By Heejin Han

Governance of the Mekong River: Is it Doomed?

Mar. 10, 2016  |     |  0 comments

With a total length of 4900 kilometers, the Mekong River is one of the dozen largest rivers in the world. Its basin area covers a landmass that is as large as 795,000 square kilometers. Historically, the river has served various functions for the communities and people in the basin area. The river has been harnessed for hydroelectricity, agriculture, including rice cultivation, fishery, navigation, and transportation, to name a few (Boer et al., 2016). Beyond these practical and material values of the river, the Mekong and its basin area have ecological values arising from its rich ecosystem diversity.

A total of six countries — China (its Yunnan Province, in particular), Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand — have relied on the river for generations. This shared use of the river in the absence of clear ownership makes the river a regional transboundary common pool resource. In order for this river to continue to serve various beneficial functions in a sustainable manner, an effective basin-wide river governance mechanism is called for.

At the moment, at least two institutions help promote the sustainable governance of the river. First, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) was launched officially in April in 1995 by four lower riparian states of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam as they signed the Agreement on Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin. As a successor to the Mekong Committee established under the auspices of the UN and the active involvement of the US, the MRC promotes the sustainable development of the water resources of the Mekong River through cooperation and coordination among its member states. China joined the Commission only as a dialogue partner. The second institution is a regional cooperative mechanism called the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS). Launched by the Asian Development Bank in 1992, GMS aims to integrate the Mekong region via infrastructure development projects in the fields of energy, transport, and communication. Even though all six countries participate in this program, its focus is largely confined to infrastructure development and economic cooperation. So despite the existence of these two institutions, they remain either weak or limited. Thus, the countries in the Mekong River Basin have yet to establish a comprehensive multilateral institution equipped with binding rules and enforcement mechanisms.

In order for this river to continue to serve various beneficial functions in a sustainable manner, an effective basin-wide river governance mechanism is called for.

However, existing studies on transboundary rivers and interstate relationships surrounding them argue that self-interested states would not find it in their interest to establish such regional multilateral institutions due to asymmetric interests (Lindemann, 2008; Wallensteen and Swain 1995). In his book, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, Chellaney (2011) also presents a highly pessimistic picture of water politics in Asia by arguing that “the intercountry water disputes and geopolitical competition over transboundary basin resources actually pose a greater threat to peace and stability in a continent already troubled by festering territorial and resource disputes” (p. 3). Some studies maintain that China, in particular, does not have any incentive to negotiate its use of the river with downstream countries and contribute to the formation of working regional water governance mechanisms (Chellaney, 2011; Menniken, 2007). The unwillingness on the part of this regional superpower to collaborate with the other parties renders any attempt to establish a basin-wide institution futile, they argue. They point out how China has engaged in unilateral development of the Mekong River by building dams and by contemplating a large-scale water diversion project to transfer water to its arid regions (Liebman, 2005). So these studies conclude that as long as China’s economic growth and improving living standards require energy and water, China will continue to exploit the river, much to the detriment of the downstream countries’ interests and the sustainability of the river. Furthermore, as the power gap between China and its neighboring countries grows larger, there seems to be even fewer reasons that China would want to collaborate with much weaker downstream countries in Southeast Asia.

Despite these arguments steeped in realist perspectives, there are a few reasons for a positive outlook. First, the six riparian states have deepened their economic, social, and diplomatic relationships over time, particularly in the past two decades or so. They have interacted with one another in the aforementioned MRC and GMS, gradually building confidence and trust. These states have also collaborated with one another through ASEAN and its Mekong Basin Development Cooperation. Furthermore, there has been growing economic interdependence forged not just by state entities but also by non-state actors including firms. For instance, the riparian states have become enmeshed in complex patterns of interaction as they take part in hydropower development and electricity purchase agreements. While China has long been blamed for its unilateral hydropower development, all riparian states and firms from these countries have become increasingly involved in developing dams jointly as investors, developers, and electricity purchasers (Mehtonen, 2008). This complex interdependence makes all states stakeholders interested in a more sustainable governance of the river. That is, if these states and businesses would like to continue to benefit from the use of the Mekong River into the future, it would become much more urgent for them to develop a well-functioning regional water governance mechanism.

Second, despite concerns about rising China’s aggressive intensions, China has become much more cooperative in matters relating to the Mekong River as it has risen as a regional great power. For instance, it has been particularly cooperative in matters related with navigation and patrolling. It has also shared hydrological information of the Lancang River (the Chinese name for the upstream part of the Mekong River) and has engaged in technical discussion with the MRC signatories for flood management and alleviation. In April 2015, China hosted the first senior officials’ meeting of the Lancang-Mekong River Dialogue and Cooperation that it proposed during the China-ASEAN Summit held in Myanmar in 2014 and agreed to work more closely with other riparian states. This increasing attention to the Mekong River’s governance issues at the Chinese central government level marks a departure from its past approach of devolving the Mekong-related issues to Yunnan Province. China’s more proactive approach to the Mekong River issue partially reflects the fact that Southeast Asia has become increasingly important for its economic and strategic interests as it has risen to be a regional hegemon and global superpower. As China enters a seeming relationship of rivalry with the US as the latter re-engages itself with Southeast Asia, this region has become more prominent in China’s strategic calculation and for its continuous development into a powerful state. China has felt the need to reassure its neighbors that it is a cooperative regional hegemon in order to continue to benefit from the regional peace and stability, which is required for its continuous economic growth. Moreover, regional cooperation is crucial for the success of China-designed multilateral institutions and its soft power offensive, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). As China’s economic and political stakes in the region rises, China is likely to deepen its cooperation with the Southeast Asian downstream countries for more sustainable governance of the Mekong River. In fact, studies show that China has been willing to negotiate transboundary water issues with states with which it has strategic and economic interests (Biba, 2014).

China has become much more cooperative in matters relating to the Mekong River as it has risen as a regional great power.

Finally, existing studies on watershed management (Lubell et al., 2002) suggest that increasingly mounting problems and weaknesses of existing institutions lead to the emergence of new institutions in the form of partnerships. Of course, such a process is not automatic because the actors negotiating and bargaining for such arrangements need to overcome transaction costs and resolve the issue of heterogeneity in preferences among stakeholders. Here, the collective action situation in which the states of the Mekong River basin find themselves does not necessarily bode ill for the emergence of more cooperative mechanisms. The continuous engagement in existing river management mechanisms and increasing economic interdependence has generated more trust and social capital among actors over time, which can help reduce the transaction cost. The countries also find it in their interest to manage the river in a sustainable manner for their continuous economic prosperity, towards which their preferences converge. The rise of private and non-state actors in the region based on these countries’ economic development can also contribute to the generation of social capital and knowledge, which will serve as the foundation for more sustainable governance of the river in the long run.

So to conclude, there are reasons to be a bit more hopeful about the collaborative governance of the Mekong River. Contrary to some realist predictions, the countries along the Mekong River do not seem to be heading toward a collision course. Instead, what we see today is a higher level of cooperation and integration.


Biba, S. (2014). Desecuritization in China’s behavior towards its transboundary tivers: The Mekong River, The Brahmaputra River, and The Irtysh and Ili Rivers. Journal of Contemporary China, 23(85), 21-43.

Boer, B., Hirsh, P., Johns, F., Saul, D., and Scurrah, N. (2016). The Mekong: A Socio-Legal Approach to River Basin Development. New York: Routledge.

Chellaney, B. (2011). Water: Asia’s New Battleground. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Liebman, A. (2005). Trickle-down hegemony? China’s ‘peaceful rise’ and dam building on the Mekong. Contemporary Southeast Asia, 27(2), 281-304.

Lindemann, S. (2008). Understanding water regime formation–A research framework with lessons from Europe. Global Environmental Politics, 8(4), 117-140.

Lubell, M., Schneider, M., Scholz, J. T., and Mete, M. (2002). Watershed partnerships and the emergence of collective action institutions. American Journal of Political Science, 46(1), 148-163.

Mehtonen, K. (2008). Do the downstream countries oppose the upstream dams? In M. Kummu, M. Keskinen and O. Varis (Eds.), Modern Myths of the Mekong (pp. 161-172). Helsinki: Helsinki University of Technology.

Menniken, T. (2007). China’s performance in international resource politics: Lessons from the Mekong. Contemporary Southeast Asia, 29(1), 97-120.

Wallensteen, P., and Swain, A. (1995). International fresh water Systems as a source of conflict and cooperation: Learning from the past and prescribing for the future. Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich. Retrieved from

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