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China and Laos’ Dam Disaster

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China and Laos’ Dam Disaster

There are strong political motives behind China’s fast response.

China and Laos’ Dam Disaster

People sit on a makeshift barge in a flooded village in Sanamxay district, Attapeu province, Laos (July 26, 2018).

Credit: AP Photo/Hau Dinh

Last week, a dam collapse in Laos’ Attapeu province caused a devastating flood. While the death count is still uncertain – in part because the Lao government is keeping information under tight wraps – reports indicate that hundreds are missing.

On the surface, the incident had nothing to do with China, Laos’ neighbor to the north. Chinese companies were not involved in the project in question, the Xepian Xe-Namnoy dam, and China’s Foreign Ministry has said there are no reports of Chinese casualties. However, China’s response to the disaster is still important – both for China’s image in Laos and the broader region, and for the potential implications this disaster could have on Chinese projects.

China wasted no time getting involved in the relief efforts. In fact, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) medical team was already in Laos for a “humanitarian medical rescue joint exercise” when the dam collapsed. According to Xinhua, the PLA sent a 32-person medical team to the disaster site, becoming “the first fully-equipped international rescue team” to arrive. Doctors on the rescue team told Xinhua that they were treating around 100 patients a day. The PLA also donated medical equipment and “disease control and prevention vehicles” to Laos upon the closing of the exercise.

According to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Chinese government also “provided much-needed humanitarian aids and supplies to the Laos, including charge boats, tents and water clarifiers.”

Beijing provided the expected rhetorical support as well. “As a close and friendly neighbor to the Laos, China is paying close attention to the disaster relief efforts regarding the hydropower dam collapse in the Laos,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said on July 27. Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi all sent messages of condolences to their Lao counterparts.

China wants to be seen as good neighbor, and a fast and generous response to major disasters like this is a good place to start. Beijing has been accused of being stingy with its contributions to past relief efforts, particularly in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Observers blamed China’s slow and meager response in that instance on tensions over maritime disputes.

China would have no reason to play politics by withholding aid in this case. Laos is often listed as one of the Southeast Asian countries closest to Beijing. As a fellow one-party, communist state there is political affinity and China’s economic dominance adds an extra layer of security to the relationship. However, as Tom Fawthrop reported in the April issue of The Diplomat Magazine, anti-Chinese sentiment is bubbling in Laos due to feelings that heavy Chinese investment is turning parts of the country into a “province of China.” A strong – and highly visible – effort to aid Laos in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and long-term rebuilding, could help Beijing shake these image issues.

On a more practical note, though, China’s government will be hoping to mitigate the damage from the dam collapse for another reason: Chinese companies have invested heavily in hydropower projects in Laos, where China is the top foreign investor. As mentioned above, Chinese companies were not involved in the the Xepian Xe-Namnoy dam, which was built by a consortium of international investors from South Korea, Thailand, and Laos. But China is one of the largest players in the Lao hydropower industry in general (Thailand, which will import much of the electricity from these dams, is another).

China is involved in roughly half of Laos’ hydropower projects, whether on the main channel of the Mekong River or its tributaries. According to data from International Rivers, Chinese dam projects in Laos include the $2.4 billion Pak Beng dam (to be constructed by China Datang Overseas Investment), a $2 billion seven-dam cascade on the Nam Ou River (under development by Sinohydro Corporation), the Nam Khan 3 hydropower project (also by Sinohydro), and the Nam Beng dam (China Electrical Equipment Corporation).

The Xepian Xe-Namnoy dam collapse could throw the Lao government’s push to become Southeast Asia’s “battery” into question, jeopardizing these Chinese investments. The fallout for China could be even larger if this tragedy causes other Southeast Asian governments to rethink their approach to hydropower. With that in mind, donations to help the villages impacted by this disaster recover are a small price to pay to try and protect billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese hydropower investments in Laos and the region at large.