China’s international rivers are becoming a focal point for contests over control of natural resources. China, in its powerful position as headwater nation, continues to actively promote hydropower development domestically and internationally. When downstream nations rely on un-dammed rivers for fisheries and irrigation, this puts pressure on an increasingly strained natural resource and introduces additional tension into bilateral relations. Nowhere is this more clear than in the relationship between China and Vietnam, the nations that bookend the flow of the Lancang-Mekong river.
Official reports from the 10th meeting of the China-Vietnam Steering Committee on Cooperation held in Beijing in mid-April recite obligatory warm words and vague assurances of deepening cooperation and safeguarding maritime stability (Xinhua, April 17; State Council, April 18). Despite statements of “brotherly friendship,” the two nations are competing not just for fishing and mineral rights in the ocean waters off their coasts, but for the river water that China seeks to harness for hydropower and Vietnam needs for agriculture (CCTV, November 7, 2015). This water has been in short supply in recent years, with dire ramifications for Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, where the ocean creeps in when the river recedes. In 2016, an unusually strong El Niño weather pattern hit Vietnam, contributing to its worst drought in 90 years. Saltwater intrusion accompanies low freshwater levels in many parts of Vietnam, and is generally worsened by the weak rainy seasons of El Niño years. Amid widespread crop failures, Vietnam asked China to release water from its upstream dams (Vietnam Express, March 16, 2016). Even with this temporary influx, the drought was damaging to Vietnam. The World Bank downgraded its predictions of GDP growth and a government report found that the drought cost Vietnam some $660 million (Vietnam Express, June 1, 2016). In 2016 the United Nations estimated that nearly a million people in Vietnam lacked access to drinking water (UN, March 20, 2016).
Beyond ocean-borne weather trends, the glaciers at the river’s headwaters are receding, and China’s reservoir dams increase evaporation rates upstream (ChinaDialogue, March 8). With other nations along the way moving to capitalize on the hydropower potential of the lower Mekong, the regional players are scrambling to advance their own interests and existing cooperation mechanisms are showing the strain.
Funding cuts have hit hard at the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the longest-running multilateral forum managing changes to the river. For years, the MRC has suffered criticism for mismanagement and its inability to stop potentially damaging development (PhnomPenh Post, January 15, 2016). Laos ignored requests for impact studies in 2012 when it built the Xayaburi dam, the first to cut across the lower Mekong’s mainstream. The same scenario played out in 2015 and late 2016 with Laos’s Don Sahong and Pak Beng dams, undermining the MRC’s already weak authority (PhnomPenh Post, January 29, 2015).
China’s Long Shadow
Part of the challenge in navigating cooperation among the Mekong nations is that only four of the six Mekong basin nations are party to the 1995 agreement: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The largest dams on the mainstream lay upriver, in the portion of the Mekong known as the Lancang, squarely in Chinese territory. China has been invited to join the MRC but opted instead to act as a “dialogue partner,” as has Myanmar, avoiding the obligation to be bound by MRC prior consultation rules for dam-building. The existing dams are a fraction of the number China has planned for the Lancang, and many downstream are already alarmed at changes that have coincided with the dams’ construction and the potential impact of further development.
In 2015, China created the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) mechanism, an apparently competing multilateral platform that includes all six Mekong nations and in which China plays a leading role. The MRC has said it welcomes the LMC, all while insisting that its own organization remains more relevant than ever. Unlike the MRC, the LMC’s founding document does not mandate any prior consultation and makes no mention of disputes or their resolution (China.org.cn, March 25, 2016).
Seeking Truth from Facts: China’s Past Positions on Hydropower
China’s position has been that damming the Lancang-Mekong is good for downstream nations and that there is no evidence that any negative changes in drought or flooding are linked to hydropower activity. If anything, China argues, the damming of the river provides stability for its downstream neighbors, tempering floods in the wet season and mitigating droughts during the dry.
For example, in a 2004 speech at the United Nations Symposium on Hydropower and Sustainable Development in Beijing, He Gong, vice president of the Chinese Society for Hydroelectric Engineering and president of China Huadian Corporation (one of China’s largest state-owned power generating enterprises and the company behind plans to dam China’s free-flowing Nu River), discussed the “comprehensive benefits brought about by hydropower development” (UN, October 27, 2004). He argued for speeding up hydropower development in China, saying “making the running river endless energy and making the beautiful rivers more beautiful while constructing hydropower projects is now both the expectation of people and the way of building [a] stronger China.” This faith in the power of “scientific development,” and particularly hydropower, to cure China’s social problems has been a constant for decades and continues to guide government action. As evidence of this belief, the State Council in 2016 issued approval for a pilot program harnessing water and mineral resources for poverty alleviation (State Council, October 18, 2016).
When the positive hydropower narrative has been challenged, Chinese officials, media, and professionals have fought back (FMPRC, April 2, 2010). In 2010, droughts on the Mekong prompted an uptick in criticism of China and its dams. A news article coinciding with a Mekong River Summit quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang who insisted that the droughts were due to environmental crises independent of China and that the Lancang only contributes 13.5 percent of the Mekong’s flow, a point often repeated in official statements (Beijing Daily, April 2, 2010).
The spirit of this defense has persisted. In a 2014 interview posted on the central Chinese government portal, Professor of Foreign Affairs Zhou Yongsheng angrily denounced arguments in the Vietnamese media suggesting that upstream development was damaging the Mekong ecology as “very irresponsible” (Gov.cn, December 22, 2014). He argued, “we all know that water resources development, such as dams, engage in water and electricity, is not to reduce the river water flow, because the dam is only filled to a certain high-level, water flow is normal,” and cited the dams’ mediation effect and its ability to take into account the needs of people downstream.
However, research such as a 2016 study published in the Journal of Hydrology points out that the seasonal water flows constitute a vital “flood pulse” crucial to replenishing bodies like Cambodia’s Tonle Sap and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, and that eliminating this natural cycle is itself damaging to the ecology (Journal of Hydrology, February 2017).
The MRC’s CEO has been careful not to echo these accusations, instead saying only that the 2016 drought was the fault of a super El Niño weather pattern and focusing, as China would prefer to do, on the “warmth and friendliness” of relations and China’s benevolence in releasing water during the worst of the drought.
China’s hydropower policies have illustrated its leadership’s philosophy and broader priorities domestically and internationally for decades. Its unilateral dam construction has provided a model for other nations, promoting an approach that verges on a zero-sum game. As the headwater nation, China has the most leverage over the river’s flow and has in the past acted with the impunity this affords.
China’s general insistence on sovereignty and resistance to binding multilateral commitments makes it necessarily sympathetic to nations like Laos seeking to bolster their hydropower resources. But beyond serving as an example and a political ally, China has supported other Mekong nations in building dams on the ground through its program of infrastructure-building-for-hire. China is at present the world’s largest builder and financier of hydropower dams.
When building dams, Chinese companies nominally recognize the social impacts of the planned project in its submitted documents, primarily focus on the people who will need to be resettled. However, China has a poor record of compensating those displaced by development domestically, and many of its relocation schemes have been disasters for villagers. 
A Softening Stance: Learning How to Manage River Disputes
While China continues to act unilaterally, there have been some signals in recent years that its leadership recognizes the increasing importance of river policy to its foreign affairs and has moved to moderate its tone. The formerly brash go-it-alone approach to the Lancang is at odds with China’s efforts to promote itself as a benevolent regional power.
According to Li Zhifei, a scholar at the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the LMC was established as a response to strong international criticism of China that began in 2010 (GWU, April 10). It appears that China has elected to abandon an ineffective counteroffensive that did little to soothe downstream suspicions and aims instead to win over its Southeast Asian neighbors by funding new projects through the LMC.
Li maintains that domestic debates in the past ten years have pushed the Chinese government to take a “cautious approach to dam building, especially in ecologically sensitive and seismically active regions.” Prior to 2010, China did not pay much attention to research on Lancang-Mekong river water issues, and was taken by surprise when the water issues rose to become one of the core issues in border and foreign affairs (GWU, April 10). Particularly in the case of the 2010 drought, she argued, China did not know how to respond effectively to international criticism.
Li suggests that China reacts slowly to transboundary river issues because of the byzantine bureaucracy behind its current water management system. The country has no fewer than 14 departments involved with transboundary river management, many of which were tasked with overlapping functions, leading to uncoordinated responses.
To promote more effective transboundary cooperation, Li suggests that China should heed domestic experts’ suggestions to implement “ecology compensation” and apply the model internationally “so if downstream countries’ development and utilization are affected, China should provide ecology compensation to remedy their economic loss and ecosystem management.” Even if China had a perfect record of offsetting the injuries of development on vulnerable populations, the idea that China can simply compensate locals fairly for the disruption to their former livelihoods is unlikely to succeed: it is hard to put a price on an entire region’s food security. Already there are squabbles over exactly how much any of the agricultural resources now under threat are truly worth, and many of the dams’ effects are likely to outlast any compensatory scheme.
All of the Mekong basin nations have been guilty of elevating development and the potential for electricity supplies over environmental concerns and agricultural needs. However, the costs may be greater than any had expected, particularly in the context of climate change, when previously unlikely natural events become more commonplace. Headwater glaciers continue to shrink, and changing weather patterns mean river flows are decreasing independent of development, accelerating a textbook tragedy of the commons with the potential to inflame tensions throughout Southeast Asia.
Many dams may only last a fraction of their predicted lifetimes due to sediment buildup, and their negative impact on China’s adaptation capacity to climate change has been known for years (China Brief, May 15, 2012). Dams are not the climate panacea the government has made them out to be and China and Laos may come to rue the place of dams in their development plans.
- See Andrew C. Mertha, China’s Water Warriors Citizen Action and Policy Change, Cornell University Press, 2010.