China’s Shadow Looms Over the Mekong Skip to main content

China’s Shadow Looms Over the Mekong

Fishermen and farmers in downstream countries are protesting the impact of China's dams. But experts say that the dams also give China a huge potential for geopolitical influence.
China's Manwan Dam in Yunnan province, Sept. 18, 2009.
WASHINGTON—Experts are raising concerns over the strategic implications of China’s construction of Mekong River dams.

China plans eight dams, four of which have been built. Moreover, according to Richard Cronin, head of the Southeast Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, Cambodia and Laos are planning 11 dams on the lower half of the Mekong, four involving Chinese developers.

At issue is the dams' interference with food fish spawning and migration, which, Cronin said, has already been observed in China's southern Yunnan province and northern Laos since the Manwan Dam came online in 1993.

Now that the massive Xiaowan Dam has been completed, China’s ability to store or release huge quantities of water to meet changing power demands and support dry-season navigation is expected to have impacts on fisheries far down the river. The impact could reach as far as the Tonle Sap in Cambodia, if not the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

These water levels are important because of such direct effects as their impact on downstream agriculture and potential for flooding. Downstream dams’ year-around operation and generation of electricity also depend on sufficient water coming down from China.

Marvin C. Ott, professor of national security policy at the National War College, said the project would appear to be a boon for Chinese strategists interested in increasing China’s geopolitical influence in Southeast Asia, which he believes “is a central Chinese preoccupation for its strategic community.”

Cambodian officials, for example, he said, might be relatively successfully trying to maintain a sovereign foreign and security policy, balancing the influence of surrounding countries and the United States, “but now, suddenly, China has a lever … that changes the whole calculus.”

'Cusp of a major change'

Vietnam Boat Mekong.JPG
Boats stranded at low tide in the Mekong Delta, Nov. 29, 2009.
“Now, China’s will, China’s preferences, China’s needs, China’s interest become overriding. And, in a nutshell, that’s where this is going in my opinion. The Mekong River states, and part of the watershed, the river system and so on, are now—almost overnight—in a position where they find themselves with a Chinese sword at their throat.”

“The sense of China’s capacity to do dramatic things to your economy, to your population, to the life of your country, is almost without precedent. I mean, short of a military occupation, this is as strong as influence can get,” he said.

Ott described regional geopolitics as being “on the cusp of a major change in China’s favor.”

However, although he believes that the geopolitical implications of the dam projects are crucial, he said they have been little discussed in Washington or in Southeast Asia, in part because the regional implications are so spectacular and so potentially damaging that officials are reluctant to think about it.

The situation is so dramatic, so sudden, so without precedent, he said, “if I’m Lao, I’m Cambodian, I’m Vietnamese, maybe even Thai, I … sort of avert my eyes. I don’t want to think about it because the implications are so stunning and put me in a world that is so different from everything I’ve known historically, that it’s going to be very hard to come to terms with.”

James Clad, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, said China’s presence and impact, potential and real, on the Mekong is “so predominant, so overwhelming, that it does affect, literally, the ability of these countries to continue earning a living, irrigating their fields in the way that they’ve been accustomed to for millennia.”

He called the dams’ construction “probably the most dramatic use of water resources to reorder a geopolitical area that I’ve ever seen.”

China’s expansion of influence

China, according to Cronin, is essentially expanding its economy and political influence in a way “that will make the Mekong a system that works to China’s advantage and to the disadvantage to the Lower Mekong countries.”

Larry M. Wortzel, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in Washington, said that because China is upstream, “it gets the maximum benefits of the Mekong and it’s not taking into account the interests of the downstream countries with its dam construction.”

Wortzel said that consequently China’s dam construction effort “is already lowering water levels in Cambodia and Vietnam.” Moreover, he cited concerns in Vietnam that some of the diversion of Mekong waters is affecting the fish catches downstream and the water levels in Cambodia and Vietnam, and has already had an economic effect.

One particular area of concern is the “flood pulse” in Cambodia’s Tonle Sap River, which joins the Mekong at Phnom Penh.

Annual monsoon floods now force waters up the Tonle Sap River into the Tonle Sap Lake, bringing fish and fish eggs with them and expanding the lake. The lake’s subsequent shrinkage releases a new generation of fish into the Mekong, along with enough water for a third rice crop in Vietnam’s Delta.

Ott cited this, saying “the Tonle Sap, the great lake of central Cambodia, the very lifeblood of Cambodian culture, society, history and economy, will become controllable from China.”

The Tonle Sap, he said, “will, in effect, become a basin that China can fill or empty at will.”

Vietnam is another area of concern, because of a potential decrease in the flow of silt and water into the Mekong Delta.

The densely populated delta provides a substantial portion of Vietnam’s rice crop. It is therefore dependent on water and silt flowing down from upstream countries.

This may also have broader strategic implications.

Professor Carlyle A. Thayer of the Australia Defense Force Academy in Canberra noted that Vietnam exports rice, which means the dams’ construction could not only affect Vietnam’s population, but countries relying on Vietnamese rice. It could also affect Vietnam’s economic power—and therefore, indirectly, its ability to support its military.

Inability to deal with China

Vietnam Mekong.JPG
A Vietnamese boy washes up after working on a fishing boat, Nov. 29, 2009.
Cronin said downstream countries’ governments “are not sufficiently aware of what they’re buying into,” and he cited a “science policy gap,” meaning that the Mekong countries do not realize all the costs of the damage they are doing.

“So that acquires a strategic or geostrategic component … which is very dangerous, ultimately, to peace and security and stability in the region,” he said.

A major risk, he said, is that the Chinese and Lower Mekong dams will destroy more livelihoods and jobs than can be replaced by the value of the dams’ electricity—which could produce instability.

Laos, Cronin said, is looking at the income from its dams, mainly from electricity, but is “looking through the wrong end of the telescope.”

He said Lao officials “see revenues for the government, which allegedly would be used to reduce poverty in the country. But in fact, those revenues will come at a price of a huge cost to be borne by the poorer people of Laos—the people that depend on the river for their farms and their fishing livelihoods.”

Vietnam, Cronin said, has been publicly “very cautious” about objecting to China, focusing more on asking China for more information and for more transparency on what it is doing.

“But privately,” he said, “they are alarmed, and they’re extremely worried because they see a kind of a pincers movement from China—from the north on the Mekong and its ability to damage the delta, and on the South China Sea, encroaching into what normally would be Vietnam’s so-called 'EEZ' exclusive economic zone, where there have been many strikes of oil and gas.”

Cronin said that Laos and Cambodia are now “going with the flow, going with the rising Chinese influence.”

At the same time, though, he said, "they are becoming uncomfortable—not so much as the Vietnamese yet—but they've become uncomfortable with the idea of being left alone in Southeast Asia with China."

Officially, he said, the governments and officials seem pleased with what China is doing, but at the same time, "they're getting a little nervous that China is too big—too powerful—and they would like to see more of a geopolitical balance."

“They won’t tell you that, but the reality is Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam all do welcome a more balanced geopolitical environment,” he said.

The problem, Clad said, is that the countries affected have to be careful about what they say in public, though privately they are “very deeply worried.”

China blames drought

The Mekong is now facing its worst drought in decades, causing severe water shortages in the lower half of the river.

The Mekong River Commission said in February that the current water level on the mainstream Mekong is “significantly below average” in northern Laos and Thailand, and that all levels measured north of Stung Treng in Cambodia were “significantly below the average” for this time of year and were expected to continue to drop during the next month. Water levels in southwestern China, the commission said, had “been at their lowest in 50 years."

The low Mekong levels, the commission said, were the result of drought conditions in northern Thailand and Laos and were part of a wider regional drought upstream in Yunnan.

Although unusual weather is the main problem, NGOs and civil society activists also accuse China of withholding water in its Yunnan dams, according to Cronin.

Chen Dehai, counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok said March 11 that the drop in Mekong water levels is not due to China’s dams.

Chen noted that the whole Mekong Basin—including Yunnan—is experiencing a serious drought, according to China’s official Xinhua news service.

Xinhua’s report also said that Chen told reporters that China has been taking concerns of Lower Mekong countries into consideration while developing hydropower and will not take actions that harm the interests of those countries.



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