China’s plan to blast rocks and islets to improve downstream navigation along the Mekong River represents the latest Beijing-led scheme to facilitate stronger trade ties to Southeast Asia.
While regional governments have generally welcomed Chinese investment in trade-promoting infrastructure, there is strong and rising grass roots resistance in Thailand to its controversial plans for the Mekong.
Three Chinese ships with a reported 60 engineers on board commenced a survey on April 19th under the direction of China’s CCCC Second Harbor Consultant Co Ltd, a subsidiary of state-owned conglomerate China Communications.
The engineers are probing all impediments to navigation along a 96-kilometer stretch along the Mekong River between Thailand and Laos, from the Thai riparian town of Chiang Saen south towards the Thai border town of Chiang Khong.
China has set out to tame the same roaring rapids and rocky islets of the Mekong that repeatedly thwarted the ambitions of French colonial explorers to open a new trading route. Those 19th century plans foundered on the rapids and the waterfalls of Si Phan Don in southern Laos bordering Cambodia.
One Chinese engineer involved in the clearing commented said his team sees their work as part of China’s “One Belt, One Road” multinational infrastructure drive that aims to make China a global trade hub, according to media reports. However, China’s plan to improve downstream navigation predates the grand global initiative.
By 2020, China plans to remove all natural obstacles to engineering a safe 890-kilometer shipping lane stretching from the southern Yunnan province port of Simao, through Thailand’s northern stretch of the river, to the ancient royal Lao capital and now tourism hub of Luang Prabang.
Opposition protests, however, represent a mounting challenge to that downstream plan.
More than one hundred Thai nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) led by the Chiang Khong Conservation Group and the Save the Mekong Campaign, both spearheaded by environmental activists, aim to protect the ecologically precious islets and rapids at Khon Pi Luang, about 20 kilometers upriver from the Thai border port of Chiang Khong.
They also aim to stop all dams being built on the Mekong’s lower regions.
“Blasting the Mekong will destroy fish breeding grounds, disrupt migrating birds and erode riverside farmland,” said Niwat Roykaew, chairman of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group, a local environmental group. “It will kill the Mekong.”
Protest boats flying banners demanding “stop the survey” and “stop blasting our river” have apparently unnerved the Chinese team to change their mooring site from the Thai to the Lao side of the river.
China’s first round of rock-blasting removed all the islets and rocks between the Lao and Myanmar borders in 2002, opening up the northern Thai port of Chiang Saen for the first time to 200-300 ton cargo ships from China.
On December 27, Thailand’s military-appointed Cabinet gave the go-head to the so-called Development Plan for International Navigation on the Lancang-Mekong River (2015–2025), a China-led survey that will pave the way for a second round of rock-blasting.
After spirited protests against the plan, the military government clarified that the rock-blasting cannot be approved until the survey and environmental impact assessments (EIA) have been completed.
Beijing‘s promotion of the navigation strategy cites objectives of greater trade, connectivity and regional integration, similar to the language of past Asian Development Bank-promoted mega-project infrastructure schemes for the region.
Agreements to develop improved Mekong navigation have been approved by four out six countries, namely China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, through which the river flows. It also flows through two riparian countries excluded from the process, Cambodia and Vietnam, which surprisingly have not lodged public complaints or protests.
Yet no independent nor intergovernmental investigation of the potential economic losses and environmental harm of the cleared waterway has been undertaken, according to Thai activists monitoring the situation.
A flood of Chinese agricultural imports has spurred Thai farmers to complain that cheaper Chinese garlic, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and pomegranate has priced them out of local markets. Cheap Chinese manufactured plastics, electronics and other household goods, meanwhile, have also put cost pressure on local industrialists.
Wiroon Kampilo, ex-chairman of the Chiang Rai Chamber of Commerce, a Thai trade group, told local media “local and national business in Thailand will not get anything from the navigation channel improvement project and this project will only benefit China,” he said. “We have very few goods to transport via the river to sell in China.”
There are also questions about the comparative economic viability of river trade as more connecting roadways are opened and developed.
Those include the R3A highway that connects Thailand through Laos to southern China, which was opened in 2008 and supported by the Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Corridor Cooperation, a program that promotes a “prosperous, integrated, and harmonious sub-region.”
A fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge was opened in 2013, connecting China’s southern town of Kunming through Laos to the riparian Thai town of Chiang Khong in northern Chiang Rai province. The route has vastly improved access for Chinese goods to Thailand’s markets and beyond.
The Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental body concerned with the Mekong River basin, has estimated that shipping by river barges would reduce costs by 20% compared with road transport. That cost assessment, however, runs one way, say critics.
Saowaruj Rattanakhamfu, a senior economist at the Thailand Development Research Institute, an economic think tank, said: “it would be cheaper [for China] but Thailand does not export a huge amount of goods to China and instead sells industrial goods that can be more easily moved via the R3A highway.”
The total distance by river from the Chinese port of Simao to Luang Prabang is 890 kilometers, while by road it is only 510 kilometers. The road from China to Thailand is also shorter than the river route.
“I do not think it’s sensible to blow up those rocks to serve commercial trade in the river,” said Saowaruj. “Is it really worth the investment as the project will have an immense impact on the poor?”
Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has steered the country closer to China since his May 2014 democracy-suspending coup, which was widely condemned in the West. While the strongman premier reportedly favors China’s river clearance and islets demolition plan, some of his agencies, including notably the defense ministry, are known to be dubious.
In 2003, after completing the first phase of river rock blasting between Lao and Myanmar, China agreed to suspend further operations beyond Chiang Saen in response to a Thai cabinet decision based on concerns that it would disrupt the existing Thai-Laos demarcation boundary that runs through the middle of the river.
There are still wide-ranging concerns about how the rock blasting may affect Thailand’s sovereignty, border security and customs control. The Thai-Lao river frontier remains a sensitive issue that could frustrate China’s expansionist plan downriver.
If the Chinese strategy to boost Mekong trade and tourism is fully implemented after 2020, former Thai senator Kraisak Choonhavan is concerned that “many endangered species and wildlife [and] fish breeding grounds will be obliterated and Thai farmers will suffer erosion of river banks from much larger cargo ships traveling downstream.”
Indeed, the proposed rock demolition would be another blow to Southeast Asia’s arguably most important river, a waterway already reeling from the cumulative impacts inflicted by China’s mega-dam construction on its upper reaches.
A cascade of six Chinese dams built in recent years on the Upper Mekong (known as the Lancang in China) in southwestern Yunnan province has drastically altered the hydrology and flood pulse of the river, according to a study by Chinese researchers at Kunming University in 2015.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a global conservation group, recently warned that the rush to build a cascade of another 11 dams on the lower Mekong, including massive plans at Xayaboury and Don Sahong in Laos, represented “unsustainable development pushing the river system to the brink.”
Beyond the comparative economic costs lie two competing visions of the region’s longest river and the world’s number one for inland fisheries.
China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have promoted greater trade and regional connectivity as overriding goals, while downplaying the immense socio-economic and cultural impacts that some critics refer to as China’s “canalization” of the Mekong.
Conservation groups, riverine communities and activist academics, on the other hand, say Lower Mekong countries must protect the river’s unique character, immense biodiversity, rich fisheries and cultural diversity.
“It is nonsense to exchange one of the world’s best rivers hosting inland fisheries feeding over 60 million people for commercial [transport of goods] that could easily come by road or by rail,” said International Rivers campaigns director Pianporn Deetes.
China‘s plan is not inexorable and still depends on Thailand’s final consent, though Chinese aid-dependent Laos is unlikely to raise strong objections considering its own plans for damming the Mekong, activists say.
Whether Bangkok finally agrees to remove the rocks and destroy the rapids to facilitate more Chinese river trade, its military leaders run the risk of going against strong currents of grass roots dissent.
Tom Fawthrop is a veteran journalist & film-maker. He has directed two documentaries on the damming of the Mekong, including his latest feature “Killing The Mekong Dam By Dam”