Lower Mekong countries are seeking better cooperation with China amidst increased environmental concerns about upstream Mekong dams. A recent policy forum co-organised by SUMERNET on Environment, Agriculture, and Livelihoods in Cambodia discussed ways forward for the relationship between the Lower Mekong countries and China.
China’s continuing hydropower development in the upstream Mekong River poses concerns about impacts on the environment and local livelihoods in the Lower Mekong countries of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Vietnam and Thailand.
Meanwhile, China has also embarked on its Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) as a mechanism to improve dialogue and its relationship with the Lower Mekong countries.
But China’s huge investments in large-scale dam infrastructure in the upper reaches of the Mekong River as well as the tributaries in the Lower Mekong region pose a tricky problem for improving this relationship.
During the unprecedented drought in the Mekong Region during 2015-16 (which has now abated with the onset of the rainy season) China‘s dam construction was blamed both for the falling dry-season levels of the Mekong River and unseasonal floods.
Speaking at the policy forum, Dr. Kim Hang Pham Do from Massey University said: “The Mekong River Commision has reported that construction of dams on the Mekong River may pose immediate and long-term threats to the food security and livelihoods of over 60 million people in the Lower Mekong Basin.”
Many forest ecosystems could become degraded. According to the World Commission on Dams, the overall global level of physical displacement could range from 40 to 80 million. The dams built on the Mekong River and its tributaries would result in the relocation of millions rural people.
Dr Pham Do cautioned that, despite these concerns, “Water is just one issue of discussion for the Lower Mekong countries and China. But this issue alone is insufficient to establish a viable governance regime. There is also the issue of markets.”
“The ASEAN Economic Community established in 2015 offers many opportunities to the business community and general public in this region. China is keen on expanding its market in the Mekong Region. China has also improved its economic ties and extended cooperation to political, security and social fields such as by starting the Lancang-Mekong Initiative last year. Hence, these linkages can be considered as a mechanism for achieving sustainable development in the Mekong,” she explained.
A larger question is how China will attempt to work together with both the Lower Mekong bloc of countries and the larger ASEAN community that represents Southeast Asia.
In recent years, China-ASEAN relations have been strained due to the controversy over China’s sovereignty claims over islands in the East Sea off Vietnam and the Philippines.
Associate Professor Ravichandran Moorthy from the University Kebangsaan Malaysia confirmed that: “Whatever transpires in mainland Southeast Asia will impact on China.”
“But China prefers bilateral rather than multilateral engagement primarily because with multilateral engagement, they tend to lose their position. China would prefer to be in a stronger position with smaller states. Even with the Mekong River Commission (MRC), China is not a member. They have now come up with their own framework, which is the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), which is another framework that could further break up multilateral engagement in the region,” he explained.
How to take forward the relationship among regional institutions such as the MRC which appears to be losing relevance even as China’s LMC becomes a new player in the region?
Dr. Carl Middleton from Chulalongkorn University is of the view that: “There is an urgent need to build linkages between the fragmented transboundary institutions on water and electricity, including between the MRC, Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), and Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC).”
He suggested one way is to “empower river basin organizations (regional and sub-basin) to build closer linkages to electricity planning processes.”
“There is a need for dialogues that build personal and institutional linkages between the multiple arenas and people/organizations engaged in electricity and water governance,” he explained.
A participant from the Vietnam National Mekong Committee suggested that the current regional mechanisms such as the MRC should be strengthened: “The MRC should continue to assert its leading role in management and coordination of natural resources utilization and protection in the region.”
Dr. Chayanis Krittasudthacheeva from SEI Asia, leading the Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET), suggested that other informal collaboration mechanisms such as “the inter-governmantal institute based on mutual interest, research institutes, CSOs, and media could play a more important role in the future.”
The policy forum was co-organised by the Lower Mekong Public Policy Initiative (LMPPI), Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET), and Cambodia Development Resource Institute (CDRI) and held in Siem Reap, Cambodia in 11-12 August 2016.