24 March 2020

China’s ‘Development Approach’ to the Mekong Water Disputes

By Zhang Hongzhou

Even as COVID-19 is wreaking havoc and uncertainty around the globe, Vietnam’s Mekong Delta declared an emergency over the devastating drought in early March. Studies suggest that the frequency and severity of droughts in the Mekong region has increased in the past decades, and many blame upstream dams, particularly those in China, for exacerbating the droughts. For years China has been criticized for refusing to join the Mekong River Commission (MRC) while unilaterally building dams upstream on the Mekong River (called the Lancang in China). Such hydro projects have become one of the key triggers for water conflicts between China and other Mekong basin states.

Nevertheless, since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by Chinese President Xi Jinping in late 2013, notable changes has been witnessed in China’s transboundary water policy in the Mekong region, which is considered a pivot point for China’s opening up to South and Southeast Asia.

In the past, China’s Mekong River policy could be broadly summarized as “unilateral development with limited multilateral cooperation.” During this period, the overriding goal of China’s Mekong water policy swung between “rights protection” and ‘stability maintenance.” Rights protection is about China asserting its rights in developing the hydro resources on the upper Mekong lying within its territory, whereas stability maintenance refers to the continuation of stable relations with other riparian countries and the reduction of the negative impact on overall relations during China’s hydro development. In general, rights protection was the predominant goal.

However, when downstream countries’ concerns and criticism pose a major threat to China’s overall relations with these countries or its international image, stability maintenance would become prioritized and China would express goodwill to other riparian states in various forms, such as the release of water during a drought.

BRI and the “Development Approach”

With the launch of the high-profile BRI, Chinese officials and scholars have been advocating the “China solution” to various aspects of global governance challenges. In the arena of nontraditional security issues, including transboundary water conflicts, the “China solution” can be branded as the “development approach,” which reflects the modernist view that economic development and technology can resolve these nontraditional security threats.

For instance, at the Fifth Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, Xi Jinping proclaimed that Asian countries “must find proper solutions to traditional and nontraditional security issues” and “take effective preventive measures of various sorts to eradicate the breeding ground of extremist ideology, and explore a regional security architecture.” Xi further added that “development holds the master key to solving all problems.” Thus, efforts must be made to boost common economic development as development and security and are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Chinese leadership believe that the root causes of various nontraditional security threats can all be traced back to underdevelopment and poverty; therefore the relevant solutions are also to be found in development and poverty alleviation.

The country’s development approach toward water security threats in the Mekong region is certainly taking shape under the newly established Lancang Mekong Cooperation mechanism (LMC). Significant progress has been made toward institution building. Water resources cooperation was listed as one of the five priority areas for LMC; the other four included connectivity, industrial capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, agriculture, and poverty reduction. With substantial financial commitment, China claims that the country is keen to transform water resources cooperation into a flagship field of cooperation under LMC. Apart from major water-related development projects either under construction or being proposed with massive financial support from China, the country is also stepping up efforts in water-related institution building, technological transfers, rules and regulations exchanges, and water-related idea and narrative promotion.

Implications for Mekong Water Governance

While it is still too early to tell how China’s development approach will eventually affect water governance in the Mekong river basin, theoretical and empirical evidence tends to suggest that it presents both opportunities and risks.

On the one hand, economic development and regional integration contribute to social resilience and reduce conflicts arising from resource competitions. In the case of transboundary water conflicts, a highly developed socioeconomy tends to have higher social resilience toward various water shocks, and is thus better at managing water deficits and conflicts. Take Singapore for an example. The island state has only about 110 cubic meters of freshwater per person, but with huge investment in wastewater recycling, seawater desalinization, and good water management, it is expected that Singapore, which currently imports 50 percent of its water from Malaysia, will become self-sufficient in its water supplies. What this means is that water issues, which have long been a thorny bilateral issue between Singapore and Malaysia, could eventually become irrelevant.

In general, a more developed country with a high level of economic diversity and social resilience is more capable of combining different factors of production and exploring alternatives, such as water imports (through virtual water trade), adopting advanced technology and practices (seawater desalination, wastewater recycling, and water-saving technologies), improving irrigation efficiencies, and so on. Take the agriculture sector as an example. Agriculture, the largest user of water in the world, consumes about 70 percent of freshwater globally. Yet, with economic development, better infrastructure, and technological advancement, agricultural water usage, as a percentage of total water use, has been steadily declining for the past 10 years. Between 1990 and 2012, China, which has the world’s largest agricultural sector, has dramatically reduced its agricultural water abstraction per hectare by 20 percent. In addition, more developed countries also have greater resources to devote to cooperative initiatives over transboundary waters than economically and institutionally challenged weak economies.

On the other hand, however, rapid urbanization, industrialization, and agricultural development could further exacerbate the water scarcity situations in regional countries. Facing growth water pressures, regional countries might be tempted to utilize more of the transboundary water resources. This might, at least in the short term, contribute to the competing use of shared water resources, triggering transboundary water conflicts.

Also, clearly evidenced by China’s own experience, development without proper consideration of the environment results in severe resource depletion, environmental pollution, and social unrest, which could trigger or magnify intrastate and interstate water conflicts. Numerous studies find that dams built upstream could potentially cause irreversible and long-term ecological damage to the Mekong River, which feeds millions of people. In the lower Mekong River, against the backdrop of massive dam-building efforts, the collapses of Laos’ Saddle Dam D in July 2018 and Myanmar’s Swar creek dam in August 2018, which claimed hundreds of lives and left thousands more homeless, highlighted the potential risks associated with this development approach.

Furthermore, given China’s own experience in the past decades, it is not surprising that development is considered by Chinese policymakers and academics the solution to various problems, including transboundary water conflicts. However, it should be noted that in many countries around the world, development as a term is no longer positive. As a result, many regions of the world are witnessing the rise of anti-development movements. In the case of the Mekong River, over the past decades, there have been numerous local and transnational movements by environmental groups, civil society actors, and local communities against dams, rapids blasting project, and water division projects.

Lastly, to some observers, these points are evidence that development as part of neoliberalism and/or state-led socialism is faltering. Hence, it is unclear how China’s development approach in the Mekong region will be accepted by other stakeholders. The key challenge lies in how to make sure development is sustainable.

Zhang Hongzhou is a Research Fellow with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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