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International relations

Vietnam puts the Mekong's fate on ASEAN's agenda

Hanoi looks to counter China by stressing river's noncommercial role

BANGKOK -- In a nod to green diplomacy, Vietnam is raising the geopolitical stakes over the Mekong River, Southeast Asia's largest body of water, which has dropped to record lows due to a severe drought and construction of large dams.

Hanoi has signaled its intent to raise the issue this year as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. By putting the Mekong, which is shared by five riparian countries in the river's basin and China, on the 10-nation regional bloc's agenda, Vietnam has transformed the waterway from a subregional issue to one of greater international concern.

Until now ASEAN has limited its political interventions over transnational waterways to the South China Sea, another area where China looms large. The ASEAN countries that share the Mekong, whose 4,600 km course takes it from China's Tibetan Plateau to Vietnam's Mekong Delta, are Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The river basin serves as the region's rice bowl.

According to government sources in Hanoi, the fate of the Mekong will be up for discussion when Vietnam hosts the annual ASEAN ministerial meeting this summer. "Mekong sustainable development and connectivity has become an important issue for ASEAN and beyond," states a draft of an official concept paper on the ASEAN+Policy Dialogue on Mekong basin development. "ASEAN should play a greater role in the development of the Mekong subregion, while strengthening its centrality in the regional architecture," the paper says.

Vietnam's move to check China's growing dominance over the river is receiving support from some quarters. "Vietnam's [effort] is a game-changer," said Pou Sothirak, a former Cambodian energy minister and executive director at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, a Phnom Penh think tank. "Vietnam is seriously concerned about the increasing exploitation of hydropower in the Mekong River in recent years by upstream nations."

A fisherman pulls a net from the Mekong River in Thailand. Drought threatens the lives of more than 60 million people who depend on the Mekong and its tributaries for fishing, farming and transport.   © Reuters

Hanoi's effort to raise the issue follows a rare diplomatic rebuke of China by Thailand earlier this month over Beijing's economic muscle-flexing in the lower Mekong. The pro-military government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha canceled a Chinese plan to blast a rocky stretch of the river, effectively sinking Beijing's quest to deepen the shallows of the Mekong shared by Thailand and Laos in order to accommodate large cargo ships.

This shipping route, which was approved in 2000 by Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, sought to boost commerce between China's landlocked Yunnan Province and Laos, Southeast Asia's only landlocked country. The blueprint called for deepening the river to allow 500-ton barges to ferry goods up and down the river year round. At present some 3,500 smaller 80- to 250-ton ships ply the river, but only during the rainy season.

Local and regional environmentalists lobbied against the plan, arguing the Beijing's effort to tap the Mekong for its commercial potential came at the expense of its environmental and social value.

"It was designed to make this part of the Mekong River solely for commercial navigation and turn the river into a single-purpose river," said Pianporn Deetes, Thailand campaign director for International Rivers, a global environmental pressure group. "People who live off the river by fishing, rafting, and casting nets would have been barred from their livelihood."

Vietnam's diplomatic foray takes place against a backdrop of anger that is fueled by one of the region's worst-ever droughts. The dry spell began in June last year when rains failed at the start of the annual monsoon season and has continued into the current dry season. The parched conditions threaten the lives of more than 60 million people who depend on the Mekong and its tributaries for fishing, farming and transport.

The grassroots anger is being directed against China because of a string of dams it has built on the Lancang River, as the Chinese call the upper reaches of the Mekong that flow through it. The 11 dams control the water flow to the lower Mekong during extreme droughts, said Brian Eyler, author of the book "Last Days of the Mighty Mekong," because "China's flow contribution to the river during this period is 50%."

Dams in the five riparian countries have worsened the plight of local communities. Laos, the region's poorest country and an ally of China, is the most enthusiastic builder, with 65 completed dams, as it works to become the "battery of Southeast Asia" by exporting hydropower. Eyler estimates that 103 dams have been built and that 65 more are under construction along the Lancang-Mekong River.

There are other costs as well. Fitch Solutions Macro Research, the economic research arm of Fitch Ratings, warned last week that the spike in hydropower projects would impact the region's food security. "This could see these economies increasingly rely on China for essential food imports to make up the shortfall over the long term, making these countries even more vulnerable to Chinese influence," according to the report.

Beijing appears to be hearing the criticism. During a recent meeting of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation initiative launched by China, which brings together China's five Mekong neighbors, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi assured his counterparts that China would release more water from its dams "to help Mekong countries mitigate the drought."

But development analysts question China's hydro-diplomacy. Although China argues that "one of the benefits of the LMC is it can mitigate droughts by operating dams, it is clear that infrastructure solutions alone are not the answer," said Carl Middleton, deputy director for international research at the Center for Social Development Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "The drought should force a rethink since it lays bare the river as more than an economic enterprise."

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