ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
China, US angle for Mekong influence
The Mekong River is steadily emerging as a testing ground for China’s public diplomacy. Beijing, it appears, wants to reach out to its southern neighbors who share the river more as a friendly giant than an imposing bully, according to the Inter Press Service.
An unprecedented move to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding two of four Chinese built dams on the upper stretches of the river that snakes through southern China is only the latest in a diplomatic shift towards more openness that has been taking shape since mid-March.
On June 7, senior government officials from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam were offered their first glimpse of the newly
built Xiaowan dam and the older Jinghong dam as part of a fact-finding tour. It was a groundbreaking journey into the mountainous terrain of China's Yunnan province that had until this month been forbidden territory to officials from the Mekong River Basin countries.
The welcome mat was rolled out by Beijing in early April during the first summit of the Mekong River countries, including Myanmar, in addition to the four basin countries and China. That summit, held in the Thai town of Hua Hin, was to mark the 15th anniversary of the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which paved the way for the creation of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-governmental body of the four lower Mekong countries tasked to manage and develop the basin area.
Some saw a noticeable turning point for China in March as it started to shed its secretive policies about its designs on the Mekong River, which begins its 4,660-kilometer long journey from the Tibetan plateau, heads through Yunnan, then passes Myanmar before snaking its way through the basin to empty out into the South China Sea in southern Vietnam.
What prompted this move, some suggest, was the withering criticism of China's four completed dams and plans for several more came under as the river dried up earlier this year, hitting lows not seen in the past 50 years in some areas of the basin. There are approximately 60 million people living in the basin, many of whom depend on fishing in the Mekong for their livelihoods.
Significantly, Beijing offered its olive branch through Thailand, the Southeast Asian country where most of the anti-dam criticism by environmental and grassroots activists emerged. Groups like Save the Mekong Coalition, a Bangkok-based network, had earlier declared that the "changes to the Mekong River's daily hydrology and sediment load since the early 1990s have already been linked to the operation of the [Chinese] dam cascade".
Chen Dehai, a diplomat from China's embassy in Bangkok, held a press conference in March that broke Beijing's silence about the dams, which has prevailed since the Manwan, the first of the China's dams built on the upper Mekong, came on line in 1992.
The Chinese dams were not the reason for the record drop in the Mekong's water level during this year's dry season, Chen told reporters. "The average annual runoff volume of the Lancang River at the outbound point [of China] is approximately 64 billion cubic meters, accounting for only 13.5 percent of the Mekong's run off volume at the [South China] sea outlet," he said, using the Chinese name for the Mekong.
During his visit to Bangkok in March, Hu Zhengyue, China's assistant foreign minister, reportedly offered reassuring words of friendship to its Mekong neighbors. "China would not do anything to damage mutual interest with neighboring countries in the Mekong," Hu was reported to have told Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
"China has realized that its past approach of avoiding public engagement and public diplomacy with the lower Mekong countries has not worked," said Carl Middleton, Mekong program coordinator for International Rivers, a US-based environmental lobby.
Yet what seems lacking so far is recognition by Beijing of its past errors in building four dams without consulting communities in the lower Mekong, Middleton said. "People need to be compensated for the past errors."
The information about the dams that China is now willing to share with the lower Mekong countries and the MRC should be given to the communities in the lower Mekong, he added. "China needs to recognize that the Mekong is a shared river if regional peace and prosperity is to be achieved."
Achieving such regional peace is in Beijing's interest for geopolitical reasons, say analysts, in the wake of new interest shown by the US government to help manage and develop the Mekong river, which Washington arguably lost interest in soon after its defeat during the US war in Vietnam.
In mid-May, the MRC and the Mississippi River Commission inked their first deal for river management cooperation, confirming a plan that was unveiled last July by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the first-ever US-Lower Mekong Ministerial Meeting in the southern Thai resort of Phuket.
During that visit, Clinton also signed the Treaty of Amity, a regional security deal that Beijing had already signed in 2003.