While the world focuses on artificial island militarization, power competition, as well as the recent Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the South China Sea, there is another security frontier that needs attention. The river security of the Mekong has emerged as another area of growing contestation and I argue that despite its lower international profile and arguably lower global impact, this sub-region will have a determining factor on China’s relations with Southeast Asia.
Stretching 4,345 km over six countries, the Mekong sustains the livelihoods of about 60 million people and the Mekong countries are home to about 300 million people. The river is one of the world’s most strategically important trans-boundary waterways. The countries of the Lower Mekong — Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam — are producers of 15 percent of the world’s total rice.
Vietnam is situated on the Lower Mekong, at its estuary to the sea. The region around the Mekong delta (in the Vietnamese language, the Song Cuu Long — the River of Nine Dragons, and “the mother of water” in Thai and Lao) is also known as “the bowl of rice,” concentrating one fourth of the total agriculture of the country, and is also the country’s most important fishing region. However, due to its low elevation, the Mekong delta is prone to floods as the sea level rises. In fact, Vietnam has been estimated as one of the countries that would be affected most severely by climate change. The immediate effect is soil salinization which destroys the cultivation of the country’s most important agricultural products including rice (yields are now the lowest in 8 years), coffee, sugarcane, and fruit. This year’s El Nino has exacerbated the effect of Chinese dams along the Mekong, threatening an ecological disaster. For Vietnam, the drought has become the worst in 90 years. Due to the impact of El Nino and hydropower dams along the Upper Mekong, Vietnam’s agriculture and fisheries are experiencing large-scale damage. The Vietnamese government is frantic in responding to the natural disaster that can pose severe food security challenges as well as impact the national economy.
Environmental, agricultural, and water security concerns are heightened by the 39 hydropower dams along the Mekong in China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Such large-scale interference on the river is bound to have tremendous ecological consequences, like endangering irrigation for agriculture, access to drinking water, and putting millions of people’s livelihoods in jeopardy. Vietnam, being at the end of the chains of dams, is particularly vulnerable to the “water management” of its neighbors. At the moment already 340,000 families are reported to be experiencing water shortages, and thousands of people in the agricultural sector have migrated to the cities looking for employment opportunities. The losses in the agricultural sector are estimated at USD 250 million, while the total losses in the fisheries and farming sectors are estimated at USD 780 million. As the mega-draught hits, all the Mekong countries that rely heavily on agriculture will become even more dependent on China’s release of water.
In early March, the leaders of the Mekong countries met in Xishuangbanna, China, and announced sub-regional cooperation under the initiative called the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism (LMCM),1 which had been initiated in 2014. China is a member of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), an initiative that has been supported by the Asian Development Bank since 1992, and is also a dialogue member of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which was established by Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam in 1995. By establishing another collaboration mechanism, China wants to take the leading role and shape the rules of cooperation, and more specifically, to make sure that external actors are excluded from Mekong matters. The US Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), announced by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009, although of relatively limited impact, has sparked some concern in Beijing. Washington’s initiative concentrates on the Lower Mekong, which excludes China, and by placing a strong emphasis on ecology and sustainable development, distinguishes itself from the Chinese approach. China’s dam and water diversion strategies serve dual functions: as an effective bargaining tool, especially with those neighbors whose ties with China are testy; and as a mechanism for hydro-diplomacy, just like the LMCM and other partnerships with which China can deepen its influence and weaken other riparian coalitions.
China’s “river assertiveness” has caused concern not only among the Mekong countries, but also globally, given the scope of potential ecological damage to one of the world’s richest ecosystems.
Looking strategically at the Mekong, Vietnam is wary of the good intentions of the “upstream superpower” that were expressed at the launch of the LMCM. Hanoi fears that China’s hegemonic ambitions are not only expressed in the maritime domain but are now also translated in monopolizing fresh water management. China is not only challenging Vietnam’s maritime economy but now also the agricultural economy along the Mekong. While most of Hanoi’s recent military, diplomatic, and even economic efforts were motivated by the maritime dispute over the South China Sea, insufficient strategic attention was given to the waters of the Mekong.
Hanoi in recent years has sought to “escape China’s orbit” by building ties with the US, Japan, and other key actors in the region, as well as building up its military. In terms of economic security, joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will help Vietnam diversify its trade markets and weaken its economic dependence on China. All these are attempts to minimize China’s influence. But despite securing options in the trade and service sectors, Vietnam’s agricultural production is still heavily dependent on China’s goodwill, as exemplified in how much water to release from its dams and when. Given that the Cambodian government is “entirely at the mercy of Beijing,” and Laos is not in a much better situation, the Vietnamese government is apprehensive about falling out of China’s favor. Compared with the multiple stakeholders’ interests in the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, it will be more difficult for Vietnam to attract external powers’ attention and assistance in Mekong matters.
The Mekong sub-region is also a point of interest for great powers like Japan, which has a track record of supporting the development of the Mekong countries. The US has limited interests in mainland Southeast Asia, but has recognized the importance of the river as well as the threat of China’s absolute domination over this rich agricultural area. In the wake of regional great power rivalry, the Southeast Asian region is important for external powers for strategic, diplomatic, and economic reasons. The mainland Southeast Asian countries, often referred to as “the CLMV” (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) second tier. It is a sub-region that is undergoing rapid transformation, but at the same time bears the pressure of catching up with the older ASEAN members, emerging as the weaker links in the region. In providing development assistance and investing in the CLMV, external power helps ASEAN narrow down the development gap, and hence has an important role in realizing the ASEAN Community.
The major powers, although being external actors, play an important role in shaping the region. All of them see engagement with the CLMV as a channel to improve their relationship with the entire ASEAN. Japan and China have been top foreign aid donors as well as investors in mainland Southeast Asia, and have taken the lead in initiatives assisting the development of the Mekong river basin. There are distinct divergences as well as some resemblances between both powers’ penetration in this sub-region. The US’ engagement in mainland Southeast Asia has been lagging behind, as its connections with the maritime countries of Southeast Asia have traditionally been stronger. With its Lower Mekong Initiative, Washington hopes to mark its interests in this sub-region.
China’s “river assertiveness” has caused concern not only among the Mekong countries, but also globally, given the scope of potential ecological damage to one of the world’s richest ecosystems. China’s hydroelectric dams jeopardize the ecosystems and livelihoods of the mainland Southeast Asian states, cumulating hydropower capacity, limiting access to drinking water, and interfering with fish migration and breeding, which affects the food sustainability of the region. Politically, China’s “resource-dependence” power-attaining strategy, here expressed in its monopolization of water utilization, has become a new normal. In contrast, Japan supports the Green Mekong Initiative that works on a multilateral basis and promotes shared values, rule of law, and sustainable development. Both the US’ and Japan’s new engagement with the sub-region can be seen as responses to China’s rising prominence in Southeast Asia. From the domestic point of view, Japan’s investment in Southeast Asia aims to rejuvenate industries and businesses as a part of its New Growth Strategy to help the stagnant economy.
All in all, the great powers are increasingly looking at the Mekong for geostrategic reasons as well as domestic economic imperatives. For the Mekong countries, the major powers’ involvement will be essential in securing environmental, agricultural, and water sustainability.
1. In Chinese, the Mekong is referred to as “Lancang.”