The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
On October 29, Laos unveiled a new dam in the country’s north. The 1.3-gigawatt Xayaburi dam sits on the Mekong River, which flows the length of the country. Laos plans to build nearly a hundred like it by 2020—many with direct funding and support from China—in a bid to become “the battery of Asia,” exporting two-thirds of the energy it will generate from hydropower. But the dams threaten to choke an already encumbered river. As the Xayaburi dam started operating, water levels in the Mekong sank to 1.5 meters, the lowest level in a century. Reports emerged from neighboring Thailand of sandbars jutting into the waterway and channels running dry.
The Mekong River is an essential artery in Southeast Asia. Conditions that affect its waters carry outward to the region as a whole, and Lao dams are only one of the factors now pressing on the river’s ecosystem. The Mekong flows through six nations, from the Tibetan plateau to the South China Sea, and it is the most productive inland fishery in the world, valued at $17 billion a year. Around 60 million people live in the Mekong basin, and 80 percent of them depend on the river for their food or livelihoods.
Climate change already poses a major and growing threat to life and livelihoods on the river. According to some studies, two-thirds of the Himalayan glaciers that feed the Mekong could disappear by the end of the century. Scientists have warned that the shifting path of tropical cyclones is changing the Mekong basin irreversibly: with disturbed patterns of rainfall, the region is more prone to drought. Changing climate patterns exacerbate other problems on the river, such as sediment loss, increased salinity, and the erosion of riverbanks.
Aggressive infrastructure development on the Mekong will worsen the effects of climate change. But China has many such projects in mind. Within its own borders, China has already built at least ten large dams on the main trunk of the river. Those dams have begun to negatively affect fisheries, riverbank gardens, and farms downstream. Now Beijing is helping to accelerate dam construction down the river in Laos and Cambodia, making the Mekong a major arena for the projection of Chinese interests in Southeast Asia.
The communities that depend on the Mekong find themselves at the nexus of seemingly implacable forces: the consequences of climate change, the geopolitical ambitions of China, and the indifference of their governments. Against immense odds, residents of the Mekong basin are developing ways to protect their livelihoods and to safeguard the river from ruin.
Since 1995, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam have cooperated in managing the river and its resources through an intergovernmental organization called the Mekong River Commission. At least in their rhetoric, member states of the MRC have embraced the principle of managing the Mekong in the best interests of the region and its ecological sustainability. In 2010, the MRC urged a ten-year moratorium on large hydropower dams on the river.
But the MRC has no power to enforce its own recommendations. Laos, which is poorer than its neighbors, has sought to jump-start development by attracting investment, principally from China. The country’s ramped-up dam construction is part of an enormous Chinese-backed hydropower expansion.
In 2015, China established a rival institution to the MRC that has already effectively eclipsed it. The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Framework (LMC), aptly described by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as not a “talk shop, but a down-to-earth bulldozer,” has a remit that goes well beyond the river. It dovetails with China’s ambitious global infrastructure project known as the Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing’s investment in the region further reflects a desire to create new transit routes that reduce China’s dependence on a single shipping chokepoint—the Strait of Malacca, patrolled and policed by the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet—for much of its oil imports.
As a creditor, China exerts considerable political and economic control over countries on the Mekong River.
As an investor and a creditor, China exerts considerable political and economic control over countries on the Mekong River. International organizations warn that Laos is at high risk of debt distress thanks to its borrowing from China, with its share of public debt forecast to reach 70 percent of GDP. Each year, the LMC leaders’ summit produces significant spending pledges: China promised $12 billion in loans and grants in 2018. Signature projects include a China–Laos high-speed railway that will connect Kunming in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province to Singapore. China also supports the construction of special economic zones, such as Sihanoukville in Cambodia and Savan-Seno in Laos, which many locals derisively view as vice-ridden Chinese enclaves.
States along the river look to rival and regional powers as a hedge against rising Chinese influence. Countries as disparate as Japan, India, Thailand, Australia, and the United States have set at least 13 competing initiatives into motion in the Mekong basin. These aim to support regional economic integration and, increasingly, to set up projects that uphold higher international standards for infrastructure building. But so far, they pale in comparison with the scale and speed of China’s expansion down the Mekong.
Those who live in the Mekong River basin are already suffering one of the worst droughts in a century. With major dams popping up in the coming years, these communities are likely to face further hardship: water levels will grow erratic, subject to sudden floods, and river ecosystems will sustain serious damage. But those residents who take up the defense of the environment do so at the risk of facing government hostility.
Southeast Asian states have a history of stigmatizing and criminalizing environmental activism. Last year, a section of the partly built Xe Pian Xe Namnoy dam in Laos collapsed, leading to severe flooding in several villages that killed scores of people. The Lao government responded by cracking down on reporters. That same year, in Vietnam, a chemical spill killed enormous numbers of fish, leading fishermen to protest. A Vietnamese court sentenced blogger Hoang Duc Binh to 14 years in prison for live-streaming their action. In northeastern Cambodia, soldiers killed three “forest defenders”—a conservation worker, a forest ranger, and a military police officer—in 2018 in apparent retaliation for the seizure of equipment owned by illegal loggers, who smuggle wood into Vietnam in collusion with security forces.
On the banks of the Mekong in northern Thailand last autumn, one activist told me she had lost all hope that the river would be saved. She and fellow residents were already seeing parts of the river damaged irreparably from blasting and dredging for commercial shipping; villagers watched as unexpected water releases from Chinese dams washed away their seasonal riverbank gardens. Instead, her struggle had become one for dignity: “to tell my grandchildren I fought for their future.”
On the banks of the Mekong near Chiang Khong in northern Thailand, I visited the site of a proposed special economic zone—now scrapped after a local outcry. If built, the development would have destroyed a wetland area still used as a communally managed source of fish, bamboo, and other natural resources. Residents said that the Thai government and the developers had neither consulted communities nor conducted environmental assessments prior to setting up the zone and welcoming potential Chinese investors.
A better future for the Mekong basin might lie in energy sources other than hydropower. In Thailand, for example, an innovative block-chain-enabled real-time peer-to-peer trading scheme has demonstrated the potential for solar power producers to trade excess energy across the grid, helping to lower energy costs and maximize the use of renewable energy. In Myanmar, solar photovoltaic microgrids are helping to expand clean energy access and economic opportunity for the poor. Such under-the-radar initiatives—led by an unruly coalition of actors, from riverine activists opposed to large dams to development agencies and private enterprises—offer alternatives to large, centralized power projects. Modern energy systems in the region can be decarbonized and decentralized.
One study, commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund, found that by 2050, 100 percent of the Mekong basin’s power supply could be generated by renewable and sustainable energy technologies—such as wind, solar, biogas, geothermal, and biomass. The plan does not include large-scale hydropower dams.
By 2050, 100 percent of the Mekong basin’s power supply could be generated by renewable energy.
China has the experience and the resources to support such a future. Beijing has cultivated solar power domestically and has used renewable energy to help alleviate poverty within its own borders. A government initiative supports the installation of rooftop solar energy systems in the poorest villages and counties across China, allowing residents to generate electricity for their own use and make money by selling surplus energy back to the grid. Mekong communities, with the help of their governments, could encourage China and other foreign investors to see the economic opportunity in more sustainable energy projects in the region. Such an outcome might bring hope to the river’s communities and a brighter future for the rich ecologies upon which they depend.