CHIANG RAI – Thirty million people depend for a living on the Mekong, the great Asian river that runs through Southeast Asia from its origins in the snowfields of Tibet to its end in the delta region of Vietnam, where it fertilizes one of the world’s richest agricultural areas.
It’s the greatest freshwater fishery on the planet, second only to the Amazon in its riparian biodiversity. If you control its waters, then you control much of the economy of Southeast Asia.
In meetings with the other lower Mekong states — Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam — China talks about a “community of shared future.” But as China’s economy and its ambitions have both expanded, so have its goals for the Mekong.
Beijing has expanded its control of the waters by building new hydroelectric dams and by what some experts call hydrodiplomacy, creating and financing a new governing body on the river that rivals a former Western-supported group. For critics, control of the waterway is a key move in China’s attempt to establish itself as a regional hegemon; for locals by the river, it’s also a potential environmental and economic disaster.
China’s latest move has been to press downstream countries for what’s euphemistically called “navigation channel improvement,” which means allowing its engineers to dynamite rocks and small islands in the Mekong so that bigger ships can make the journey all the way from Yunnan to Luang Prabang and, eventually, to the South China Sea.
This has not gone unnoticed, especially in Thailand, where grassroots organizations have joined with environmentalists to protest Chinese activities on the river. But Chinese plans and projects are not the only issue. Environmental protests have widened their scope as some of the downriver countries, including Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand itself, are building their own gigantic hydroelectric dams, financed by consortiums of Southeast Asian banks.
The Chinese dams alone, taken together, produce some 15,000 MW of electrical power, enough to power a city of between 1 million and 2 million people.
But according to numerous studies, these projects — added to the dams already built and planned for downstream — will complete the transformation of the river, turning it essentially into a series of canals and lakes good for electrical generation and shipping but, critics say, ruinous for fish, fishermen, and farmers along its banks.
“It is the people upstream that get the benefits of controlling the water,” Apisom Intralawan, a scholar at the Institute for the Study of Natural Resources and Environmental Management in the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai, said. “The downstream people are losers.… We get electricity, but we lose fisheries, and if you examine the consequences, the fishery loss is greater than the electricity gain.”
In July, I went to the Thai port town of Chiang Khong on the south bank of the Mekong, a few hundred yards from Laos, whose green hills, dotted with sheds and houses, are visible on the other side. The summer river flows in yellow-tinted brown, branches, leaves, and plastic bottles moving downstream with the swift current, the banks thick with wild banana trees and river palms. Narrow wooden boats drift languidly, dragging fishing nets. There are small ports, concrete ramps leading into the water, where fruit and vegetables are offloaded by hand from pickup trucks and vans and put onto small freight boats that cross the river to Laos.
Below the town, right on the river, are some wood huts with thatched roofs and a sign in English that reads, “Justice for the Mekong River and Its People.” This is part of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group, led by a former local schoolteacher named Niwat Roykaew. Twenty years ago, he told me, local people began noticing changes in the river, especially in the usual water levels, though it took some time for him and his colleagues in the nascent organization to understand the cause — dams being built by China in southwestern Yunnan province. “Where the water should have been high, it was low,” he said, “And where it should have been low, it was high.”
To date, six big dams have been completed on the Chinese portion of the Mekong, known there as the Lancang Jiang, and the downriver complaints are many — destruction of a freshwater seaweed called gai that is harvested by local people and sold in the market, damage to breeding grounds, and water levels that swing from sudden floods to trickles that leave local boats scraping the bottom.
But there isn’t much that environmentalists can do about the upriver dams, constructed unilaterally and without consultations or negotiations with the downriver countries.
That’s why local attention has focused on a different issue: the Chinese request, repeatedly made over the years, to dynamite some 15 rock formations and tiny islets in order to clear the waters for boats weighing up to 500 tons, which is a ship about 100 meters in length, nearly twice the size of any vessel that can navigate the Mekong now.
This May, three Chinese survey boats appeared on the river at Khon Phi Luong, a stretch of the Mekong upriver from Chiang Khong. China has already carried out an initial phase of its navigation improvement scheme, clearing obstacles in Myanmar, so Khon Phi Luong, a mile-long stretch of rapids between the verdant hills of Thailand and Laos, is the only remaining obstacle to ships of 500 tons between Yunnan and Luang Prabang.
The Chinese boats, which carried engineers and survey equipment, were met with a small flotilla of Thai fishing boats, with protesters holding up signs reading “Save the Mekong” and “Stop Rock Blasting.” Mindful of this opposition, the Thai government, while it allowed the Chinese engineers to survey the river, has not given the go-ahead for the actual blasting.
“China asks again and again,” a Chiang Khong storekeeper who was on the protest flotilla told me. “But we’ll resist every time.” The protests may play a role, but the Thai military is also said to be concerned about clearing the channel at Khon Phi Luong, because doing so would change the official border line between Laos and Thailand to the latter’s disadvantage.
Meanwhile, the six dams that China has already built on what it calls the Lancang Jiang are only the beginning. According to International Rivers, an NGO with offices in Thailand, China plans a total of 28 dams in Yunnan province. In addition, there are 11 large dams already under construction or in planning stages on the lower Mekong, plus 30 on its tributaries.
In most cases, required environmental impact studies have been done on these dams, but many of them, paid for by the governments involved, are faulted by scholars and environmentalist groups for various reasons — from underestimating the value of the fish catch that will be lost to overestimating the usefulness of ladders that the migrating fish will need to get past the dams. Sediment will be trapped in the upriver dams, depriving the downriver areas of essential nutrients for fish and plants.
“Chinese experts have told me, ‘We will give you more clear water in the dry season,’ but actually we don’t need it,” Pienporn Deetes, the Thailand director of International Rivers, told me. “The sediment is captured by the dams upstream. The entire cycle has already collapsed.”
Thailand’s environmental movement appears to have some public support, but in a country that has been under the thumb of a military junta for the past three years, and where political gatherings of more than five people are banned, it has little political power. The junta, eager to promote economic development, has welcomed close relations with China as it has distanced itself from Washington, Thailand’s closest ally since the end of World War II. And while some Thais are alarmed at the expansion of China’s presence in the country, the junta clearly appreciates that, unlike the United States, Beijing has no issues with the military’s 2014 coup against a democratic government or its suspension of civil liberties.
“We are not your colony,” Panitan Wattanayagorn, an American-educated advisor to Thailand’s deputy prime minister of security, told me in an interview in Bangkok. He was expressing the resentment he said Thais feel about American and European criticisms and of a scaling down of U.S. military aid to Thailand, which contrasts with China’s policy of noninterference. Closer ties have involved the first-ever Thai purchase of arms from China — a submarine costing more than $390 million (with an option to buy two more at what Thai officials describe as a favorable price) — and $59 million worth of armored personnel carriers.
Chinese investment in Thailand, as well as in neighboring Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, has rapidly increased. There are ongoing talks with China about its Belt and Road Initiative, an increasingly nebulous and all-encompassing plan that started as a mass expansion of Eurasian ties. New roads are being built from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, to Thailand via Laos and over the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, just a few miles downriver from Chiang Khong. Ground has been broken for a high-speed rail link connecting Kunming with Bangkok, then heading farther south all the way to Singapore.
China’s growing presence is natural and normal in many ways, given the country’s proximity and its wealth, but Beijing’s opaque politics and its naked ambition to become the dominant power in Asia also generate nervousness and suspicion.
“We are concerned about China’s activities in the South China Sea and on the Mekong,” Panitan said. The Thai government has not signed on to the very expensive high-speed train — except for one small stretch — and some Thai economists question whether these grand projects will bring gains to the country.
“China will get the benefit,” Saowaruj Rattanakhamfu, a senior economist at the Thailand Development Research Institute in Bangkok, told me. “Its exports will help the development of southern China,” she said, “but I study cross-border trade, and from that point of view, I don’t think Thailand will get much benefit.”
Thailand has few options when it comes to dealing with China’s plans for the Mekong, mainly because it has no power to prevent China from doing what it wants where the river runs through its territory. But China has also been carrying out what Carl Middleton, the former Mekong program director at International Rivers, calls “hydrodiplomacy,” creating a new multinational organization of the Mekong countries.
Since the 1950s, the main such group has been the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which, encouraged by organizations like the World Bank and largely supported by the United States and Japan, urged its members to explore hydropower as a key ingredient in their economic development.
China was never a member of the MRC, which makes the new group it has formed, known as the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, the first organization to include all six Mekong countries. Its first meeting, held in China in March last year, was hailed by China’s press as a major new step in regional cooperation.
It is not clear exactly what the new mechanism will do, but it seems similar to other multilateral bodies created by China — like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank — which allow Beijing far greater power to take initiatives and to set rules than it does in older, Western-dominated institutions and through which it can work to blunt the grassroots and environmental opposition that its ambitions often generate.
China, as Middleton puts it, considers Southeast Asia to be its backyard, a place where it should have paramount influence, and one way it uses that influence is to incorporate the Mekong into its larger development plan. This involves using hydroelectricity to feed the industries of its southeastern coast and to use the revenues to reduce poverty in Yunnan. Its neighbors’ concerns barely infringe on these plans — this is a country, after all, that was happy to displace millions of its own people to build the Three Gorges Dam.
Given China’s ambitions, organizations like the Chiang Khong Conservation Group and others like it clearly face an uphill struggle. China and the downriver governments both envision a future for the Mekong in which it will be primarily a source of energy, thus stripped of its other uses and possibilities.
“If the trend continues,” Deetes told me, showing me brochures and studies on the transformation of the Mekong that has taken place already, “I don’t think we can stop anything.”
By Richard Bernstein
Richard Bernstein, a former foreign correspondent in Asia and Europe for Time and The New York Times, is the author of China 1945: Mao’s Revolution and America’s Fateful Choice.