At first glance, it looks beneficent. As countries along the Lower Mekong river that snakes through mainland Southeast Asia struggled in the grip of a severe drought, China announced it would release water from its upstream Jinghong dam over nearly a month from March 15. The announcement was partly intended as a goodwill gesture one week ahead of the inaugural Lancang-Mekong Cooperation summit of leaders of the six Mekong region countries.
But while the water release will spell some immediate relief for the drought-stricken region, it portends future geopolitical tensions between China and its southern Mekong neighbors. Having unilaterally accumulated political power by exploiting geography and manipulating natural waterways through the construction of a slew of upriver dams, China appears intent to set the regional water management rules as it deems fit.