China Power | Environment | Southeast Asia

China, Southeast Asian Leaders Meet to Discuss the Mekong’s Plight

The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation leaders’ meeting discussed the river’s dire situation — and also pushed for a new trade corridor.

Shannon Tiezzi
China, Southeast Asian Leaders Meet to Discuss the Mekong’s Plight
Credit: Flickr/ Michael Woodhead

Leaders from China and Southeast Asia’s mainland countries gathered on Monday for a virtual summit, the third leader’s meeting for the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation platform.

The meeting came at a time when the Mekong River’s health is in dire straits. For the second year in a row, the Mekong River is suffering from record low water levels. “Water levels are down by two-thirds and rainfall for the three months of the current wet season is also down by about 70 percent,” as Luke Hunt noted in his recent photo essay on the impact.

Environmental activists have long pointed the finger for the Mekong’s woes at a deadly combination of climate change, which is changing rainfall patterns, and dam-building along the river. In particular, China, has constructed 11 dams across the upper stretch of the river (known as the Lancang in China), which critics allege prevent much-needed water from reaching the Mekong countries in Southeast Asia. A 2020 report from the U.S.-based Stimson Center put data behind this oft-made claim, noting that “for six months in 2019, while China received above average precipitation, its dams held back more water than ever — even as downstream countries suffered through an unprecedented drought.”

Southeast Asian governments necessarily take a less confrontational stance on the accusation of water hoarding by their powerful neighbor. The Mekong River Commission – made up of the Southeast Asian riparian states, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, — issued its own report refuting the claim that China was responsible for the 2019 drought. It also noted that Southeast Asian states have done their share of dam-building.

However, the MRC did fault China for not providing enough data and information on its portion of the river. “China should consider providing more data that covers more stations and includes the dry season,” the MRC report said.

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With drought back again in 2020, China took that advice to heart. Speaking at the annual leader’s meeting of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) platform, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged that “Starting from this year, China will share the Lancang River’s hydrological data for the whole year with the Mekong countries.”

“This once again shows China’s open and transparent attitude towards such cooperation as the upstream country,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian proclaimed.

China founded the LMC in 2016 to give itself a voice on Mekong River issues, as it is not a part of the pre-existing MRC (the LMC also includes Myanmar as well the MRC countries, bringing its total membership to six).

It is clear from the joint statement from the latest leaders meeting, however, that the Lancang/Mekong River is not the only focus of the LMC. The statement expressed, among other topics, the leaders’ intentions to “strengthen cooperation on public health,” “maintain the stability of production and supply chains,” and “encourage synergy between development of the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor and the Mekong-Lancang Economic Development Belt.”

The latter point is a Chinese initiative seeking to link western China to Southeast Asia. Li championed including the trade corridor on the LMC’s agenda, saying that “the greater synergy between the LMC and the corridor will make trade routes more convenient …This will help optimize the allocation of resources.”

Despite its name, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation platform has never been solely about the river. As Shang-su Wu argued in a previous analysis for The Diplomat, the LMC is designed not only to discuss riparian issues in a Beijing-friendly format, but to act “as a miniature version of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).” Wu also noted that Beijing only launched the LMC after it completed its flurry of dam-building, leaving Mekong countries no way to push back before the deed was done. China can now dangle the prospect of greater riparian cooperation in exchange for increased regional buy-in for its own pet projects – such as the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor.

But that cuts both ways, as well. The Mekong countries, via the MRC, directly demanded more data-sharing from China, and now they have it (or at least Li’s promise to provide it). In that sense, the LMC is serving its desired purpose for both sides: It gives China a platform to paint itself as the hero, rather than the villain, in the Mekong story and gives Southeast Asian countries a valuable chance to directly speak to China on the health of their shared river.

Whether that will be enough to save the Mekong River, however, remains very much in doubt.