Was it truly worth Chinese Premier Li Keqiang traveling all the way to Phnom Penh for the second Mekong-Lancang Cooperation (MLC) summit?
As the MLC leaders’ meeting closed on Wednesday, there appeared few new or positive developments on how the regional body would respond to the many environmental and other issues affecting the Mekong River, known in China as the Lancang.
Li said an agreed new five-year action plan would include ways to work out disagreements between nations, but stressed almost at the same time the MLC’s firm commitment to non-interference in other members’ internal affairs.
He also said that Chinese firms are keen to help construct hydropower stations and reservoirs in Southeast Asia, while pledging more support to alleviate environmental damage – seemingly not considering that one might be related to the other, as many experts warn.
The remainder of the agreements made on Wednesday were mostly to do with how China will promote economic development in the MLC’s five riparian Southeast Asian nations – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
The so-called Phnom Penh Declaration, signed at the gathering, had little to do with the Mekong and is more about China contributing to the region’s economic development.
The MLC’s numerous structural and institutional shortcomings has led some analysts to think of it as simply a venue for China to exert soft-power in Southeast Asia and acquiescent regional governments to boost inward Chinese investment.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), which has existed for almost 60 years under different guises, has repeatedly asked China to join but Beijing has consistently refused. Some believe this is because China wanted a new Mekong-related body it could control.
“The meeting is meant to shore up mainland Southeast Asian support for Chinese dams, trade corridors, and transportation linkages which facilitate expanded Chinese penetration into the Mekong Region,” Paul Chambers, of Thailand’s Naresuan University, told the Phnom Penh Post newspaper ahead of the summit.
Privately, however, some Southeast Asian politicians grumble over how China is not only at the head of the MLC financially and politically, but also geographically. Premier Li probably didn’t help placate feelings of inferiority when he said on Wednesday: “This institution [MLC] was made by China…China takes on this responsibility.”
Geopolitics, of course, has its role. In 2009, the American government helped create the Lower Mekong Initiative in partnership with Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
“I think what the US is doing is trying to stop China from gaining more power in Southeast Asia, and this is just another tactic,” Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in China, told this writer in 2015.
Small wonder then that China held the first MLC leaders’ meeting in 2016. Beijing has showed it is prepared to invest and lend more than the Americans by backing the MLC with capital from the China-based Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank.
But geopolitics plays a regional role, too. The 4,909-kilometer-long Mekong originates in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in southwest China and empties into the sea at Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. As a result, China effectively controls the tap that determines the river’s water supply. So, too, does each nation located upstream from another.
“The MLC is a way of showing that China only plays by its own rules. It creates fait accompli by building dams upstream to the detriment of downstream countries and then sets up its own governing body,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an international studies professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, recently told international media.
Vietnam, the river’s most downstream nation, has unsuccessfully lobbied its communist neighbor Laos in recent years to rethink construction of its many hydropower dams, which Hanoi says could destroy its part of the Mekong. Indeed, experts warn that Laos’ dams could cause flooding and droughts in Vietnam, as well as severely affecting the number of fish downstream.
“Vietnam wants all upstream Mekong River nations to adopt proper policies in exploiting the river, especially in hydropower dam construction, in order to ensure rights for downstream nations, like Vietnam,” Tran Hong Ha, Vietnam’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, said last year.
Despite close relations between the two nations, Laos has not budged on its dam-building plans. In early 2011, the Lao government announced that it had conducted regional consultations on the Xayaburi dam, as stipulated by the 1995 Mekong Agreement, and concluded that construction should proceed. Others, namely Vietnam, questioned that any consultation had taken place.
Vientiane was equally intransigent when, in January 2015, the three National Mekong Committees of Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand voiced their opposition to its Don Sahong Dam. International Rivers and the World Wildlife Foundation, two global NGOs, also pitched in to warn that the dam would threaten thousands of livelihoods downstream.
“For the development of the Mekong River, we don’t need consensus,” responded Daovong Phonekeo, director general of Laos’ Department of Energy Policy and Planning, said at the time.
His comment illustrates the problem with the MLC, as has proved to be the problem with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Regional governments like to talk a great deal about cooperation but, when push comes to shove, tend to act purely out of self-interest.
Laos, for example, knows its future economy depends largely on carving out a niche as a major hydropower energy producer, which, when exported to Thailand, Vietnam and China, could turn it from being the region’s second-poorest nation into a middle-income country.
Cambodia and Vietnam, meanwhile, know that their own agriculture sectors are failing and could become even worse if the dire warnings about Lao hydropower dams come true. Fish stocks on the Mekong have declined in Thailand, while Vietnam suffered its widespread crop failures in 2016 amid its worst drought in 90 years.
For years, academics and diplomats have rung alarm bells about the Mekong becoming the “next South China Sea,” a situation where nations are no longer satisfied to talk idly about peace and noninterference and start to take actions to curb the policies of another nation.
A corollary to the idea of the “next South China Sea” is Beijing’s dominance over the waters, which analysts believe the MLC has facilitated.
As a compromise, several environmental activists and riparian experts have suggested that downstream Mekong nations ought to take a pause to consider the long-term consequences of what they are doing to their waterways.
In 2011, the Myanmar government, then under quasi-civilian rule, did just that when work on the China-backed Myitsone dam on the upper Irrawaddy River was suspended for environmental reasons.
The decision was made after extensive lobbying by environmental NGOs and reticence from the Ministry of Electric Power about moving ahead. The project was designed to export 90% of the power generated to China.
Mostly, however, work on development projects along the Mekong have continued at an alarmingly rapid pace, justified by their governments as necessary for economic progress.
All five Southeast Asian nations in the MLC – perhaps with the exception of Thailand – consider themselves to be suffering from infrastructure deficits. Hydropower dams and other projects cater to governments’ concept of infrastructure-led development, while also providing leaders with something they can point to as part of their legacies.
Acquiescing to China’s soft power through venues like the MLC also ensures regional governments remain on good terms with Beijing for new investments, as was on full display at this week’s MLC leaders’ summit. The Chinese premier signed 20 new development agreements with host Cambodia worth several billion dollars.
And the fact that mega-projects like dams on the Mekong are often a rich source of bribes and backhanders is yet another potential windfall for MLC member governments.