Will the Mekong River Really Become the Next South China Sea?

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Will the Mekong River Really Become the Next South China Sea?

Amid competition between China and the U.S., the question of the river’s fate has been imbued with a strategic undercurrent.

Will the Mekong River Really Become the Next South China Sea?

A silhouette of a boatman at sunset on the Mekong River in Vientiane, Laos.

Credit: Depositphotos

In recent years, the fate of Southeast Asia’s great river – the Mekong – has attracted growing international scrutiny. The Mekong faces many challenges, from the impacts of climate change and saline encroachment in its delta, to dam developments on the headwaters of the river inside China. All of these concerns have been magnified by the intensifying strategic competition between the United States and China, which has imbued the question of the Mekong’s future with a strategic undercurrent.

Ming Li Yong, a fellow at the East-West Center who has researched transboundary water governance and hydropower development in the Mekong River Basin, spoke to The Diplomat about comparisons between the Mekong and the South China Sea, the impacts and implications of China’s upstream hydropower development, and the future of transboundary governance of the river and its resources.

In recent times, it has become fashionable to compare the Mekong River to the South China Sea, as a potential strategic flashpoint between China and its various rivals and adversaries. Do you see this a valid comparison?

This is not quite a valid comparison, although it may appear that China’s role in driving the contestations surrounding the Mekong River and the South China Sea may be similar at first glance. In such comparisons, China is perceived to be asserting control over critical natural resources to gain geopolitical and geoeconomic advantage in the region: non-renewable oil and gas resources and critical navigation routes in the South China Sea, and the river’s headwaters in the Mekong River Basin. Tensions arising from one realm may also spillover to the other, therefore raising concerns over these issues becoming a potential strategic flashpoint in the broader context of China-Southeast Asia relations.

However, the South China Sea dispute is fundamentally driven by competing territorial claims and accompanied by militarization and the threat of military conflict, and is therefore tied to traditional security threats to national sovereignty. In contrast, contestations over the Mekong River take place over the inequitable use of the river’s waters, particularly in relation to upstream and downstream water users, have little to do with military conflict, and are tied to non-traditional security threats in relation to water and food security.

Relationships between nation-states in the case of the Mekong River are also characterized by cooperation across multiple sectors and a recognition of sovereign rights to pursue economic development, rather than conflict. For example, cooperation over water resources in the lower Mekong has taken place through the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission (MRC), and through various regional frameworks.

Even where hydropower development has highlighted concerns around the inequitable use of the river’s waters, this has to be contextualized in the wider dynamics of cross-border energy trade through the development of a regional power grid, which is seen by Mekong region governments as a way to improve energy security, infrastructural connectivity, and economic cooperation in the region.

The U.S. and (more quietly) Japanese officials are increasingly highlighting the damage posed by Chinese upstream dam projects, and have highlighted a range of Mekong initiatives to compete with the China-backed Lancang Mekong Cooperation mechanism. Can you describe to our readers how the lower Mekong nations have handled this increased attention to the region?

Overall, lower Mekong nations and the MRC have been relatively muted in their criticisms of China. During the 2016 drought, China agreed to Vietnam’s request to release water from dams on its section of the Mekong River, for which Vietnam publicly expressed its gratitude. Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam also all have a stake in existing or planned hydropower dams or water resources development projects either on the mainstream of the Mekong River and its tributaries, and are likely to be cognizant that their criticisms of water resources development elsewhere in the basin may have negative impacts on their future plans for the river’s waters.

Lower Mekong nations and the MRC have largely handled this issue through efforts to engage China in better data sharing to improve water resources cooperation. It is also important to note that the prolonged drought that hit the Mekong region from 2019 to 2022, alongside domestic criticisms of Chinese dams, especially in the case of Thailand, have played a key role in amplifying these concerns.

In January 2020, Thailand’s Office of Natural Water Resources (ONWR) said that it would make it a “top priority” to raise to MRC community concerns over water level fluctuations and the lack of timely notification in relation to water restrictions and releases from China dams. The ONWR also called for improved and timely data exchanges from China and Laos, and for these information exchanges to be formalized in the long-term.

It was within the context of increasing attention to the negative impacts of the Lancang dam cascade from multiple fronts that China agreed in October 2020 to share year-round data from two hydrological stations with the MRC, which was hailed by the then-MRC CEO An Pich Hatda as “a landmark in the history of China-MRC cooperation.” Previously, only wet season data was shared. However, concerns over the transparency and timeliness of data relating to China’s dam operations remain.

How has China responded to the claims about the impacts that its dam-building are having on downstream nations, and do you see any signs that Beijing is willing to engage in genuine dialogue on these issues with the nations downstream?

The extent to which water storage in China’s dams have exacerbated the recent and prolonged drought in the Mekong region is still an area of debate and uncertainty, which again reflects the push for further transparency around China’s dam operations. China has thus far stood by its assertion that its dams are beneficial for lower Mekong countries, due to their “regulating” impact that would reduce flooding in the wet season, and increase water availability during times of drought and the dry season that would in turn improve navigation and trade along the river.

It is unlikely that China will change its narrative on this issue, with recent articles in the Chinese media pushing back against “another round of bashing Chinese hydropower stations” by “Western media outlets.” Rather, they have reiterated the beneficial nature of hydropower dams, noted that research from Tsinghua University had found that the Lancang dam cascade had increased runoff during the dry season, and have stressed that China is a good neighbor to downstream states.

As mentioned above, cooperation between China and lower Mekong states are likely to take place in the realm of data sharing and technical cooperation to manage these issues, although uncertainties remain over the extent to which China will be willing to meaningfully engage in timely data sharing over dam operations. It is possible that some progress may be made as technical cooperation may sometimes provide a useful apolitical space to engage in discussions, but this is unlikely to change the dominant discourses espoused by the Chinese government.

Nonetheless, in analyzing these issues going forward it will be necessary to recognize that “China” is not a monolithic entity and that these issues cannot be viewed only through the lens of strategic geopolitical competition. Rather, these developments should also be contextualized within the relationships and priorities existing between the Chinese national government, provincial and local level governments, state-owned enterprises, and the energy sector in China.

One possible valid parallel to the South China Sea disputes is the fact that Southeast Asian nations are not united in their approach to the Mekong River. This is not just true of the maritime nations, which have no direct interest in the fate of the river and its resources, but also among the mainland Southeast Asian nations themselves. Do you see any signs that the four downstream nations (five if you include Myanmar) are seeking to speak with one voice on issues pertaining to the Mekong’s preservation?

This is a valid and interesting point. Unfortunately, in the case of the Mekong River Basin, governments have often privileged economic development taking place in tandem with water resources development over the ecological conservation of the river. This is not to say that Mekong governments have not been concerned about the ecological impacts of hydropower development on the river. Based on my research in Thailand and Cambodia, government agencies that deal with fisheries and water resources have been genuinely concerned with these impacts, but these concerns are often overridden by more powerful, revenue-generating agencies such as energy ministries and state utilities.

Each government has economic incentives in developing hydropower dams on the Mekong River, and this complex web of interests extends beyond the common narrative defined by upstream-downstream dynamics. Hydropower development is a core economic pillar in the Lao government’s development plans; Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam are purchasers of Lao hydropower and have constructed dams on Mekong tributaries; Thai and Vietnamese companies are investors in Lao hydropower dams; and Cambodia appears to have revived plans for a major dam on the Mekong’s mainstream. Infrastructural development that impacts the Mekong River also take place across different sectors apart from energy, such as agriculture and urban development.

Rather, it is riverine communities and civil society in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam that have had the strongest voice calling for the Mekong’s valuable ecosystem services to be preserved, particularly for the sake of the millions of people who depend on the river for their ways of life, livelihoods, and food security. Notwithstanding the breadth of narratives and perspectives that make up the civil society coalition that has opposed hydropower development along the Mekong River, they have been able to create a strong counter-narrative that has challenged the feasibility and perceived sustainability of hydropower development.

Until recently, the primary transnational organization for managing transboundary issues related to the Mekong River was the Mekong River Commission (MRC). How would you rate the MRC’s success in managing these issues up until this point? Where are how does the Chinese-backed Lancang Mekong Cooperation (LMC) platform differ from the MRC?

I would say that the MRC has had a mixed record in managing these issues. The growing pace of harmful hydropower development has often been perceived as the MRC’s lack of effectiveness in managing transboundary issues. This is in part due to several limitations surrounding the 1995 Mekong Agreement. First, China is not a member of the MRC. Second, member countries cannot veto proposed development projects. Third, consultation procedures only apply to projects on the mainstream of the river and not its tributaries. Finally, the river is simplified into a watercourse, failing to account for the complex ecosystem services.

Nonetheless, the MRC, whose formation was based on rules that create some degree of state-to-state obligations for the reasonable and equitable use of the Mekong River’s waters, still provides a stronger framework to manage water resources development than the LMC. This is because within the LMC, water resources management only forms one of the many dimensions of cooperation that span economic, political, and cultural realms.

The MRC has played an important role as a knowledge producer, and has sometimes leveraged this scientific expertise to influence water governance outcomes. For example, the MRC-commissioned Strategic Environmental Assessment on Hydropower on the Mekong Mainstream, the MRC’s Council Study reports, and the MRC’s technical reviews of proposed mainstream hydropower dam projects have provided critical assessments of hydropower development. Important information has also been disseminated through the MRC’s Prior Consultation process that is applied to proposed dam projects on the river’s mainstream.

However, there are lingering concerns that the majority of local communities remain excluded from consultation processes, that these processes are still plagued by poor-quality environmental impact assessments that fail to accurately account for transboundary impacts. A growing focus on mitigation and monitoring could also mean that the MRC is increasingly unwilling to challenge the fundamental feasibility of ecologically damaging infrastructural projects. Hydropower development aside, the MRC may also face challenges in tackling other cross-sectoral issues (e.g. agriculture, sand mining, navigation) that have implications for water resources management, particularly if they fall outside the purview of the 1995 Mekong Agreement.