Mekong Region Grows More Important to China-US Relations

Amid increasingly tense China-U.S. relations, a U.S. official alluded to China but did not specifically name China regarding “risks” and “challenges” imposed by approaches to dam building and cross-border riverine practices in the Mekong region.

At a workshop in Phnom Penh by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), the U.S. Embassy’s chargé d’affaires, Michael Newbill, said the actions of “a single nation” in the Mekong region are “worrisome” to both the riverine countries and the U.S.

“In the last two years, shifting geopolitical dynamics have begun to pose major new challenges,” Newbill said.

“We have seen the growth of debt dependency; disproportionate control over dozens of upstream dams by a single nation; plans to blast and dredge riverbeds,” he added in remarks later posted to the U.S. Embassy website.

FILE – A Chinese construction worker stands at the Colombo Port City in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jan. 2, 2018. President Maithripala Sirisena’s government had criticized the previous administration for leading the country into a Chinese debt trap.

The notion of debt dependency, or debt-trap, emerged in 2017. It refers to China’s practice of offering funding for projects that enable Beijing’s access to local resources rather than helping a local economy. Instead, the countries become “vulnerable to China’s influence.”

A senior embassy official, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter, confirmed that Newbill was referring to China when he referenced “a single nation” last week.

The U.S. diplomat went on to say the “risks” of having one country dominate planning for the Mekong region include the erosion of existing governance, the presence of extraterritorial river patrols, trans-boundary crimes, and trafficking of drugs, wildlife and humans.

“All these trends pose risks to the autonomy, economic independence, and water, energy and food security across the Mekong region,” Newbill said.

The Mekong River runs more than 4,300 kilometers through six countries, vital to large populations for farming, fishing, drinking water, industry and power generation.

He added that the region, which includes China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, is “strategically important” to the U.S. given that Washington treaty ally Thailand and increasingly important strategic partner Vietnam are in the region.

The same senior embassy official, who was one of the staffers involved in the preparation of Newbill’s speech, added that the chargé d’affaires also meant China is responsible for all of the risks he mentioned.

‘Potential area of power competition’

Separately, Sek Sophal, a researcher at Japan’s Ritsumeikan Center for Asia Pacific Studies, told VOA Khmer in an email, “Even though he [Newbill] did not name any specific country, it is obvious that China meets all of the points he raised.

“Personally, I believe he was talking about China,” Sophal continued.

The Cambodian scholar added that the Mekong region is a strategic gateway for the U.S. in confronting China, environmental sustainability and the rule of law.

The remarks by the American envoy suggest the Mekong region may become a new area for U.S.-China competition.

The world’s two biggest economies are already involved in a trade war and in security confrontations from the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea.

The Mekong region “is certainly a potential area of power competition in Southeast Asia apart from the South China Sea,” said Pongphisoot Busbarat, a lecturer on the political science faculty at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University.

China is seeking to use this “backyard” region to project its international leadership through “foreign policy activism.” This is evidenced by investments in infrastructure and dams in the framework of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation and its Belt and Road Initiative — drawing suspicion and skepticism from many countries, including the U.S., Busbarat wrote in an email exchange with VOA Khmer.

“Even though China has reiterated its sincerity, and we cannot deny that China’s role contributes and benefits the region in many ways, this policy activism inevitably receives criticisms and suspicion of the real intention,” he added.

The Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to request for comments.

China’s Mekong dam project generates growing controversy.

Development concerns

Pou Sothirak, who runs the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), said “inappropriate” and “irresponsible” developments of dams are to blame for higher frequency of drought and floods along the Mekong River.

“These ill-conceived schemes of developments have the potential to cause destructive damages if suitable resolutions are not found satisfactorily,” Pou Sothirak said in a speech last week at the CICP workshop.

From headwaters in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, the Mekong River flows 4,300 kilometers across mainland Southeast Asia before draining into the South China Sea. In Chinese, the river is known as the Lancang.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) was formed in 1995. All Mekong countries except for China and Myanmar are members with a common goal of better regulating what happens on and to the river.

According the MRC, the river is rich in its biodiversity, providing many of the necessities for the “natural resource-based rural livelihoods of a population of 60 million people living in the Lower Mekong Basin.”

As MRC outsiders, China and Myanmar could evade the commission’s jurisdiction requiring member states to present bids for dam building for studies and negotiation.

Since its creation, the MRC has been criticized for failing to stop dam building along the river.

Mekong River Project, Xayaburi Dam

According to the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, by 2030, there will be as many as 31 hydropower dams built along the Mekong mainstream, many of them in China or funded by Chinese investments.

The Switzerland-based World Wildlife Fund has warned that damming the Mekong River would have diverse environmental implications on the fish stocks, wildlife habitats, farmlands, and natural ecosystem of the river, important to food security and traditional livelihoods of the people relying on the river.

Countries in the Mekong Region have been engaged in other international initiatives, including the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation with China and the Lower Mekong Initiative with the U.S.

Sim Vireak, an adviser with the Cambodian Foreign Ministry, said Mekong countries aim to find synergies from cooperation with external partners to benefit the river developments.

“The Mekong countries are mindful that the Mekong platform should not be politicized or become an arena for anti-China, anti-U.S., anti-Japan, anti-Korea, anti-India polarizations,” Sim Vireak said.

Turning the Mekong region into another place where China and the U.S. face off would have “geopolitical consequences reminiscent of the recent past,” he added in reference to Indochina wars of the last century.

Though the U.S. appears to be unwilling to outspend China’s multibillion-dollar injections into the region, the rivalry is here to stay, Sek Sophal said.

“The worst-case scenario is that small states are forced to take sides to survive,” he said in an online conversation with VOA Khmer. “No matter which side they will take, they have to pay the prices.”

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