The Mekong: Rivers of Diplomacy


Mekong River at Luang Praban in Laos

The 12th longest river in the world and 7th in Asia, the Mekong is a transboundary river located in Southeast Asia. Its estimated length of 4,350 km begins at the Tibetan Plateau, gracefully gliding through China’s Yunnan Province, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Boasting some of the richest biodiversity in the world, the Mekong region has been the lifeline for many ancient civilisations such as the Khmer Empire. Today it continues to do so, providing much-needed food and water for many nations, with 60 million people directly dependent on it.


The Mekong River offers significant economic opportunities for countries in the region, from irrigation projects to hydroelectric dams, and has encouraged extensive multilateral cooperation. Given the nature of the flow of the river, it is inevitable that the actions of a nation will have a knock-on effect on those situated downstream. Notable cooperation includes the establishment of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in 1995 by Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, with China and Myanmar becoming ‘dialogue partners’ in 1996. It must be noted that the river is also a source of division among nations.


Enter the Dragon


China’s growing appetite for resources and economic opportunities has driven its growing interest in the ancient river. Most evidently, increased Chinese investments along the river in the form of dams and a navigation channel have been the most significant source of tension for the Mekong community. According to International Rivers, China has constructed seven mega-dams, and 20 more are under construction in the regions of Yunnan, Tibet and Qinghai. Chinese interest in expanding infrastructure projects and economic projects such as the One Belt One Road Initiative may cause it to butt heads with other nations. China is additionally seeking to develop its poorer southern regions such as Yunnan to address the growing inequality between the Chinese coast and interior.


Furthermore, Chinese interest in improving energy security has led Beijing to view the Mekong as an opportunity to do so via renewable energy. China’s current six dams on the Mekong river collectively produce 15,000 megawatts per year, supporting cities with as many as 2 million residents. Other Chinese plans include transforming the river into a major navigational channel connected to the South China Sea, for use by commercial vessels. As it stands, Southeast Asian nations and China have been able to mitigate tensions through multilateral agreements. The increasing number of projects on the river has reportedly affected fisheries stocks and disturbed the predictability of water flow and the movement of silt, all of which continue to exacerbate tensions with Southeast Asian nations. Declining agricultural productivity and declining fisheries have the potential to endanger millions of Southeast Asians and create regional instability.


A Changing Climate


In addition, with several Southeast Asian states suffering the worst drought in more than 20 years, the need to maintain the Mekong as a viable water source has become more important than ever. Notably, an estimated 400,000 hectares of land in Vietnam has been affected by saltwater intrusion, with 166,000 hectares rendered infertile. Worse still, the affected land area accounts for nearly 10% of the total paddy cultivation area countrywide. Much of the decline in water levels throughout the region can be attributed to the El Nino phenomenon, resulting in drier and hotter weather worldwide. Furthermore, according to the assistant director-general at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, El Nino “is not over yet”. Coupled with the ever increasing river projects upstream, worries are growing about water security.


Moving Forward Together


As the Mekong river dries and tensions rise, what does this entail for nations in the region? It is vital that various nations in the region come together and address the issue at hand before further escalation. Cooperation between the neighbouring states is crucial, and as argued by Richard Heydarian, and academic and author, the 1996 agreement on cooperation for the sustainable development of the Mekong basin provides the fundamental basis for this. Additionally, states should consult each other on projects related to the Mekong River and refrain from undertaking from unilateral action which would inflame existing tensions and undermine much-needed trust between neighbours.


However, there are some signs of greater regional cooperation, evidenced by the establishment of the China led initiative, Lancang-Mekong Cooperation. The benefits of cooperation can be significant, providing the means for all parties to voice their concerns and adopt cohesive policies to mitigate the effects of climate change and align future development plans. China has sought to use this as an opportunity to improve its international reputation, and further pursue its economic interests and diplomatic ties. China, between March 15th to April 10th 2018, agreed to discharge water from a dam in Yunan at the request of neighbouring countries to alleviate the suffering from droughts.


Xiaowan Dam located on the Lancang (Mekong) River in Yunnan, China

Furthermore, China has dedicated billions of dollars to support water resource research centres, connectivity projects, industrial capacity, border trade, agriculture and poverty alleviation. Since 2018, Chinese promises included US$200 million in aid and US$300 million in funds for small and medium-sized corporations for five years. Countries, such as Cambodia, have actively sought out Chinese aid and investment in hopes of improving the local situation. According to an independent researcher on Southeast Asian affairs, Elliot Brennan, “After more than a decade of ham-fisted diplomacy, Beijing has finally learned how to wield both the carrot and the stick in the region.”.


Another source of potential support is from the remainder of the ASEAN countries unaffected directly by the unfolding events of the Mekong River. It is crucial, that while interaction with China could provide alleviation, it must be recognised that so too can its fellow members. It is a clear opportunity for members of ASEAN to strengthen ties and diplomatic relationships. Should the situation be neglected by ASEAN’s other members, a humanitarian crisis could emerge. With millions dependent on the river for survival, a worsened situation could produce that much like the Refugee Crisis in Europe. It is undoubtedly of the interest of ASEAN members to invest in the region. Potentially, seeking greater attention from international organisations and media may prove vital in gaining international support and concern for the rising threat. As climate change worsens the situation, the countries of the Mekong River will need more and more options.


A Trojan Horse?


China’s apparent willingness to cooperate appears to be a blessing for neighbouring Southeast Asian nations to counter growing environmental pressures. However, various nations must exercise some level of caution. As seen in Thailand whose local populations and conservation groups oppose China’s desire to blast open sections of the Mekong between Thailand and Laos for cargo ships, local governments would do well to recognise that certain forms of cooperation could lead to domestic political instability. Additionally, as Chinese aid and investment enter the region, so too does its influence. Concerns have been raised as to whether Beijing’s increasing hold over its neighbours may affect the unity of ASEAN on other issues such as the South China Sea. Countries such as Vietnam, which is facing a severe drought, may feel increasingly pressured between its opposition to Chinese endeavours in the South China Sea and the promises of economic aid and investment. Critics have also argued that the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation is also another way in which China can exert pressure and influence over the region. Moreover, China’s control and engagement in ‘water diplomacy’, while proving to be an excellent carrot for diplomacy may too become a back-breaking stick.

Chinese Premier Li (second from right) with representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar in 2nd Lancang Mekong Cooperation summit in Phnom Penh, 2018

The Future and Beyond...


As it stands, consistent multilateral agreements and cooperation have proven to keep a lid on tensions. However, with persistent climate change and an equally persistent China, the situation could reach a boiling point in the near future. A deteriorating situation of the Mekong River could evolve into a more significant threat. Nations on the Mekong River have already begun to recognise the benefits China could bring with closer cooperation, though that should be judged with some level of caution. Meanwhile, other ASEAN members could provide much-needed solutions alternative to China’s.


A crisis unfolding in the region could prove to undo the unity and stability of the region. As water levels lower and tensions rise, the countries of Southeast Asia will undoubtedly face many challenges and obstacles ahead, demanding much needed diplomatic skills and greater unity. Without adequate support and greater international attention, it is feared the worst may yet to come.


Lone boat on the Mekong River in Luang Prabang, Laos

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