Thitinan Pongsudhirak: China’s alarming ‘water diplomacy’ on the Mekong

At first glance, it looks beneficent. As countries along the Lower Mekong river that snakes through mainland Southeast Asia struggled in the grip of a severe drought, China announced it would release water from its upstream Jinghong dam over nearly a month from March 15. The announcement was partly intended as a goodwill gesture one week ahead of the inaugural Lancang-Mekong Cooperation summit of leaders of the six Mekong region countries.

But while the water release will spell some immediate relief for the drought-stricken region, it portends future geopolitical tensions between China and its southern Mekong neighbors. Having unilaterally accumulated political power by exploiting geography and manipulating natural waterways through the construction of a slew of upriver dams, China appears intent to set the regional water management rules as it deems fit.

The Mekong, which the Chinese refer to as Lancang, is Asia’s seventh-longest river and provides livelihoods and habitats for riverfront communities and natural wildlife throughout its meandering flow from China and Myanmar to Laos and Thailand, down to Cambodia and Vietnam before it reaches the sea. China’s damming of the upper Mekong has long been considered a geopolitical risk for the lower riparian states and a source of potential conflict for the entire Greater Mekong Subregion — encompassing Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. That risk has manifested itself in an inchoate fashion through the annual dry seasons, when about 60 million people in fishing villages and communities along the Mekong are severely affected. But any protest has been silenced by geopolitical realities.

China is essentially the giant neighbor ensconced at the river mouth. It can block the Mekong waterways at will. To date, it has completed six of 15 planned dams along the Mekong. The governments of countries in the lower basin, particularly those of Cambodia and Vietnam, are either too beholden to or dependent on Beijing’s generosity and policy decisions to cry foul too vocally. To be sure, Laos is the midstream country that has been constructing its own dams, largely financed by Thailand, which in turn buys the resultant hydropower. The Mekong dams are thus a mixed proposition, not simply representing China’s imposition of unilateral leverage and power over the rest.

Yet with communist Laos’ increasing dependence on China’s purse strings for development needs, and the Thai military government’s overt pro-Beijing posture, the uppermost — and most powerful — Mekong country has become a regional patron of sorts. Cambodia is also increasingly depending on China for development aid and foreign investment. While at odds with Beijing over territorial conflicts in the South China Sea, Vietnam is forced to count China as its indispensable trade and investment partner, with bigger muscle and more means. Myanmar is the only exception in this equation. Under a newly elected civilian government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who suffered for years under military repression while China capitalized on extractive economic opportunities in Myanmar, Naypyitaw may prove to be a thorn in the side of whatever design China has in mind for the Mekong mainland.

China’s LMC diplomacy

This is why the Chinese are keen to bring Mekong leaders to their LMC table. Beijing’s fivefold summit agenda spans connectivity, industrialization, border trade, water resource management, agricultural cooperation and poverty reduction. But beyond the promotional photo shoots and work plans, the LMC concept symbolizes China’s shrewd effort to establish its own rules and institutions.

Moreover, the LMC competes with the Mekong River Commission, which was set up among Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam in 1995 with international expertise and funding assistance to manage river resources under international conventions and protocols governing major global waterways. Myanmar and China have been dialogue partners but Beijing has deliberately marginalized the MRC. For China, the Beijing-led LMC is the logical and preferred Mekong governance framework.

China’s Mekong maneuvers are unsurprising and in line with similar overtures elsewhere. In fact, 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. Beijing’s approach is as simple as it is controversial, for all to see: build first, talk later (if talk at all).

In the South China Sea, the maritime states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are putting up a united front and seeking greater commitments from U.S. defense engagement in the area. In response, the Americans have been both forthcoming and measured. China’s dominance in the Mekong domain, however, cannot be checked by America’s maritime military pre-eminence. The Mekong mainland is China’s for the taking, especially in view of like-minded authoritarian regimes in Bangkok, Vientiane and Phnom Penh who are incentivized to go with the authoritarian flow. Hanoi opposes China in the South China Sea but its voice is meek on Mekong issues. China will thus have its way in mainland Southeast Asia for some time.

China certainly owns the dams it builds but the water that goes into those dams is not just China’s. It comes from the Himalayan mountain ranges and belongs to all who have depended on it — for centuries. Yet China’s damming of river waters has practical negative effects. For example, fishing communities in northern Thailand have protested that the water released from the Jinghong dam is robbed of the usually rich sediment and silt that come with natural flows.

Short-term approach

For China, blocking off the water for its own benefit and then feigning benevolence in offers to share it with those further downstream yields short-term bargaining chips. But eventually, China’s myopic approach of playing by its own rules and disregarding those of other parties may boomerang back. Today it is Myanmar which is unlikely to subserviently toe Beijing’s line on the Mekong. Later it could be Thailand, when the country returns to democratic rule, or perhaps, Vietnam — when it has simply had enough. China’s dam power may yet be damned if its smaller neighbors gang up against it.

By Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches International Political Economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.