China hopes Mekong nations summit will revive infrastructure schemes amid criticism of huge dam projects on upper reaches of river

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2016, 11:58am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2016, 6:25pm

China is hoping its first Mekong River summit on Wednesday will help reviving stalled infrastructure projects in the region, including work on a huge dam, according to analysts.

Beijing also hopes that the release of water from a dam in China to drought-stricken neighbouring countries downstream on the Mekong - ahead of the summit - will deflect some of the criticism of its massive hydroelectric projects in the region, the analysts said.

Premier Li Keqiang will host the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation summit in Sanya in Hainan province, with leaders from the Mekong River Commission (MRC) nations – Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam attending.

Priority areas will include trade, agriculture and poverty reduction, according to China’s foreign ministry. Cooperation over water resources will also be a key element in future ties between China and other Mekong River countries, the ministry said.

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Beijing’s dam and hydroelectric projects have provoked complaints from neighbouring countries over their impact on water levels and the environment.

The Mekong River, called the Lancang in China, rises from the Tibetan Plateau and runs through several countries before entering the South China Sea.

Some of its previous initiatives did not get a positive response from some of the Asean countries after the South China Sea disputes worsened
Xu Liping, Southeast Asian affairs expert

China has announced an emergency water release from March 15 to April 10 from a Mekong hydropower station to ease a drought downstream.

The discharge of water was at the request of Vietnam where an estimated 195,200 families do not have sufficient water supplies, according to a UN estimate. Ten provinces in Vietnam have declared a state of emergency.

“China’s construction of dams and reservoirs upstream has been a major negative factor in relations with downstream countries and created huge opposition and complaints,” said Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at Jinan University.

“The release of water from the Yunnan hydro station is just the right timing. It’s such a great opportunity to show China’s goodwill before the meeting,” he said

Li Keqiang first mooted the idea for the Mekong nations meeting at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations gathering in 2014, but China’s reclamation work on islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea has made neighbours more suspicious of its motives.

Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said China has several motivations for holding the meeting.

“[It wants] to exert leadership in the Mekong subregion, improve its image in Southeast Asia which has been damaged by its actions in the South China Sea, [and] promote its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative,” he said, referring to Beijing’s plan to increase trade and infrastructure links in Asia and beyond.

Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said last week countries taking part in the summit had already agreed on 78 projects and would put more forward during the meeting.

Premier Li will hold meetings with leaders from each country during the summit, said Liu, signalling that China would push Myanmar’s new government to resume work on the Myitsone dam, which has been on hold since 2011 over environmental concerns.

He said it was an important cooperation project and Beijing would discuss restarting it once Myanmar’s new government was in office.

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Storey said the project would be an early test for the government led by the National League for Democracy – the administration had to stay on friendly terms with Beijing, but also show it could respond to the local environmental concerns.

Xu Liping, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said a new cooperation mechanism to be reached at the summit would be a new platform for China to reorganise regional cooperation.

“Some of its previous initiatives did not get a positive response from some of the Asean countries after the South China Sea disputes worsened,” Xu said.

The United States is also a player in the region and researchers at Yunnan University said last year that cooperation between the US and the Mekong countries was an important part of the Obama administration’s “pivot” strategy to contain China.

“The competition between China and the US somehow encourages the MRC countries to keep a balance between the big powers … in which lies potential risks to regional security,” the report said.

Zhang at Jinan University said the United States had been strengthening ties with Mekong River countries since 2009, but China has fallen behind in regional cooperation.

Asia’s water can be a source of harmony, not conflict

Xu said major countries like China and the US, as well as Japan, could cooperate and compete in the region and Beijing wanted the Mekong River countries to be aware that one-sided diplomatic policy would not work.

“The Asean countries should think more about their own development instead of serving as a pawn in the US-Japan-China game,” he said.