While tensions in the South China Sea have the potential for limited skirmishes far out to sea, the competition over the resources of the Mekong River is putting millions at risk of natural disasters, famine and regional instability.
The Mekong River provides a vital lifeline for millions of people in half a dozen countries, from China to Vietnam. The Mekong is one of the world’s most productive inland fisheries, with an annual catch of some 2.6 million tonnes, valued at between $3.9 – 7 billion. 71% of rural Laotian households rely on subsistence fishing on the Mekong, and 1.2 million Cambodians are almost entirely dependent on Tonle Sap Lake, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake that connects to the mighty river. Moreover, the Mekong Delta is home to Vietnam’s rice bowl which feeds tens of millions of people, and underwrites Vietnam’s position as the world’s third largest rice producer.
Each nation on the Mekong river seeks to exploit the waterway, and each bitterly complains about the ‘excesses’ of their upstream neighbours. Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam have collectively built 40 dams on the river, with an additional 80 planned. Each country has also complained about the dams of its upstream neighbours, with Vietnam the most concerned, as it plays host to the river’s exit point into the Pacific, the vitally important (and fertile) Mekong Delta. As each of these countries races to industrialize, they are increasingly at odds over how the river ought to be managed.
That being said, one of the few things downstream nations can agree on is that China is the biggest threat to them all.
China as water gatekeeper
The source of the Mekong is the Tibetan highlands of China. Consequently, China holds immense power over the fate of the Mekong and those of downstream countries. China’s rapid industrialization and quest for clean energy has seen hydro-power become one of the country’s largest sources of energy, second only to coal. China has already constructed seven dams on the Mekong, with another 20 slated for completion in the near future. Since nearly all of the Mekong’s drop in elevation occurs within China’s borders, there is even more incentive for Beijing to harness the river’s full hydroelectric potential. The estimated energy potential of the Upper Mekong Basin is almost 29,000 MW – more than the world’s largest power station, the Three Gorges Dam: the Lower Basin’s potential exceeds 30,000 MW.
Downstream countries have long voiced their fears about declining and erratic water levels as well as a decrease in the amount of sediment washed down from the Chinese highlands. China’s six dam cascade network has the ability to store 23 billion m³ of water – 28% of the Mekong’s annual flow at the Chinese border. While this stored water can be used to supplement downstream water levels during the dry season, thus aiding agriculture and navigation, these benefits can only be reaped if river levels are predictable. This is often not the case, as sporadic water releases occur according to the needs of Chinese electricity and water needs.
Specifically, two Chinese cargo ships were hijacked by drug smugglers in October 2011 and all 13 crew members killed. Following the attack, China temporarily suspended all activity on the river, and launched an international manhunt for the perpetrators. The attack also led to the creation of four nation joint patrols (the first such patrols in Southeast Asia) in 2012, with China supplying 200 police officers from Yunnan province, marking a further expansion of Chinese influence along the river.
Since then, two Chinese citizens were also killed in a suspected bomb blast in January 2016 and one Chinese worker was killed in March 2016 following an attack on a company with Chinese investment. More recently a Chinese worker was gunned down by unknown assailants in Laos in June 2017.
Chinese interests in the region are also facing opposition from local NGOs and ordinary citizens, as demonstrated by protests sparked by Chinese survey efforts for the aforementioned shipping route. Thai protesters stormed the mooring site where Chinese survey ships were docked in May, forcing them to retreat to the Laotian side of the river. Local opposition is mounting across the region against China’s plans; “the only group that will benefit from this is China […] the boats are Chinese boats, the products are Chinese products,” complains Niwat Roykaew, community leader at the Mekong School for Local Knowledge.
The Mekong runs from Tibet to the South China Sea, from one headache for Beijing to another. While China seeks an interconnected super corridor, it is increasingly facing an increasingly volatile situation, one that does not portend smooth sailing.