China’s Mekong diplomatic offensive

Sunny Tan

Manwan Dam

Manwan Dam - the first Chinese Dam to build across the Upper Mekong River

Just a few months ago China used the Mekong River as a testing ground for its diplomacy, Chinese style. This must be seen against the backdrop of its ‘diplomacy’ of silence on the dams since Manwan, the first Chinese dam came on stream in 1992.

The high point of the diplomatic offensive, commencing in March 2010, was China ’s offer of first glimpse of its highly secretive dam, Xiaowan, to the senior government officials of riparian countries, Laos , Thailand , Cambodia and Vietnam , in early June and at a time when the most severe drought in 50 years was nearly over.

This was a mainstream dam on China ’s Mekong-Lancang River , a mammoth one, capable of generating 4,000 megawatts of electricity, its wall rose nearly 300 metres and its monstrous reservoir stretched as far as 170 kilometres upstream.

During the worst months of this year’s drought, March, April and May, the river lobbyists claimed that this dam impounded water and played an important part in the low water level of the Mekong River , but China denied it and blamed the many rainless days throughout the region.

The river lobbyists, who had access to the expertise of hydrologists, asked for water data for the period before the dam was built, the time when it was under construction and the current spell of pervasive drought. Till today there was no report that it had released such data and this gave some credibility to the accusation of the river lobbyist.

It was only in the month of March of this year that China began to shed its secretive policies on its designs on the Mekong River, triggered by the cascade of criticisms that China’s four dams had further lowered the low water level of the Mekong River and had adversely affected the 60 million people who depended on this river for their livelihood.

Thailand was the staging area for Beijing ’s offer of an olive branch because many river lobbyists were based in this country.

In March, Chen Dehai, a diplomat from the Chinese embassy in Bangkok, told journalists that the Chinese dams did not cause the record drop in the water level of the 4,660 kilometre Mekong River because the Mekong-Lancang River, the upper reach of the Mekong River in China, only contributed 13.5 percent of the Mekong’s run-off volume at the point where it flowed into the South China Sea.

In early April, Yao Wan, first secretary of the Chinese embassy in Bangkok , told the audience of river lobbyists, environmentalists and civil society people that though the Xiaowan dam commenced to impound water in July 2009, but it ceased to do so at the beginning of the dry season in 2010.

Around this time, a Chinese politician, assistant foreign minister, Hu Zhengyue went to Bangkok and spoke to Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva and said China would not do anything to damage mutual interest with neighbouring countries in the Mekong .

China went on to offer more reassuring words, clearly reflected by China’s vice-foreign minister, Song Tao, who said Mekong River countries should talk together before they build any dam as they might harm the welfare of the people.

Then a top Chinese civil servant, director-general of International Cooperation, Science and Technology Department, Cheng Mingzhong, said that China would continue with its 14-dam project on Mekong-Lancang and assured the other five Mekong countries that these dams would mitigate the effects of floods and drought.

During the Mekong River Commission summit in Thailand, early April, Song Tao spoke to the foreign minister of Thailand, Kasit Piromya and the latter told the Bangkok Post, an English daily of Thailand, that China had an impressive plan for sustainable development on Mekong-Lancang and so one should not blame China for the flood and drought.

Nearly three months later, late June, two Thai politicians, though small fries compared to Piromya, voiced their opposition to China ’s plan to build 12 more dams on the Mekong-Lancang and wanted China to scrap such projects, at a riverine forum in Ho Chi Minh City , Vietnam .

By this time, one could see that there were flaws in China’s Mekong diplomacy, clearly indicated by the contradictions in the public statements of its diplomats, official and a de facto friend of China, Kasit and all these reinforced the suspicion of the five Mekong countries regarding China’s unstoppable drive to build more mainstream dams on the Mekong-Lancang River.

However, China had a hidden agenda to this diplomatic offensive. It was doing its level best to develop buddy-buddy relations with the five Mekong countries to get them to vote against the tabling of any discussion on its territorial dispute with Vietnam and Malaysia over the Spratley and Paracel islands and Scarborough shoals, located in the South China Sea, during the ASEAN Summit, Hanoi, 6-9 April.

At the end of the day, one could see that China acted like a dilettante or amateur in test-bedding its Mekong River diplomacy. In the first place the exercise was lacking in coordination so that some of the public statements on the Mekong River contradicted one another.

Secondly, China lost its sense of direction as it tried to kill two birds with one stone, as it mixed its Mekong River diplomacy with its hidden agenda to lobby the Mekong states to vote against the tabling of any discussion on its territorial dispute with Vietnam and Malaysia.

However, one should not underestimate China faltering diplomacy on the Mekong as there was the likelihood that it would bounce back to stage another diplomatic offensive, this time it would execute it in style and finesse and as good as its 60-year old African diplomacy, a runaway success.

Photo courtesy of International Rivers