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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“Back to drawing borders”: Are Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia ready for Schengen?

Antonio Macedo

The 8th and 9th of December are decisive for Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia: This is when the interior ministers of EU member states are scheduled to decide on their accession to the Schengen area. A unanimous vote is required. Schengen is a source of pride for Europeans, comprising the largest free-travel zone in the world where more than 400 million citizens freely roam across 26 states (22 EU and four non-EU states). Despite this, the accession process has been slow: Romania and Bulgaria, which completed the necessary checks for accession back in 2011, have now waited over a decade for the green light. Similarly, although to a lesser extent, Croatia completed the evaluation process in 2020, yet is still waiting to reap the benefits of joining.

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A Nuclear Korean Peninsula: The Dreaded Domino Effect in East Asia?

Mariola García-Cañada Candela

The nuclear dilemma in South Korea has become an everyday topic for its population. The intense provocations of Kim Jong Un have led 71% of the South Koreans to strive for the nuclearization of the Peninsula. This support is unlikely to decrease but rather grow as the threats from the North Korean leader continue intensifying through 2023 as they seek an exponential increase of their nuclear arsenal, which will be used as a defensive and offensive tool. This is no surprise when talking about the North Korean leader because, as Edward A. Olsen explains, Kim Jong Un’s best defence is a good offence. The actual concern lies in the South Korean and North American response to such threats, which, if they are nuclear, would undoubtedly escalate tensions in the Peninsula, increasing the possibility of the dreaded nuclear domino effect in East Asia.

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Big Brother Reality: Could Artificial Intelligence Lead to the End of Democracy?

Tanya Lim

Public administrations increasingly use AI to determine the allocation of social benefits: Judges uses risk assessment algorithms to determine a person’s innate ability for bail or parole, social media platforms use AI to optimize content moderation, and political actors use these platforms to engage in micro-targeting to more accurately spread disinformation and enhance the state’s surveillance on citizens. However, given its relative “black box” nature, how is AI threatening our capacity to exercise scrutiny over the decisions of public democratic institutions?

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Regulating Human Germline Editing

Veronica Orbecchi

Any organism’s characteristics are determined by their genes. Our genes contain information about features like height, the colour of our eyes, or our susceptibility to diseases. Owing to formidable scientific advances, gene editing tools now make it possible to make precise alterations to an organism’s genes in vivo. Among the promising applications of gene editing, these tools may help prevent or treat various diseases, increase the efficiency of agriculture and food production or significantly improve research methods. Since the discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 one decade ago, gene editing has become much faster, cheaper and more reliable than previous strategies that were being developed since the 1980s (Baylis et al, 2020). While the remarkable potential of gene editing to bring about positive change increases with its ever growing effectiveness, this potential is undeniably accompanied by a number of un-negligible risks and a certain degree of moral unease. This elicits the need for appropriate regulations for these techniques.

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Fortress Europe: The Poland-Belarus Border Crisis

Anna Padiasek

Armed soldiers, police hounds, stranded children, and exhausted men and women – these are the images people in Eastern Poland have become accustomed to since August 2021. Because of Lukashenko’s trafficking scheme, thousands of refugees from Yemen, Syria, and Iraq have been brought to Eastern European forests. Most of these migrants, fleeing in the hope of a better life, are met with inhumane treatment on the Polish-Belarusian border. Stuck in limbo on the EU’s external flank, refugees have been re-transported to Belarus by the Polish border control, in many cases without even being given the option of claiming asylum. The human rights abuses on the border are extensive – from physical violence to invigilation of people’s identities and movements. The EU has turned a blind eye to this subject repeatedly, at most declaring their “solidarity with Poland” during this crisis. The lack of reaction from the organisation seems to be a part of the EU’s new refugee policy which seeks to directly target individuals trying to enter Europe through both technology and physical force. This is a drastic change from the EU’s 2015 response which focused on coordinating asylum procedures and migrant redistribution between member states. By tightening border control and stricter monitoring of movements on its grounds and waters, the EU has shifted towards a pre-emptive approach.

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Arctic Diplomacy on Ice

Sophie Williams-Dunning

On the 9th of January 2023, the Swedish Defence minister announced the launch of bilateral talks with the US to negotiate a Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA). By courting an enhanced US military presence in its territory, Sweden is following the lead of Norway and Denmark, which opened bilateral negotiations for an American DCA in 2022. The US and its Nordic partners are determined to shore up alliances in the High North outside of the NATO membership path, which has proven potholed with delays. This development is not surprising when one considers that Russia’s Northern Fleet headquarters and Arctic Strategic Command are located in Severomorsk, just over 100 miles from the Norwegian border.

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Universities’ increasing reliance on postgraduate taught fees as a source of income and its potential drawbacks

Zeki Dolen

The introduction of the postgraduate master’s loan for the 2016/17 academic year has led to a dramatic transformation in the landscape of postgraduate taught (PGT) education in the UK.  The number of first‑year PGT students in the UK has increased by 58% between 2015/16 and 2020/21, compared with a 11% increase in the number of undergraduate students over the same period. While undergraduate fees have been capped at £9,250 since 2017, average PGT fees increased by 60%, from £9,465 to £15,150 between 2015/16 and 2021/22. This considerably faster than the increase in the value of the postgraduate loan, which increased only by 18% from £10,000 in 2016/17 to £11,836 in 2021/22.

Source: Hesa, 2022

These trends mean universities have become increasingly reliant on PGT fees as a source of income.  For example, the contribution of PGT fees to King’s College London’s income has increased from 11% in 2016/17 to 19% in 2020/21, and it is no exception. PGT fees as a proportion of total income for higher education institutions (HEIs) in general have steadily grown from 8% in 2016/17 to 12% in 2020/21. 

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Rising Tides Float All Ducks

Gabriel Yunus Pontin

With the warming target of 1.5C slipping from our collective grasp, and the past COP27 viewed by many as our last chance to prevent truly severe climate outcomes, it’s the developing world that stands the most to lose despite often polluting the least per capita. Already those who have been affected by climate change are learning to adapt. In Bangladesh, duck was once a delicacy reserved for winter but now you’ll find it available in abundance all year round simply because ducks can swim.

Duck rearing, which was previously a small household industry, has replaced much of traditional chicken farming due to heightened unpredictability of the rains in the region as a result of global warming. As such, livestock more resilient to becoming too wet, too hot, too cold and importantly have the ability to swim has become key to securing Bangladesh’s food supply. Additionally, rearing ducks alongside rice cultivation increases yields or the crop by around 0.35 tonnes per hectare, as ducks naturally eat various pests that reside in rice paddies –something that chickens do not do.

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