River Diplomacy: China’s Influence Along The Mekong


Starting its course in the Tibetan plateau, the Mekong River traverses through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, sustaining the livelihoods of an estimated 60 million people. Given the transnational nature of the river, which acts as one of the main freshwater lifelines of Southeast Asia, the Mekong holds great geopolitical significance and shall continue to do so as water resources become scarcer. In recent years, concern has grown regarding the unilateral use of the river for damming and diversion projects, particularly in the upper Mekong in China, locally known as Lancang Jiang.

Seven mega dams are already operational along the Lancang in China, with over 25 projects under construction or consideration in Tibet, Yunnan, and Qinghai. These interruptions to the hitherto natural flow of the river alter traditional flood-drought patterns as well as retain nutrient-rich silt, which previously flowed downstream. There have been accusations that unannounced dam openings and closings have caused respective floods and droughts. Given that the majority of people who reside along the Mekong rely upon water-intensive agrarian occupations – with rice being the most common crop – upstream damming and diversion infrastructure affects millions.

Though rainfall in the lower basin of the Mekong contributes to most of the rivers flow, supply from the upper Mekong, which usually contributes 14%-16% is vital during the dry season, spiking to 50% of the flow. Economic growth of the Mekong’s states has increased stress on the river, with urbanization driving greater demand for water and (hydro)power, transportation facilities which further exacerbates the issue of pollution, as well as food insecurity. This pace of development – which shows no signs of slowing – coupled with the prospect of climate change and inevitable greater strain on the river, means that the Mekong will become more vulnerable and more vital for each of the states that it crosses. As such, the Mekong River must be considered from a geostrategic perspective.

By controlling, or at least being able to significantly alter, the flow of the river, which is vital to regional populations within Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, China possesses the coercive capacity to treat water supply as a mechanism to apply pressure with, when seeking particular outcomes involving these states. Inequitable access to water supplies can severely affect the internal security of a country, with implications for population health, economic productivity and institutional stability. With Vietnam ranking high on the Water Security Risk Index, followed by Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and China with medium risk, the extent to which water is a vital national security interest for the Mekong states cannot be understated.

Both China’s 12th and 13th Five Year Plans stipulated the need to diversify fuel sources for power generation and increase the state’s use of non-fossil fuels, including a strong focus on hydropower development in order to utilize natural endowments such as the Lancang. Undoubtedly, this is a rational and admirable target, which in itself is not deserving of criticism. Rather, it is the approach in which the Chinese state has sought to achieve this goal and the subsequent negative impacts that have been felt by its neighbours which needs redress.

In 1957 the Mekong Committee was established by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, later replaced in 1995 by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), to act as a regional facilitating and advisory body, managing the shared resource and encouraging sustainable development. However, both Myanmar and China only adopted the role of ‘Dialogue Partner’ rather than full membership to the organization. As such, the major criticisms of China from Mekong neighbours have centred on the construction of infrastructure which impacts downstream states without engaging in consultation, as well as a lack of general dialogue, transparency, and information related to water flow data which makes the river flow unpredictable.

China’s historical approach to transnational relations with the Mekong states has been characterized by unilateral and self-serving decision-making. In taking this position, the leading power out of the respective countries has failed to address some of the major effects it’s national water infrastructure projects have caused. Second, only to the Amazon River in terms of freshwater fish diversity, the Mekong River is a vital ecosystem, which has been severely deteriorated as a result of upstream damming and diversions. An MRC Strategic Environmental Assessment estimated that for Cambodia alone 55% of the nutrient load originated from China’s portion of the Lancang, reducing to 22% following the construction of dams in the upper Mekong. The environmental, as well as, the financial implications on Mekong-residing farmers must be adequately addressed by China.

Since 2014, positive signs have developed regarding China’s willingness to open dialogue with the other Mekong states, with the establishment of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC). The inter-governmental initiative, established by Bejing and including all the river states, has a focus on connectivity, mutual production and economic cooperation, resource management and sustainable development, and poverty alleviation. Though positive effectual change has yet to be seen from the LMC, steps are still being taken to further the organization’s cause, with the members meeting at an academic conference in the first week of this month to discuss information and technology sharing.

Though moves by China to become a proactive partner in the equitable stewardship of the river are welcome, it is imperative that friendlier Mekong state relations do not take the form of mutual oversight of responsibilities, in the form of a proliferation of damming and diversion activity by all. The NGO TERRA (Foundation for Ecological Recovery), which lobbies for environmental and local community concerns of the Mekong region has reported that Chinese entities have sought to invest in hydropower projects in Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. Further hydro-development to the lower Mekong, without appropriate precautionary harm-reduction measures, will only further deteriorate the ecology and sustainability of the river. The Xayaburi Dam in Laos alone interferes with the migration of approximately 100 fish species.

A likely future limitation of the LMC will be its capacity to manage and alleviate the geopolitical tensions that face the Mekong River states, particularly given the China-centric nature of the body (the LMC is seen as a rival to the MRC). As stresses increase on the finite Mekong River, the importance of an effective dispute resolution mechanism is vital to limit the possibility of conflict arising from the resource. Conflicts over transnational rivers are not unprecedented, seen between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile, as well Iraq and Turkey over the Tigris and Euphrates. The UN has emphasized the geopolitical nature of shared water supplies, stating “this is nowhere more destabilizing than in river basins that cross political boundaries”. Given the propensity for this risk environment to escalate it is essential that preventative conflict resolution and security-building measures are taken.

It is clear that a robust regional organization is required to facilitate dialogue between Mekong River states, as well as manage the equitable use and sustainability of the river. Irrespective of whether this body is the MRC, the LMC or another organisation, the focus must adequately provide transparent and independent data collection and exchange; monitoring of usage; planned infrastructure protocol – inclusive of prior consultation and negotiation, monitoring of construction and proportional restrictions; environmental impact management; and a successive conflict resolution process. Should a new water agreement be formed between the relevant states, existing cases of cooperation surrounding scarce water resources should be considered for guidance, for example, the case between Altiplano-Valles, Bolivia where various stakeholders have effectively engaged in dispute negotiation practices.

One criticism of the MRC has been that it fails to take into account the interests of local level communities residing along the Mekong River, and instead focusing on the interests of the state’s governments. For future multilateral action along the Mekong to be sustainable and effective, other stakeholder voices must be heard. In this regard, civil society organizations like TERRA should be included within the framework for cooperation.

Whilst a robust regional body should be the main platform through which Mekong River relations are managed, there still remains the issue of Chinese dominance. To address this imbalance it is imperative that all states agree to the relevant international treaties, in order to provide an additional avenue through which conflict resolution processes may be enacted. China, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos should join Vietnam in ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses 1997 (2014), which among other things provides a framework for equitable use, cooperation, dialogue, protection, and negotiation. The International Law Association’s Berlin Rules on Water Resources 2004 is an additional comprehensive agreement that would provide the necessary guidelines to manage the relations between the Mekong states, placing greater emphasis on mutual obligations to manage and sustain scarce water resources.

Domestically, China should ensure that sound policies are effectively executed. Xi Jinping’s stance towards sustainable development, outlined in his new political thought in October 2017, aims to harmonize environmental wellbeing and economic development. Though this prospect is by no means a small feat, China must ensure that this policy stance becomes reality through monitoring the operations of state entities involved in hydropower infrastructure, such as Hydrolancang; carrying out Environmental Impact Assessments; and proliferating initiatives like the ecological focus of the Yangtze River Economic Belt and ‘Water Ten Plan’.

Within the region, and along the banks of the Mekong, China has great leadership potential, as well as an ability to contribute to regional stability rather than erode it. China has the infrastructure and capital capable of fostering sustainable economic growth amongst downstream neighbours. A system of regional coordination, led by China, would potentially allow for the productive capacity of crops along to the Mekong to increase from one annual harvesting to second or third crop capacity through controlled water storage and release mechanisms to counter seasonal insufficiencies.

Furthermore, localized education initiatives in sustainable farming methods can be undertaken to alleviate the pressures that overfishing has had on Mekong fish stocks. China also has the ability to initiate investment programs like the UN Green Water Credits system, that could alleviate the stresses local farmers face along the Mekong, contributing to more positive river relations and a more prosperous region. Essentially, whilst China possesses significant coercive capacity over Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, this could also be utilized in a contrary manner – a ‘carrot’ rather than ‘stick’ approach.