Water Wars: Mekong River a New Front in US-China Rivalry as Beijing Ups Spending over Downstream Countries

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The Mekong River has develop into a new entrance in US-China rivalry, environmentalists and officers say, with Beijing overtaking Washington in each spending and affect over downstream nations on the mercy of its management of the river’s waters.

It’s a confrontation during which the Trump administration – which has largely maintained funding for an Obama-era environmental and improvement programmes within the Lower Mekong – is dropping floor.

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The two powers’ wrestle just lately moved into the realm of science – with the US and Chinese governments every touting completely different stories about whether or not China’s 11 dams on the river had been harming nations downstream.

China’s dams have given it in depth management of the waters that move all the way down to Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, which have lengthy relied on the river for agriculture, fisheries, and more and more for hydropower in Laos.

That management allows China to set the agenda for improvement linked to the waterway, and to exclude the United States from a job after a long time of selling Mekong initiatives as a option to exert its affect within the area.

“This is changing into a geopolitical situation, very similar to the South China Sea, between the United States and China,” mentioned Witoon Permpongsacharoen of the group Mekong Energy and Ecology Network.

The state of the Mekong is an pressing fear for the 60 million individuals who rely on it for farming and fishing because it flows from China, the place it is called the Lancang, by means of Southeast Asia earlier than emptying into the ocean from Vietnam’s delta.

Last 12 months noticed record drought, with Lower Mekong river ranges the bottom in a long time. Fewer and smaller fish catches have been reported for years.

A US ambassador within the area described China as “hoarding” water in its 11 dams on its higher portion of the 4,350-km (2,700-mile) river, harming the livelihoods of tens of millions of individuals in downstream nations.

China additionally has been stepping up actions of its Lancang Mekong Cooperation group (LMC), a comparatively new intergovernmental body {that a} second US ambassador decried as making an attempt to “sideline” the 25-year-old Mekong River Commission (MRC).

The MRC traces its origins back to US efforts to advertise improvement through the Cold War. It works with the governments of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to foster the sharing and sustainable improvement of the river and its sources.

China’s international ministry instructed Reuters any US suggestion that Beijing was making an attempt to take over the Mekong dialog was groundless.

“Countries outdoors the area ought to chorus from stirring up bother out of nothing,” the ministry mentioned.


The US-China rivalry broke right into a disagreement after a Washington-funded research in April concluded that China’s dams held back waters throughout last 12 months’s drought.

The research by Eyes on Earth, a US-based analysis and consulting firm specialising in water, constructed a prediction model primarily based on satellite tv for pc imaging and MRC knowledge that it mentioned confirmed “lacking” waters downstream, beginning in round 2010.

US Ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy mentioned he was “fairly stunned” on the stark findings.

“That was the identical right here within the area,” Murphy instructed Reuters, referring to the response to the revelation.

“To study {that a} major supply for the diminished stage of the Mekong, and modifications within the Mekong within the Lower Mekong area, is what’s taking place upstream in China – with primarily the hoarding of water,” Murphy mentioned.

China reacted with outrage, with its embassy in Thailand denouncing the research as “politically motivated, aimed toward focusing on China with sick intent” – a charge its creator and US officers denied.

Then, last week, China’s Global Times revealed an article a couple of Chinese research it characterised as disproving the Eyes on Earth report.

“River dams in China helped alleviate drought alongside Lancang-Mekong, analysis finds,” learn the headline within the newspaper revealed by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party.

However, the research by Tsinghua University and the China Institute of Water Resources the truth is mentioned China’s dams may, in future, assist alleviate drought, not that they really did so in 2019, in response to a duplicate obtained by Reuters.

“We should not that means to match with every other report. We goal to supply some fundamental details to facilitate mutual understanding, belief and due to this fact cooperation within the basin,” lead researcher Tian Fuqiang instructed Reuters in an e-mail.

Researchers will argue concerning the science, however for the Lower Mekong nations, it comes all the way down to belief and energy.

Sebastian Strangio, creator of a book on Southeast Asia’s relations with China, “In the Dragon’s Shadow”, mentioned China’s downstream neighbours virtually definitely belief China’s narrative much less – however Beijing’s regional would possibly cannot be ignored.

“They depend on China now for a life-giving useful resource, and it is very troublesome for them to overtly problem the Chinese govt on its dam constructing,” Strangio mentioned.

Reluctant to take sides, not one of the MRC nations has commented publicly in favour of both the Chinese or American research.


The United States has spent $120 million on its Lower Mekong Initiative because it was based 11 years in the past.

China seems to be spending extra: in 2016, the Beijing-sponsored LMC arrange a $300 million fund for analysis grants to be awarded for the 5 downstream nations.

The LMC didn’t reply to requests for an interview nor to questions on its 95 proposed initiatives, deliberate or underway, which might be on a listing reviewed by Reuters from its first Ministerial Meeting in Beijing in December.

The Chinese-led group is taking the next profile with an annual international ministers’ assembly and plans for a summit of leaders, probably together with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whereas much less heavy-hitting water and setting officers sometimes go to MRC conferences, a Thai govt official mentioned.

The LMC drew criticism from the U.S. ambassador to Thailand, Michael DeSombre, who known as it a “parallel organisation” to the MRC.

“We actually would encourage the People’s Republic of China to work along with the Mekong River Commission, quite than making an attempt to sideline it by creating its personal organisation that it controls,” DeSombre mentioned.

Despite the US warnings, officers on the Mekong River Commission say it welcomes cooperation with the LMC and China.

One cause is that the fee and member governments need extra knowledge about operations of China’s dams, which maintain back a mixed capability 47 billion cubic metres of water.

In 2002, Beijing began notifying downstream nations of when it might launch water that might trigger flooding.

But China has disclosed little else to allow downstream nations to make plans and request changes within the river’s flows.

China, at a February assembly of the LMC, promised extra cooperation with its neighbours, however when talking privately, regional officers are sceptical.

“China hasn’t shared any constructive knowledge
,” mentioned a Vietnamese official who declined to be recognized.

[Attribution News18]

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