China’s Regional Power Play in the Mekong

“China fails to effectively acknowledge the negative impacts that its damming strategy causes.”

By Jackie Berkowitz, Brian Malczyk

Intentional or not, withholding water from the Lower Mekong countries during a drought has not been a favorable political strategy for China. While the hydroelectric power-producing dams along the Upper Mekong River have successfully provided energy and water to the Chinese population, the country has not shown eagerness to mitigate the extreme negative impacts of these operations on its neighbors, as well as the environment. 

Since 1990, China has been pursuing the construction of dams along the Upper Mekong River Region, with eleven large scale hydroelectric dams currently in operation. Currently, hydropower accounts for almost 20 percent of the overall electricity production in the country. By increasing the number of dams in rivers within China, the country has been able to decrease its reliance on foreign imports, particularly of coal, for the massive amounts of energy required by its rapid economic growth and large population. These mega-dams, such as the Three Gorges Dam along the Yangtze River in the Hubei province, allow China to generate a sufficient amount of energy domestically so it does not have to depend on others for both energy and water. 

However, China’s quest for hydroelectric power is negatively affecting its neighbors along the Mekong River and the environment. While the energy source does not directly emit pollutants, the embedded carbon in the materials required to construct the dam, like concrete, is very energy intensive and greenhouse gas intensive to produce, and thus while the dams do not ‘generate’ emissions in a conventional sense, they still do contribute to climate change. Additionally, when the reservoir floods with water, the soil and vegetation decompose and release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. The installation of dams also interrupts the flow of water and aquatic ecosystems in the river. Not only does this harm the wildlife, but it also disrupts the livelihoods of people who rely on the downstream flow for their jobs, as well as access to food and water for survival. While the reservoirs created by dams in the Upper Mekong River allow China to maintain access to sufficient amounts of water for its population, they are decreasing the availability of important resources to, and even displacing, populations along the entire Mekong River system. 

The dams along the Mekong are being used by China to control its waters from flowing to countries in the Lower Mekong, including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, in order to maintain greater influence and control of its neighbours. Over the past year, the Lower Mekong region has experienced extreme drought, leaving millions of people without access to freshwater. The dams are increasingly withholding water from reaching the Lower Mekong, preventing the region from having sufficient amounts of water during this drought. Although Chinese officials deny this claim, the food insecurity in the Lower Mekong region is being magnified by China’s control over the flow of water. 

This would not be the first time a Chinese dam has caused upheaval and destruction. After a typhoon in 1975, the collapse of the Banqiao Dam killed more than 85,000 people instantly and completely flooded over 2.5 million acres of farmland. Another sixty-two area dams also collapsed under the immense pressure of water. Some of those that survived suffered water-borne illnesses or starved. The Chinese government kept the disaster quiet, even withholding information from its own citizens. Although many environmentalists and scientists warned of building more dams, the Chinese government ignored this valid concern and invested in the construction of Three Gorges Dam, which is now a major threat domestically and to its neighbors. 

China fails to effectively acknowledge the negative impacts that its damming strategy causes. Instead, the country has offered to provide funding and resources to countries in the Lower Mekong region to build their own additional dams. Environmental activists have urged Lower Mekong countries to reject China’s assistance to build dams, emphasizing that the Mekong water system has already surpassed its limits for daming and that any additional dams will lead to the deterioration of the water systems, upon which tens of millions of people rely on. 

Currently, China is not a member of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) which was established by the governments of Cambodia, Laos PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam to pursue sustainable development and share water resources along the Mekong River. While there is a Memorandum of Understanding between China and the MRC, China is not legally obligated to provide vital information regarding upstream developments, daily river flows, and other pertinent data to the MRC or its member states. This agreement only urges China to share information, but the MRC relies on this information to maintain sufficient water levels and reduce negative impacts on its citizens and the environment. As seen in the 2019 drought crisis along the Mekong River, China’s failure to provide information to the MRC and its dams that prevented water from flowing downstream exacerbated the drought in the Lower Mekong region. Although the MRC said that there was not enough evidence to show that this was true, it emphasized that it wants a more formal relationship with China and for China to cooperate and provide more information.

Seemingly, China is seeking to buy regional influence and power, but the strategy it is using to achieve this goal may backfire. China’s use of infrastructure development, encouraging construction of hydroelectric power facilities and dams, is an example of one of the foreign policy tools China uses as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is an ambitious plan to improve regional integration, stimulate economic growth and trade, and connect Asia to Europe and Africa through a network of land and maritime infrastructure projects. Building dams along the Mekong in both China proper and neighboring countries is a tactic being used by China to expand its control over water in the region and “helping” other countries to build dams is meant to seem as a positive initiative to improve infrastructure in the region. However, there are fears that China could use these dams to solely benefit itself by using the debts as leverage over its neighbors, as it has done in places like Sri Lanka and Central Asia. Additionally, China could use dams to reverse water flows to benefit China proper, and increase food insecurity in the neighboring countries, increasing their reliance on food imports from China. 

China’s actions on the Mekong River reflect the theory that states prioritize their own power and security, usually at the expense of other states and mutually beneficial cooperation. In this case, China seems to be pursuing the construction of dams along the Mekong River in order to increase its own power in the region, while simultaneously weakening its neighbors by withholding water from flowing downstream. However, cooperation between countries in the Mekong River region is still feasible as long as China acknowledges that they are all fighting a common enemy: climate change. 

China can achieve regional influence while also creating regional stability and prosperity through continuing to pursue safer renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and nuclear power, and reducing negative environmental and security impacts on its neighbors. China will remain a leader in renewable energy development, which can be used as an example globally and used to expand its BRI. Additionally, cooperating more with the MRC and Lower Mekong countries through information sharing and actions in the river will likely benefit China’s regional position through positive reinforcement. Countries in the Lower Mekong region are highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change, especially with the rising sea levels in Vietnam. This could create widespread instability and potentially migration in decades to come. From this perspective, China working to enhance the resiliency of these countries against climate change, both through ensuring access to essential water resources and supporting them to adopt pure renewable technologies, would be in its best interest both for security reasons and economically. China should prioritize actions that do not intensify resource and human insecurity in neighboring countries, but rather benefit the region as a whole.

Jackie Berkowitz is the Senior Environmental Security Analyst for the Center of Development and Strategy and is pursuing a Master’s at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. She studies the origins of conflict and has several years of experience consulting global companies on crisis management and security risk mitigation. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Colgate University. Contact: jackie.berkowitz@thinkcds.org

Brian Malczyk serves as Executive Director of the Center for Development and Strategy 501(c)(3) and is a Customer Success Manager at PartnerStack in Toronto, Ontario. Malczyk holds both a Master of Global Affairs and a B.A. from the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Malczyk’s writing has been featured in various mediums, including The Diplomat and The Jerusalem Post. Contact: brian.malczyk@thinkcds.org

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