malacca trade route. To this end, it set up the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) grouping in 2015, with Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Part of Beijing’s global trade and infrastructure scheme, the Belt and Road Initiative, a flurry of new roads, railways, ports and hydropower plants have been built as a result of this grouping – most of which are supported by Chinese money, technology and workers.
China’s dam-building programme along the drought-hit Mekong has been controversial, but Beijing has firmly defended its activities. Speaking at an LMC meeting in Vientiane on Thursday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said it was a lack of rain, not China’s dam projects, that had caused the drought.
He said the six countries had agreed to boost cooperation “to ensure the rational and sustainable use of water resources”, and that China would consider sharing water information to assist these efforts.
Gary Lee, the Southeast Asia programme director for International Rivers, an NGO based in California, said the Thai decision was a “welcome development”. It could signal a shift in how downstream nations deal with China’s ambitions to develop the waterway that drives their economies, he said.
“The LMC is an intergovernmental mechanism linked to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and as such has very limited space for the public to engage or to have a say over decisions affecting the river system,” Lee said.
“Projects identified and financed through the [belt and road] have often been characterised by lack of transparency and limited opportunities for meaningful public participation,” he said. “A shift in approach and priorities is badly needed.”
Days after the rapids blasting project was called off, the Chinese embassy in Bangkok sent a diplomat to the northeastern province of Loei, which borders Laos across the Mekong River. The diplomat, Yang Yang, told local politicians and media that Beijing had paid great attention to the drought in the region and had taken “special measures and increased the release of water” from its dams along the river in January, according to the embassy’s website.
Observers said drought relief would be high on the agenda in negotiations between downstream countries and China, but they did not expect any substantial response to the water crisis in the near future – partly because those nations did not have a united position.
“Beijing treats the Mekong much like it’s treated other Chinese rivers – with an engineering approach to basin development that promotes regulating the so-called wild nature of the Mekong,” said Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Centre’s Southeast Asia programme.
“The Mekong’s ecosystem has built-in resilience to extreme drought like the one currently unfolding ... but previous extreme droughts were not exacerbated by the impacts of more than 100 upstream dams that block water, fish and sediment flows on the Mekong tributaries and mainstream,” he said. “I have yet to see Beijing or anyone with power in China treat the Mekong as the Mekong should be treated.”
China’s enthusiasm for building dams appears to be increasingly shared by downstream countries, particularly landlocked Laos. The poorest nation in the region, it has, with the help of China, ramped up dam construction as it seeks to become the “battery of Southeast Asia” by exporting power to its neighbours. Laos plans to build 72 large dams across the country, including two that were completed in the past four months.
“Unlike the South China Sea dispute which impinges on broader security issues in the region like freedom of navigation and access to fisheries, the Mekong involves countries that have become more economically interdependent with China, with some also harbouring their own plans to dam the Mekong and its tributaries for power,” said Pichamon Yeophantong, an expert with the UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
“So while we might hear concerns being voiced by downstream countries now, it is likely that these will gradually die down until the next severe drought or floods. Moreover, with the impacts of climate change on the Mekong River still not fully understood, it is also difficult to officially apportion most or all of the blame to Chinese dams,” she said.
There has been speculation that Vietnam – the most outspoken critic of Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea – could take the lead in coordinating efforts to push for change on Chinese dam building in the Mekong when it takes over the Association of Southeast Asian Nations chairmanship this year.
But the signs are not good, with Vietnam – facing severe power shortages – endorsing a US$2.3 billion mega hydropower dam near Luang Prabang in Laos. Work on the project is expected to begin later this year, and PV Power, a subsidiary of state-owned PetroVietnam, reportedly has a 38 per cent stake in it.
Carla Freeman, director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, was concerned that even if there were coordinated efforts, it may be too late.
“What is needed is cooperation for better Mekong governance involving all Mekong countries,” she said. “I worry that the damming frenzy under way in the region means that whatever may be done could be too little too late.”