China is using the Mekong River as a geopolitical tool.
Established in 1995, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is a formal agreement between the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. The agreement “came about as the four countries saw a common interest in jointly managing their shared water resources and developing the economic potential of the river,” according to the MRC’s website.
In 2006, realizing the importance of the Mekong, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decided to get involved. In the 15 years since, the CCP has done everything in its power to manipulate the Mekong to its advantage.
In 2016, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), a multilateral agreement between the riparian states of the Lancang River and Mekong River, was signed into effect. The Lancang, one of the largest and longest rivers in China that merges with the Mekong, originates in the Tibetan Highlands, an enormous, elevated plateau in South Asia.
The Mekong, so much more than a stream of water, is being weaponized by Beijing. In the second week of June, Wang Yi, a politician who has served as China’s foreign minister since 2013, chaired the Sixth Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. Using COVID-19 as a reference point throughout, he praised the LMC members for their “anti-pandemic cooperation.” Wang spoke about the importance of “economic recovery” and deepening “cultural exchanges.” Yi also spoke about the new prospects for commercial growth, and the fact that the number of cargo flights between member countries “have increased from 49 per week in 2019 to 289 per week.” It’s clear that the CCP views the LMC as a means of solidifying its influence in Southeast Asia.
Hydro-Politics and the Manipulation of the Mekong
Welcome to the age of hydro-politics, where the allocation of water resources is viewed through a political lens. We see it in Israel, where authorities continue to manipulate Palestinian water supplies. In Asia, meanwhile, the CCP is busy manipulating the Mekong.
As Southeast Asia’s most important river, 65 million people rely on the Mekong for food and employment. For many of these people, fish provides their primary source of protein. Without the Mekong, millions of people would be at risk of succumbing to kwashiorkor, a form of malnutrition caused by a lack of protein in one’s diet. When it comes to fishing, the longest river in Southeast Asia accounts for more than 25 percent of the global freshwater catch. At around 200 million acres in size—roughly the size of Texas and Arkansas combined—the Greater Mekong region is home to some of the most biologically diverse habitats in Asia. Sadly, the CCP is destroying these habitats. By doing so, it’s also destroying the lives of millions of people across the region. Before the Mekong even leaves China, it must pass through 11 massive dams. Not surprisingly, the construction of these dams serves to help China and harm the other countries that rely on the river for survival.
A report published by Future Directions International (FDI), an independent, nonprofit strategic institute, makes for a sobering read. Over half the Mekong’s course is located in China, which gives the CCP “considerable opportunity to exploit its rapid flow.” China, the upper riparian, “has considerable influence over lower riparians.” With so many people reliant on the river as a means of survival, “alternative sources of food and income” must be sought.
As Foreign Policy has noted, in the not so distant future, the CCP could use its 11 upstream dams “to turn off the tap for the countries downstream.” Beijing could, if pushed, hold LMC members hostage. Because of China’s interference, the year 2019 saw the Mekong’s water level drop to its lowest level in a century. Interestingly, according to researchers at the Stimson Center, 2019 also happened to be the same year that the CCP “held back more water than ever—even as downstream countries suffered through an unprecedented wet season drought.” The CCP’s continuous manipulation of the Mekong, warned the researchers, “is causing erratic and devastating changes in water levels downstream.” Sudden, deadly flash floods are directly linked to dams located in China. “Unexpected dam releases,” wrote the researchers, have resulted in “rapid rises in river level that have devastated communities downstream, causing millions in damage shocking the river’s ecological processes.”
Besides fish supplies being badly affected, rice plantations—which have shaped and reshaped Southeast Asia for more than 4,000 years—are being destroyed. Rice, it must be noted, is the staple food of more than 557 million people in the region. In LMC countries like Cambodia, where poverty is forecasted to almost double in the coming years, and Burma (Myanmar), where almost half the country’s population is at risk of falling into poverty, China’s manipulative meddling only serves to worsen matters.
What’s occurring in Southeast Asia is not just a water issue, it’s a humanitarian one. The death of the Mekong is one by a thousand cuts, many of them inflicted by the CCP. If Beijing continues to manipulate the Mekong, more crops will be destroyed and more people will suffer.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.