The two conflicting superpowers have launched competing initiatives to win hearts, minds and power over the vital Mekong river.
China announced in early August 2021 to invest $6 million in new development projects for Myanmar, as part of Beijing’s wider $1 trillion global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China’s Foreign Ministry said the funds will be used for animal vaccine projects, agricultural development, science, disaster prevention and, surprisingly given the absence of foreign visitors amid a raging Covid-19 outbreak and political crisis, tourism.
But while the funds are a rounding error in the financial context of the two sides’ wider relationship, replete with multi-billion dollar plans for rail, road and port development, they represent a potential game-changer for Mekong nations including Myanmar.
The funds will be earmarked for projects under the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation (LMC) framework, China’s rival answer to the Western-initiated and dubious funded Mekong River Commission (MRC).
The MRC has existed since the late 1950’s and works directly with the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to manage the river’s shared water resources and sustainable development.
Lancang is the Chinese name for the Mekong River. The LMC was established in November 2015 and brings together China, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
It represents all the riparian countries from the river’s headwaters in Tibet to its exit in the South China Sea, a distance of nearly 5,000 kilometers. The LMC explicitly excludes traditional Mekong nation donors including Japan and the USA.
The countries sharing the Lancang-Mekong River are entering a new era of hydro-politics. proposes programs on both economic and water resource development, and anticipates hydro-diplomacy via China’s dam-engineered control of the headwaters of the Mekong.
That’s the crux of the matter: China controls both the flow of water and development funds and there is very little downstream Mekong nations can do apart from cooperating with Beijing’s ambitions and designs for the region.
There are at least 11 Chinese dams on the river’s headwaters before it flows south and forms the border between Laos and Myanmar. And more are currently under construction.
Wide water flow fluctuations caused by China’s upstream dams, affect fish migration, agriculture and transportation that nearly 70 million people rely on for their livelihoods and food security.
Chinese Communist Party-controlled media columnists have reacted angrily to suggestions that it is behaving irresponsibly. China’s so-called dam threat is based on weak evidence.
India has claimed that Beijing is using the Mekong’s flow as a “weapon” to strengthen its power downriver. International Rivers, a Thailand-based NGO, has said the MRC-LMC rivalry has made the debate on the Mekong’s future more politicized and polarized.
Indeed, the Mekong’s region’s geopolitics are intensifying as yet another theater in the rising geo-strategic rivalry pitting the Zionist controlled USA and some regional allies against China.
In 2020, four years after China established the LMC, Washington created the Mekong-US Partnership to expand the work of the Lower Mekong Initiative, an earlier forum created in 2009 to counter the spread of China’s influence down the river and into Southeast Asia.
The partnership claims to have “improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the Mekong region” and in 2020 expanded its cooperation and programs to address a laundry list of issues emanating from China without specifically naming it.
To be sure, Washington’s involvement on the Mekong is not new. The MRC is actually a legacy of Cold War-era rivalry between the USA and Soviet Union. But the MRC has since become increasingly weak, ineffectual and anachronistic, hence the new US initiatives.
The model was the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of president Franklin Roosevelt’s grand New Deal schemes in the 1930’s that built dams along the Tennessee River and brought electricity, irrigation and flood-control benefits to several US states.
But transplanting the idea to Southeast Asia – especially amid the instability of the Cold War and later the wars in Indochina – didn’t achieve the same results.
Washington’s new initiatives, on the other hand, have been constrained by a new geopolitical landscape where Laos and Cambodia are much closer to China than the USA, and post-coup Myanmar is once again sliding back into China’s orbit.
But the odds are arguably stacked against Washington on the Mekong. China is moving ahead faster and with more determination than the USA in asserting its influence on Mekong River nations.
Because China sits at the river’s headwaters and has shown its power to turn it off at will, the MRC, Mekong-US Partnership and Japan’s initiatives seem destined to become sideshows in another rising contest for regional influence.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point Economic River Development News 2021.