CHINA IS demonstrating that it has real power to control and manage the Mekong River, as Beijing launches a diplomatic campaign to engage with affected countries downstream.
This situation has become clear after China’s contacts with the other five countries along the river – Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Physically, about half the nearly 5,000-kilometre length of the Mekong is under Chinese sovereignty, flowing through three provinces in China before continuing southward to the delta in southern Vietnam.
It is no exaggeration to say that China utilises more of the river than all the five other countries combined. While China has built six hydropower dams in the mainstream over the past two decades – and many more are planned – downstream countries like Laos are constructing two projects in the mainstream and other countries are merely pumping water for agriculture.
While China began clearing rapids, reefs and islets to facilitate river navigation more than 15 years ago, countries downstream rarely used the Mekong for transportation. Chinese fleets regularly provided their service for passengers and goods between its southern ports and Thailand’s Chiang Saen. Thailand, Laos and Myanmar used only small rowboats or long-tail boats for local transportation.
The Mekong has been under Chinese development strategy for decades. In the late 1980s, Beijing first commissioned southwestern provincial authorities to engage with countries in the Mekong basin. China’s push for development has never been interrupted since then. As the Chinese economy keeps growing, so does its political power.
Beijing took over the Asian Development Bank-sponsored Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) in 2002, when the group had the first summit of its leaders in Phnom Penh. Financial sources for infrastructure development were consecutively diverted from Japanese-led banks to Chinese financial institutions.
The Mekong basin waterways were mainly regulated by the Mekong River Commission (MRC). The MRC’s rules to regulate the waterways are imperfect, but they are better than nothing and apply only to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Upstream countries China and Myanmar are merely dialogue partners but have more liberty to utilise the river.
There is no mechanism for all Mekong riparian countries to discuss the impact of development projects in China since the existing international cooperation frameworks do not cover it. GMS has focused only on economic development, while the MRC does not cover China.
There has been no opportunity for the six countries to discuss issues such as the consequences of development projects on environment – and social and security problems such as smuggling and trafficking.
Beijing initiated a new forum called the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism in 2014. Lancang is the Chinese name for the Mekong. Although it is the same river, Beijing insisted on its version of the name being used for the forum to impose the Chinese identity in engaging with countries in the basin.
The move was very fast, perhaps too fast, for other countries in the basin to deal with. The Lancang-Mekong had its first ministerial meeting in Jinghong, China, last November. Beijing called the first summit this week in Sanya, Hainan, to firmly establish the new cooperation.
As a Chinese senior diplomat said recently, every matter could be discussed in the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation summit, including environmental and social troubles along the Mekong River.
Beijing has known for a long time that its development projects – notably dams in the Mekong mainstream – are troublesome for the region. Last week, Chinese diplomats informed their counterparts in the lower Mekong basin of their decision to discharge water from the Jinghong dam at double the usual rate released in the dry season.
It’s rare for the Chinese to inform downstream countries of moves like this. It would not have happened unless Vietnam pushed last week, as China was preparing for a Hainan summit. Hanoi hailed the decision, as it needed the fresh water to push back seawater in the delta.
Thailand’s residents along the river were not expected to respond well to the notification at such short notice. It threatens to seriously impact their fishery, agriculture and tourism earnings.
However, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who seems to know nothing about the Mekong, expressed his gratitude to China.