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Mekong River, the Lifeblood of Southeast Asia, Becomes Geopolitical Battleground

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a3.china.mekong.bangkok.storyOn Aug. 1, diplomats from the United States, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam came together in Bangkok to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Lower Mekong Initiative, or LMI. A multinational partnership established in 2009 between the U.S. and the nations of mainland Southeast Asia (Myanmar joined in 2012), the LMI focuses on health, education and infrastructure development in the lands that rely on Southeast Asia’s most important river.

But as attendees celebrated a decade of cooperation, upriver on the Nam Ou, a tributary of the Mekong in Laos, Chinese contractors were busily working on a series of dams that both threaten the Mekong’s downstream environment and herald China’s expansive, and perhaps newly dominant, presence in the region.

The action hundreds of miles north of Bangkok did not escape the notice of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In opening remarks at the LMI meeting, Pompeo cited the upstream dam construction — a signature piece of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — as the reason for the Mekong’s current decade-low water levels. Similarly, Pompeo decried China’s “extra-territorial” presence on the river, as well as its attempts to rewrite international rules for its governance.

Given the river’s strategic importance as an economic and trade lifeline for Southeast Asia, China’s control of the Mekong could have far-reaching repercussions for the region — and for America’s role in it. Some have even compared Chinese investment in the Mekong with its expansionism in the contested waters of the South China Sea, where Beijing’s military buildup has led to tensions with Washington.

A recent headline in the online Asia Times read “China Winning New Cold War on the Mekong,” in reference to Beijing’s expansive economic diplomacy in the region versus American efforts such as the Lower Mekong Initiative. Is America losing the struggle for influence in the Mekong, as the Times suggests? Are efforts such as the LMI, however worthy, simply too weak to meaningfully impact either geopolitics or environmental policy in Southeast Asia?

According to Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, the LMI “was a solid start toward placing a higher U.S. priority on the Mekong,” but such U.S.-backed efforts will inevitably fall short given China’s geographic proximity to the region and the massive development funds at its disposal. The U.S. simply can’t match what China can do in its own backyard.

In addition, Kurlantzick noted that China “is the most critical actor” in preserving the environmental integrity of the Mekong, where the diversity of fish species is second only to the Amazon. The river starts in the Tibetan Plateau, controlled by China, and runs hundreds of miles through China’s Yunnan Province before reaching Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and then draining into the South China Sea.

China incorporates 21% of the river’s total basin area, only surpassed by Laos and Thailand. What China does upstream, either on its part of the Mekong, called the Lancang Jiang, or on that of its neighbors, affects nearly everyone below. That includes roughly 60 million people who rely on the river and its vast network of life-sustaining waterways for food and jobs.

a3.china.mekong.vietnam.harvest.story

Environmental Dangers

But that downstream dependence is being threatened by development upstream. China’s construction of hydropower dams and its plans to widen the Mekong to make room for larger vessels could wreak havoc on the river’s fragile ecosystem, depleting fish stocks and reducing the flow of sediment to farmers below.

Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program and author of “The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong,” fears that the deluge of massive infrastructure projects could sap what for generations has been the lifeblood of Southeast Asia.

He said China’s current flurry of dam building is only an intimation of what may be to come: A projected 400 dams along the entire Mekong basin, bringing with them an almost incalculably disastrous environmental impact unless significant changes are made to current development models. 

“These [dams] are being built without real consideration of the downstream impact,” Eyler said, noting that the 11 upstream dams that China has completed to date hold back some 47 million liters of water — as much as in the Chesapeake Bay.

“The river system provides so much for these countries,” including 2.6 billion tons of fish catch per year and over 50% of Vietnam’s rice export, he added. “All of this is stressed by upstream dams and industrial development.”

a3.china.mekong.cambodia.rice.storyEyler said there is scant evidence that the Mekong countries are moving toward a more sustainable view of the river in the future. While it might not be the last days of the river, he warned “it could be the last days of the mightiness that defines the economic livelihood of the tens of millions of people who rely on it.”

But there may not be much that people can do about it. Mekong basin countries are heavily reliant on Beijing for trade and investment. That reliance is only set to grow with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which would create a modern-day Silk Road that stretches from Asia to Europe. While Chinese-funded infrastructure projects have sparked local backlash and warnings of debt-trap diplomacy, they have been largely welcomed by less-developed countries such as Cambodia and Laos that struggle with poverty and a lack of cheap electricity.

Critics say the advantages of Chinese development are not worth the risks — which is especially true of hydropower dams that can destroy the livelihoods of farmers and fishermen along the Mekong. But given China’s growing economic clout and its natural geographic advantage, Mekong countries have limited influence over Beijing’s ambitions for the river.

“[D]ownstream countries do not have that much leverage over China,” Kurlantzick said, adding that “it’s unclear what would pressure China to change its current course” of massive development along the Mekong to address environmental concerns. In regards to both politics and the environment, he told us that the U.S. “is never going to be as influential an actor in mainland Southeast Asia” — at least in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar — as China is.


Lower Mekong Initiative

The Lower Mekong Initiative was designed in part to address this problem by enhancing cooperation between the U.S. and Southeast Asia in light of China’s growing presence in the region.

“The LMI is at a turning point,” said Eyler. Like other regional experts, he said that the LMI needed to be revamped because it never had the resources for a larger strategic impact.

“The sense has been that the stakeholders in Southeast Asia felt that the LMI wasn’t really effective,” he told us. “There were never a lot of funds for it, and it wasn’t responding to the needs on the ground as articulated by those stakeholders.”

Part of the problem, Eyler suggested, has been a “soft, behind-the-scenes” approach — such as efforts to improve literacy or skills training for instance — that contrasted poorly with what some perceived as China’s more muscular approach.

But that may be changing, Eyler said. As the Trump administration re-examines its involvement in the Mekong region, there have been calls for the U.S. to respond more vigorously and “start building things” as China is doing, rather than focusing on soft diplomacy alone.

At the Aug. 1 Bangkok meeting, Pompeo announced several new initiatives aimed at reinvigorating the LMI. Among them are a Japan-U.S. Mekong Power Partnership (JUMP) to develop regional electricity grids; additional money for fighting transnational crime, drug smuggling and human trafficking; and an upcoming Indo-Pacific conference focused on strengthening rules-based governance of transboundary rivers, including the Mekong.

But none of these initiatives has much money, and their overall significance, however positive, pales in comparison to China’s development push.

a3.china.mekong.initiative.pompeo.storyHowever, Eyler cautions against seeing the LMI as the only marker of American influence in the region.

“The U.S. effort in the Mekong is very diverse,” he said, “which can create a perception that the country is weak in the region.” While the LMI “draws a spotlight and is viewed as America’s flagship in the Mekong,” Eyler said that “America’s performance is much wider than that.”

He cited a number of USAID projects in the region, as well as thriving trade between the U.S. and Southeast Asia, growing academic and research exchanges, and the presence of numerous Western civil society and conservation organizations. “All are hard at work in the region, and they aren’t connected to the LMI.”

According to Piper Campbell, former chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Mission to ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), the five countries of the Mekong export $74.3 billion in goods to the U.S., and over 1,000 U.S. companies now operate in the Mekong region, making it one of the most attractive areas in the world for U.S. investment.

In fact, economically, times have been good for a sizable portion of the 70 million-plus people who live within the Mekong River basin and the nearly 243 million who populate the countries its waterways reach.

“These countries have definitely fulfilled their promise in terms of growth, especially Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar,” said Edmund Malesky, an expert on Southeast Asia at Duke University. “Economically, they are among the fastest-growing in the world. Over the past three decades, Vietnam has been the fastest growing, just after China, with 7% growth a year and more coming.”

Malesky credited this economic expansion to various factors. In those countries with more centralized, planned economies, governments have succeeded in fostering growth by “getting out of the way,” reducing regulations and making it easier for entrepreneurs to set up shop, as China did during its economic rise.

Mekong Mimics China’s Journey

But like China, economic growth has not translated into democratic gains along the Mekong. If anything, the trend has been in the opposite direction, toward more illiberal politics and entrenched authoritarianism.

Thailand, the only Mekong country with some semblance of a functioning democracy, has nevertheless been plagued by military coups throughout much of its history. Its current prime minister is a former general — and leader of the most recent coup in 2014 — who came into office by means of a highly suspect election after his military junta cracked down on the opposition and changed the constitution.

In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, effectively eliminated opposition parties in 2018, making his country a virtual single-party state. His government has also shut down independent media outlets and civil society groups. While the United States has cut aid to Cambodia and repeatedly denounced Hun Sen — who extended his rule after winning elections last July that were widely seen as a farce — the dictator has been largely insulated from outside pressure thanks to financial and political backing from Beijing.

a3.china.mekong.red.shirt.bangkok.storyMeanwhile, Vietnam has followed China’s path by liberalizing its economy but preserving a communist system that maintains an iron grip on power.

Hopes for Myanmar, placed in Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi after her National League for Democracy’s historic victory in 2015, have been dashed, too, amid ongoing persecution and displacement of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. The United Nations has called the Burmese military’s assault on the Rohingya “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

“It’s not obvious that economic growth will generate democracies,” said Malesky. “If anything, the economic growth in these countries has consolidated decision-making institutionally, rather than broadening it. In all of these countries, there’s been a consolidation of power and a removal of institutional actors that could veto that power.”

The silencing of opposition voices is what concerns Olivia Enos, an expert in human rights and Asian national security at the Heritage Foundation who recently testified before Congress about human rights abuses in Southeast Asia.

She said that we have learned from the experience of China that “economic liberalization does not automatically lead to political and human rights. That was an assumption we made when we opened up to China decades ago.”

Today, the same assumptions are being made of Mekong countries. “We have seen economic growth, but not transformation of the political landscape,” Enos said, warning policymakers not to conflate economic liberalization with civil freedoms, citing Cambodia and Myanmar as “real backsliders” with regards to human rights.

Although Enos does not charge the current U.S. administration with ignoring these challenges, she believes the American response to human rights abuses in Southeast Asia “has been inconsistent” because of fears that U.S. criticism could drive countries like Cambodia and Myanmar closer to China.

“That’s a common refrain, that we will push them into China’s arms,” Enos said. “But these countries are going to engage with both China and the U.S. anyway. They don’t respond well when we try to make them choose between the two.”

She argues that the right policy is “to lay our fears about China aside and maintain our concern for human rights. We have to continue to promote our values in the region.”

U.S.-China Competition

But in a rapidly growing region hungry for trade and investment, money often speaks louder than human rights rhetoric.

a3.china.mekong.vietnam.rice.storyAccording to the February 2019 report “Democracy at a Crossroads in Southeast Asia” by Jonathan Stromseth and Hunter Marston, China is Cambodia’s largest foreign investor and donor, giving “nearly four times” the amount of bilateral aid as the U.S. did in a recent year. Likewise, Chinese trade with its Southeast Asian neighbors dwarfs that of the U.S., with bilateral trade between China and its five Mekong counterparts totaling $220 billion in 2017, compared to $109 in two-way trade with the U.S. in 2018.

Stromseth and Marston warn that “China offers a governance model that could appeal to leaders seeking economic growth opportunities without commensurate political liberties or constraints on their power.”

China has even challenged the U.S.-led Lower Mekong Initiative with its own rival version called the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Framework, or LMC, which has offered Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam lucrative aid programs and loan packages to support dozens of development projects and strengthen cross-border cooperation.

Despite China’s inroads in the region, the U.S. continues to push forward with its own brand of soft diplomacy. Since its inception, the Lower Mekong Initiative has given 340,000 people access to clean drinking water, trained 1,000 teachers in STEM curriculum and supported hundreds of women business owners.

Various U.S. actors are also working to highlight the importance of the Mekong Delta. In June, the Meridian International Center in D.C. hosted a forum to discuss the political, economic and cultural linkages between the U.S. and mainland Southeast Asia, a region that is often left out of media coverage and geopolitical debates.

“We saw this as an opportunity to draw attention to U.S. work in a region that is strategically important, given its proximity to China, but also overlooked here in Washington,” said Frank Justice, vice president of the Center for Diplomatic Engagement at Meridian.

The Meridian Center has been involved with the LMI since its inception, coordinating over 60 international leadership exchanges and organizing the last four LMI regional working groups that took place in Southeast Asia.

Justice said the goal is to spark conversations “that don’t easily happen elsewhere” and to bring people together in educational and cultural settings “who might otherwise never be in the same room at the same time.”

While political concerns often dominate America’s discussions with Mekong countries, Justice said it’s important to engage in cultural diplomacy while letting others focus on the thornier, more divisive, political issues in the hopes of building relationships that could lead to closer cooperation down the line.

“Will that lead to more democratic processes in these countries?” Justice reflected. “It’s hard to tell. We’re in this for the long game. The changes might not come today. But in the long term, who knows?”


About the Author

Deryl Davis is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on August 29, 2019