China increases control of Southeast Asia through Mekong
China through its dam system now controls the flow of the mighty 4,800-kilometer-long Mekong River, which provides sustenance to more than 60 million people living downstream in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam who live along its banks. China can regulate more than a quarter of the annual flow by volume through its existing network of six upstream dams.
That control could increase if more dams are built on the lower Mekong.
“The impact on food and livelihoods is dramatic now but could be far worse if 11 proposed megadams, half with some Chinese involvement, go ahead,” Elliot Brennan, an independent researcher, wrote in early June 2018 in the Interpreter, an online publication on the website for the Australia-based think tank the Lowy Institute. China is backing six of the 11 proposed mainstream projects, according to International Rivers, a nongovernmental organization. Thirty more dams are planned on tributaries to the Mekong, which is the planet’s largest inland fishery, second only to the Amazon in biodiversity.
China’s dam system continues to cause tensions with Southeast Asian nations because it threatens their water security, food supply and commerce, analysts explained. Some experts equate China’s dam-building activities with China’s contentious island-building and militarization of the South China Sea.
“What China has done by damming the Mekong and gaining undue leverage over downstream countries is analogous and connected to its ongoing construction and weaponization of artificial islands in the South China Sea,” Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, told the Nikkei Asian Review website in May 2018. “Beijing’s approach is as simple as it is controversial, for all to see: Build first, talk later.”
Moreover, China’s manipulation of the flow is largely going unchecked, analysts said. In the 1990s, the need for regional cooperation rose to the forefront, when China began damming the upper Mekong without consulting downstream nations. The Mekong River flows from the Tibetan Plateau in China through Yunnan province into Southeast Asia across Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and into the South China Sea. (Pictured: A Cambodian woman carries water from the Mekong to her Phnom Penh community on February 21, 2018).
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental organization that includes Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and was founded in 1995, has been unsuccessful in curbing China’s unilateral actions. In 2015, China created an alternative body, the Lancang-Mekong River Cooperation Framework, or LMC, which critics contend has largely undermined the MRC.
“The LMC is a way of showing that China only plays by its own rules. It creates fait accompli by building dams upstream to the detriment of downstream countries and then sets up its own governing body as a rejection of the MRC,” Thitinan said.
Further dam construction will complete the transformation of the river into a network of canals and lakes that generate electricity and enable shipping but destroy fishing and farming along its shores, many studies have concluded. For example, existing dams along the Mekong have reduced the sediment load, which is crucial for agriculture and balancing the ecosystem, by about 60 percent, according to a November 2017 report by the Stockholm Environment Institute.
“It is the people upstream that get the benefits of controlling the water,” Apisom Intralawan, a scholar at the Institute for the Study of Natural Resources and Environmental Management in Chiang Rai, Thailand, told the foreignpolicy.com website in May 2018. “The downstream people are losers. … We get electricity, but we lose fisheries, and if you examine the consequences, the fishery loss is greater than the electricity gain.”
A 2017 study by Mae Fah Luang University researchers in Thailand found that the four lower basin countries will suffer a net loss of U.S. $7.3 billion if the 40-plus planned dam projects are built by 2030. Furthermore, the loss from the fishery catch will be greater than the 110,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity to be generated from the dams.
Besides securing China’s economic control of the region, the projects could give China political control over the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Brennan told the South China Morning Post newspaper in January 2018: “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.” he said. “If Beijing manages to achieve control of the Mekong’s development, it would quickly become a crucial artery for China’s rise and exportation of influence into ASEAN.”