China's 'water grab' and its consequences

China's 'water grab' and its consequences

Summiteers. From left Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Prime Ministers Thongsing Thammavong of Laos, Prayut, Li Keqiang of China, Hun Sen of Cambodia and Myanmar's Vice President Sai Mauk Kham. (Reuters/China Daily photo)
Summiteers. From left Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Prime Ministers Thongsing Thammavong of Laos, Prayut, Li Keqiang of China, Hun Sen of Cambodia and Myanmar's Vice President Sai Mauk Kham. (Reuters/China Daily photo)

China's pattern of regional conduct has come increasingly into focus. It is much less about maintaining the way things have been -- otherwise known as the "status quo" -- and much more about revising the established dynamics and contours in the region to its preferences.

China's inchoate but inexorable "revisionism", in turn, is likely to become the new and primary source of tensions and potential conflict in Southeast Asia. Nowhere are China's revisionist aims more evident than its "land grab" in the South China Sea and "water grab" in the upper reaches of the Mekong River that straddles southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

In the South China Sea, tensions are mounting because of Beijing's controversial claims of a string of reefs and shoals and fishing areas that are closer to the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia than mainland China. In addition, China has made artificial islands out of these small rocks, placed military equipment on them and even used them for passenger flights as a way of cementing its claim and making a fait accompli.

The Philippines has tried to stand up to Beijing, but Vietnam has hedged and remained non-confrontational because Hanoi relies heavily on China for trade, investment and economic development. The other South China Sea claimants, namely Taiwan, Brunei and Indonesia have mostly stayed away from Beijing's ire.

But now even Indonesia can no longer stand by while its interests are at stake. Last week, when Indonesian authorities detained a Chinese fishing trawler and its eight-member crew for trespassing in the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone off the Natuna Islands, the Chinese Coast Guard intervened and rammed an Indonesian vessel to free the fishing boat. The incident sparked diplomatic outrage from Jakarta, embarrassing the Chinese. Yet it marks a similar trend of growing Chinese belligerence and its unwillingness to take part in drafting the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea between Asean and China.

In the Mekong region of mainland Southeast Asia, China has unilaterally handed itself political power by exploiting geography and manipulating natural waterways through the construction of a row of upriver dams. As the Lower Mekong countries suffer through the worst drought in decades, China has been ostensibly benevolent by releasing water from its upstream Jinghong since March 15, partly to grease the inaugural Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) summit among the six leaders of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS).

While China's water discharge is a temporary respite for downstream countries, it is a harbinger for the downstream countries' dependence on China's goodwill and generosity.

The Mekong, which the Chinese call Lancang, is Southeast Asia's longest river. It provides livelihoods for more than 60 million people and habitats for riverfront communities and natural wildlife. China's damming of the upper Mekong has long been considered a geopolitical risk for the lower riparian states and a source of potential conflict for the entire GMS. That risk has been exacerbated because of climate change and the rapid development of the Mekong mainland that has required greater water consumption than ever.

With unilateral leverage over the downstream countries, China was keen to convene the LMC summit in Sanya, Hainan province. Beijing has announced a combined loan and credit package worth US$11.5 billion (about 406 billion baht) for Mekong mainland development projects ranging from railways to industrial parks. Beijing will also fund poverty alleviation initiatives to the tune of $200 million, with another $300 million for regional cooperation over the next five years and setting up a water resource centre. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang noted that these plans were part and parcel of China's own development strategy around the One Belt, One Road initiative, and called for greater trust-building between China and Lower Mekong countries.

What is significant here is that the LMC is effectively pushing aside the longstanding Mekong River Commission (MRC), which was set up by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam in 1995 with a focus on international expertise and funding assistance to manage river resources under international conventions and protocols governing major global waterways. Myanmar and China have been dialogue partners but Beijing has deliberately marginalised the MRC. The LMC is thus China's own version of the MRC.

As it is the bigger neighbour sitting atop the river's mouth, China can block the Mekong's waterways at will. It has completed six of 15 planned dams. Downstream governments, particularly those of Cambodia and Vietnam, are either too beholden to, or dependent on, Beijing's generosity and policy decisions to cry foul loudly. Laos is the midstream country that has put up a row of its own dams, largely financed by Thailand, which in turn buys the hydropower. The Mekong dams are thus a mixed bag, not simply China's imposition of unilateral leverage and power over the rest.

Yet with communist Laos' increasing dependence on China's purse strings for development needs, and the Thai military government's overt pro-Beijing posture, China has become a Mekong regional patron of sorts. The same goes for Cambodia, which relies on China for development aid and foreign investment. Vietnam takes a muted stand both in the South China Sea and the Mekong mainland.

Myanmar, however, is the spanner in China's Mekong designs. Under a newly elected civilian administration, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who suffered for years under military repression while China connived and capitalised on extractive economic opportunities in Myanmar, the government in Nay Pyi Taw may not be as forthcoming. While it is difficult to deny that the Mekong mainland is effectively China's backyard, this situation can change down the road if Thailand returns to democratic rule and joins hands with a democratised Myanmar.

By being so aggressive in both the Mekong mainland and the South China Sea, China may end up forcing smaller states that want to stay out and away from conflict with a giant neighbour into a regional bandwagon of necessity. To avoid being its own worst enemy by stirring up a united neighbourhood opposition unnecessarily, Beijing would do well to play a major part in crafting rules and institutions in concert with others in the region.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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