Geopolitics of the Mekong River — China’s “Hydro-Hegemony” 

Eleanor Pang

The Mekong River basin plays a critical role in the livelihood of millions who live along its fringes and depend on it as a source of food, mode of transport, and place of community.  

As the largest transboundary river in Asia, spanning six countries, the Mekong River basin has become a hotbed for conflict over its many uses. In recent years, the construction of multiple hydroelectric dams by Mekong-adjacent countries along the river has been a great source of international disputes, as the dams reduce river water levels, cause massive amounts of soil erosion, and decimate local fish populations. 

Most notably, the construction of China’s Xiaowan and Nuozhadu dams in the upper Mekong River, or as China terms it, the “Lancang” River, has been a key source of tension between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours. This is because many citizens of these countries have been adversely affected by the lowered water levels downstream. These dams are far from the only ones, with many more currently under construction as China seeks to find renewable energy alternatives to reduce its reliance on coal and bolster its rapid industrialisation efforts. This vast network of over 100 dams, draining water from the tributaries and main river in the upper Mekong region, is by no means an innocent instrument to procure a crucial resource. Rather, these dams, and many more to come, are insidiously linked to China’s larger “Go West” strategy predicated on the use of the development of hydropower to integrate neighbouring countries into its political and economic sphere of influence. 

China’s “Go West” strategy, otherwise known as their “Great Western Development Strategy”, conceives the Yunnan provinces as a “gateway” to trade with its Southeast and South Asian neighbours since the upper Mekong flows within its borders downstream towards Myanmar. This strategic location allows China to use the Mekong as a convenient source of hydroelectric power for the other provinces. Further, the location effectively converts it into a “highway” for international trade. Doing so simultaneously bolsters globalisation and industrialisation efforts in southwest China while strengthening its economic influence over Southeast and South Asia, in line with its Belt and Road initiative. 

That said, a discussion about the geopolitics of the Mekong River would be amiss without bringing in the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which may be traced back to the Cold War when it was first established as the Mekong Committee by the United States and the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the commission became perceived as an engine for driving the region’s economic development in hopes that it would not succumb to communism, preserving its geopolitical stability in favour of the Allies. The deliberate omission of Burma and China is further evidence of the Cold War thinking that dominated this era. The Mekong thus became yet another arena in which Cold War geopolitics played out.  

However, this “omission” has favored Chinese regional interests, as China’s construction of dams without prior consultation of the MRC could take place conveniently since it is not a member and hence not under the MRC’s jurisdiction. 

China’s control over the upper Mekong through its dams increases the vulnerability of its Southeast Asian neighbours, as evident from the ecological damage caused by low water levels in the middle and lower Mekong. This power imbalance over Southeast Asia is exacerbated by China’s strategic institutional competition, particularly the establishment of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) forum in 2015, which has become yet another channel for Chinese development aid to flow to developing ASEAN member states, namely Laos and Cambodia. The LMC not only diminishes the authority of the MRC as a penultimate governing body over Mekong-related issues but also poses a direct challenge to the adjacent Lower Mekong Initiative (now expanded to become the U.S. Mekong Partnership) started by the United States in 2009. It appears that the Mekong River has become yet another “U.S. versus China” playing field. 

While arguments can be made for how the region as a whole stands to benefit from competing aid and investment regimes, the dangers of this new “institutional plurality” lie in how it disrupts the existing regional cohesion and reduces the legitimacy of Southeast Asian countries’ jurisdiction over the Mekong. Superpower-led multilateralism is not unique to the Mekong, but rather is a reality in international politics, where the individual agencies of smaller countries become entangled in the larger “U.S.-China” conflict. 

Ultimately, any response to China’s Mekong “hydro-hegemony” has to be coordinated and cohesive. In light of China’s numerous transgressions into the Exclusive Economic Zones of Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea, it is incumbent upon these countries to reaffirm their commitment to achieving consensus and taking collective action against larger states seeking to undermine their agency. Amidst the power struggle between two superpowers, the survival of millions depending on the Mekong hangs in the balance.  


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