BANGKOK – China’s dam building on the upper reaches of the Mekong river is raising hackles with downstream countries and providing the US with another strategic theater to counterbalance China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia.
The rising controversy comes alongside a range of new US initiatives in Southeast Asia, including recent US-led multilateral military training exercises in Cambodia, joint US-Vietnam naval training exercises, US-Vietnam discussions on sharing nuclear fuel and Washington’s announcement that it will re-engage with Kopassus, Indonesia’s controversial special forces unit.
The recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in Hanoi was overshadowed by Sino-American rivalry, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that the US was willing to mediate in territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Many Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, believe Beijing increasingly views the contested maritime area as a Chinese lake.
China’s foreign minister Yang Jichi responded bluntly to Clinton’s remarks by saying that they amounted to “an attack on China”, before reminding Southeast Asian countries that China is a big country, implying that individually they are small. In response, countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines are being followed by Cambodia and Vietnam in trying to forge new links with the US as a counterbalance to China’s rapid rise.
That strategic hedge is increasingly evident on the Mekong. With four out of China’s eight planned dams already built on the Lancang – China’s name for the Mekong in its territory – and nine more either in place or awaiting construction on the river’s middle and lower reaches in Cambodia and Laos, its unclear how together these will impact on the region. Part of the problem is an uncoordinated approach, which not only means that country decisions are taken on a ‘national interest first’ basis, but also that distrust and enmity is heightened between river stakeholders.
According to Dr Richard Cronin, head of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington DC, “fragmented decision-making and lack of coordination between stakeholders” means that all sides are going ahead with their own projects without getting to grips with how the separate dams “impact on the river and region as a whole”. Cronin was speaking at a seminar organized by the American Studies Program at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
China controls the upper reaches of the river, where most of the hydro-electric potential is situated. Chulalongkorn University academic Ukrit Pathmanand said that “non-traditional” security problems could emerge from the building of more dams, with disgruntled people losing fishery income or farmland due to changes in the river potentially leading to social unrest. However, Ukrit added that there are positives and negatives to dam construction, with the benefits of additional hydropower to be weighed against the potential damage caused to the environment and livelihoods.
Political ebb and flow
The dam wrangle is becoming increasingly entwined with regional and global politics. A four-country intergovernmental body known as the Mekong River Commission (MRC) aims to better manage development along the waterway. The grouping, comprised of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and established in 1995, held its first summit meeting in Hua Hin, Thailand, in April 2010. Notably, China and Myanmar have only accepted observer status in the MRC, despite being two of the six countries through which the river winds down to the South China Sea.
Pornlert Lattanan, President of General Electric (Thailand), said that it is unlikely that Cambodia and Laos will raise the Mekong issue with Beijing, which has close relations with both countries. This was seen at the MRC Summit, where Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen attributed the low waters in the Mekong region to climate change, rather than China’s withholding water behind its Mekong dams.
Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva was more circumspect, saying that “(t)his summit is sending a message that all countries in the Mekong Region, both its upper and lower parts, are stakeholders, and we all have to take joint responsibility for its long-term sustainability.” In June, Thai officials went further, with Prasarn Maruekpithak, a representative at a MRC meeting in Vietnam, saying that “China’s four dams on the upper part of the Mekong River have already destroyed the river’s ecosystem. Now this giant nation plans to build 12 dams more on the lower part.”
Vietnam is also concerned about the dams, including those planned for upstream areas in Cambodia and Laos. Le Duc Trung, director general of the Vietnam National Mekong Committee, is reported to have said on June 29 that “Vietnam has…great concerns over the research results on the projects (the proposed dams), especially impacts on agriculture and fisheries likely caused by their dams”.
The perceived threat to security and livelihoods is attracting interest from outside Southeast Asia. Japan held a meeting with the Mekong countries in Hanoi on the sidelines of the recent ASEAN Regional Forum to discuss a joint “Green Mekong” initiative for the next decade, which aims to tackle challenges such as natural disasters and deforestation. Japan’s Overseas Development Cooperation was listed as a sponsor of the Bangkok seminar on this subject, underscoring Japan’s interests in a region where it has substantial trade and investment links.
More pointedly, the US is also getting involved as part of its attempt to counter rising Chinese influence. US top diplomat Clinton recently met with the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam in Hanoi as part of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), which was created in July 2009 as a means to enhance cooperation in the areas of environment, health, education, and infrastructure development.
According to Cronin, the Mekong could soon become Chinese-controlled with downstream countries dependent on sufficient water being released from dams in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces to keep the river flowing during the dry season. China has denied that its dams are to blame for low water levels on the river earlier this year, with its embassy in Bangkok issuing a statement on March 11 saying that claims to this effect are “baseless and incorrect”. Its an assessment partially corroborated by MRC chief executive officer Jeremy Bird, who said that low water levels on the river were likely due to the drought that hit Southeast Asia earlier this year. He, however, did not dismiss the possibility that China’s dams could be the cause.
Cronin acknowledges that recent US overtures are directly related to geopolitics, but said that it was initially difficult to get the Mekong issue onto the policymaking radar in Washington due to the multiplicity of issues facing Washington in Asia and elsewhere. The danger is that subsuming the complex environmental, political and socio-economic issues at stake on the Mekong into Sino-US great power rivalry may overshadow the practical steps and confidence-building measures needed to effectively address the river’s future.
Nonetheless, Cronin believes that overt US interest in the issue might at least prompt China into “listening more to concerns of other stakeholders”. That’s one interpretation of Beijing’s June decision to bring Southeast Asian officials on a rare tour of some of the dam sites inside southern China. However, it remains to be seen if China will go much further to allay concerns of downstream countries given the rising energy needs of its growing economy, and perhaps an emerging feeling in Beijing that the US and Southeast Asia are beginning to collaborate to contain its expanding interests.Show