Mekong a hot topic at regional summit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 March, 2008, 12:00am

Premier hopes to strengthen ties but divvying up river likely to stay a sticking point

When Premier Wen Jiabao arrives in Laos today for the third summit of the Great Mekong Subregion (GMS), he will discuss China's willingness to bring the region closer though transport links and by tackling environmental, health, energy and infrastructure difficulties.

But he will probably be keen not to focus too much on one key issue the other member countries have been keen to discuss for years - how to fairly and responsibly use the Mekong River, called Lancang River on the mainland.

China's ambassador to Laos, Pan Guangxue , said yesterday Mr Wen hoped to strengthen regional ties at the summit.

Conflict among countries downstream along the Mekong - Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam - and China have persisted for years.

The river flows from the mountains of Tibet through six countries to the South China Sea. The six countries founded GMS in 1992 at the suggestion of the Asia Development Bank to boost economic growth in the region, which for decades was isolated and impoverished by wars and rigid communist and military rule.

Assistant Foreign Minister He Yafei said on Wednesday 'China, as an upstream country, will never do anything that will harm the interests of downstream countries'.

But since the completion of the mainland's Manwan Dam in 1995 and the Dachaoshan dam in 2003 in Yunnan , where the Lancang exits the mainland, downstream countries have complained about irregular water levels and reduced fish stocks.

Environmentalists are also concerned that the upstream projects affect biodiversity in the river, home to more than 1,000 fish species.

Downstream countries are also angry Beijing has not consulted them about building or operating the dams. Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have agreed to consult each other before starting any river projects.

China is now constructing three dams in Yunnan, including the Xiaowan, second in size only to the Three Gorges, and plans to build three more.

Zhang Xizhen , professor of Southeast Asia studies at Peking University, predicted the issue would be the priority topic during the two-day, mostly closed-door meeting, although he doubted there would be any 'concrete development'.

'The meeting in essence is about how to co-operate to get the most economic gains from the river. Each party will fight for its own interests,' Professor Zhang said.

'Laos also built many dams in the tributaries. It wishes to shake off its poverty by being the major power exporter in the region.'

Even though Beijing wanted to appease downstream countries, the issue would not be simple.

'Beijing wants political harmony with its neighbouring countries but it first needs to persuade Yunnan to put its economic interests aside and think about the country as a whole. Yunnan doesn't see eye to eye with Beijing on that,' Professor Zhang said.

He said China should not take its upstream position for granted and should consider other countries' concerns.

'The voice of opposition will always be there unless you start respecting their rights as downstream countries,' he said. 'I think China should consult them before starting any hydraulic project that will affect downstream countries and give economic compensation if there is any negative impact.'

China's interest within the region was more political than economic.

Meanwhile, a Xinhua report has praised Beijing for getting involved in GMS projects such as transport, energy, telecommunications and the environment.