Chinese Communist Party Uses Mekong River to Control Southeast Asia, Outside Fears

Communist China’s construction of large and small dams on the Lancang River poses a direct threat to the livelihoods of 70 million people in Southeast Asia who depend on the Mekong River for their livelihoods. The Mekong River’s Luang Prabang section is pictured on Feb. 8, 2020, as falling water levels hit Laos’ fisheries.

Since 2010, water “crises” have often erupted on the Mekong. According to Wang Weiluo, a renowned water expert living in Germany, the Chinese Communist Party has taken control of the Mekong River’s “water tap. “The Mekong River is not simply a water resource issue for the Chinese Communist Party, but a political and diplomatic issue. By controlling the Mekong’s “tap”, the CCP has the political leverage to control half of the ten ASEAN countries. The Chinese Communist Party’s “domineering” behavior in the Mekong River basin has also attracted the attention of the United States and Japan, making the Mekong River a new geopolitical hotspot.

However, this political bargaining chip of the Chinese Communist Party is “harmful to others and to oneself”. According to Wang Weiluo, the large and small dams on the Lancang River pose a direct threat to the livelihoods of the 70 million people who depend on the Mekong River, as well as to the people of mainland China in the Lancang River basin. The Chinese Communist Party’s “predatory” water development has resulted in a waste of resources.

Water crisis” in the Mekong River, which was once rich in water resources

The upper reaches of the Mekong River are the Lancang River in mainland China, which originates in the Tanggula Mountains on China’s Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and flows through mainland China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before eventually flowing into the South China Sea. The lower reaches of the river and the upper reaches are collectively known as the Lancang-Mekong River, with a main stream of more than 4,000 kilometers, making it the longest river in Southeast Asia. The Mekong River spans six countries and is known as the “Danube of Asia”, with some 70 million people directly dependent on it for their livelihoods.

“The Lancang and Mekong rivers are originally very rich in hydroelectric resources.” It runs directly south from the Tibetan Plateau, with a large slope drop in the upper reaches,” said Wang Weiluo. By the Time it reaches the southern part of the lower reaches, more rainfall during the rainy season also makes the rivers more water-rich due to the influence of the monsoon. The Mekong’s dry and rainy seasons are relatively distinct, with the Mekong generally having a dry season from November to April and a rainy season from May to October.”

However, the river, which was originally rich in water resources, has frequently started to have water “crises” since 2010, with the U.S. research organization Eyes on Earth pointing out in a study that in 2010, when the Mekong River first had a water crisis, the main project of the Xiaowan hydropower plant on the Lancang River was completed and The main works of the Xiaowan hydropower plant on the Lancang River had already been completed and the generating units were already in operation. By simulating the unimpeded flow of the Mekong River from 1992 to 2019 and comparing it to the actual situation, Eyes on Earth points out that the Communist Party’s upstream dams have affected the Mekong’s water flow.

The Communist Party’s “numbers trick” to shirk responsibility

In 2010, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia made representations to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) about the serious drop in the Mekong River’s water level, arguing that the dams built on the Lancang River were causing the drought downstream. But then-Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang denied the claim. The CCP claimed that the annual flow of the Lancang River is only 13.5 percent of the Mekong’s flow to the sea and does not affect the overall situation. Chen Dehai, a political counsellor, also claimed that the three reservoirs of the Lancang River, namely Manwan, Dachaoshan and Jinghong, which had been built at the time, were small and had little impact.

To escape responsibility, the Chinese Communist Party played the data trick. Wang Weiluo said that data on many rivers in mainland China are kept secret. Even the disclosed data are often contradictory. For example, the Lancang River averages about 64 billion cubic meters of water per year out of China’s mainland border, but there is another version that puts it at 76 billion cubic meters, which is a difference of 12 billion cubic meters of water. If the calculation is based on 76 billion cubic meters, the annual flow of the Lancang River would account for 16% of the Mekong’s flow to the sea, which is 2.5% short of the 13.5% disclosed by the Foreign Ministry. The CCP has also claimed that it has 18.6 percent of the water rights to the Lancang-Mekong River, meaning that 18.6 percent of the water resources go to the CCP. From 13.5 percent to 16 percent to 18.6 percent, this gives the CCP room to play the data game. When discussing rights, the CCP chose 18.6 percent, but when it comes to accountability, the CCP chose 13.5 percent.

Wang Weiluo said that 13.5 percent does not help the CCP exonerate itself. Qin Hui, a professor at Tsinghua University, said in an article that the 13.5 percent refers to the average annual runoff of the Mekong River at its exit, and that in most of the river sections outside of China, such as the Luang Prabang River, the average amount of water leaving China is about two-thirds. In addition, a report jointly issued by the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources and the Mekong River Commission states that during the Mekong’s dry season, the outflow from the Jinghong Dam in mainland China has reached more than 40 percent of the water flow in the main stream of the Lancang-Mekong River between 2010 and 2015.

In his article, Qin Hui criticized Chinese officials for saying that there are only “three reservoirs” on the Lancang River – Manwan, Dachaoshan and Jinghong – while concealing the Xiaowan reservoir, which has a capacity of more than 15 billion cubic meters. In September 2009, the Xiaowan Hydropower Station started to produce electricity. The reservoir capacity of Xiaowan Reservoir is almost five times the combined capacity of Manwan, Dachaoshan and Jinghong, which has a very objective impact on the downstream flow. Qin Hui questioned, “How did it come to be ‘almost no impact’ in the mouth of officials?”

In addition to the Xiaowan reservoir, the CCP has built the larger Nuozadu reservoir on the Lancang River, with a capacity of 27.49 billion cubic meters, and the first units of the Nuozadu reservoir began operating in 2012, according to Eyes on Earth. The impact on the downstream exceeds that of the Xiaowan reservoir.

Although the words of the Chinese Communist Party officials to shirk their responsibilities do not stand up to the experts, they can deceive the general public through the media. In 2010, the Chinese Communist Party ignored the drought in the Mekong River Basin, but in 2016, the Chinese Communist Party has uncharacteristically “come to the rescue”.

China’s “political leverage” to control Southeast Asia

In 2016, Vietnam, known for its rice and fishery products, experienced a severe drought, with some coastal areas of the country backed up by seawater due to a decrease in river water. Instead, the Communist Party of China (CPC) changed its approach from 2010 and extended a helping hand to the lower Mekong River country. According to the party media Xinhua, Lu Kang, then spokesman for the CCP Foreign Ministry, said at a press conference that the CCP would provide emergency water replenishment to the lower Mekong River from March 15, 2016, to April 10, 2016, through the Yunnan Jinghong Hydropower Station. In October of the same year, a report jointly issued by the CCP’s Ministry of Water Resources and the Mekong River Commission said the release of water from the terraced dams established by the CCP upstream helped raise the Mekong’s water level during the Mekong’s dry season.

Wang Weiluo said that during the CCP’s “disaster relief” in 2016, the CCP released at least 1,000 cubic meters per second of water per day downstream, with the maximum release reaching more than 2,000 cubic meters per second, while the natural flow of the Lancang River was around 400 cubic meters per second. The CCP released more water than the Lancang River during the dry season, which is five times the natural state of the lower reaches. This indicates that the CCP has taken control of the “tap”. It is worth noting that the transfer of water to the lower Mekong River was made by the Communist Party’s Flood Control and Drought Relief Command, which means that the Chinese authorities paid for it with “disaster relief funds”, the money of mainland Chinese taxpayers, which means that the people of mainland China are paying for the Communist Party’s actions.

The opening of the floodgates in 2016 was highly publicized by the CCP, which boasted that it was appreciated by the Mekong River Basin countries. But why did the CCP not release water in 2010, but did so in 2016?

In 2014, Li Keqiang proposed the establishment of the Lancang-Mekong summit at the Communist Party of China-ASEAN leaders’ meeting. The first Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting happened to be held in Sanya, Hainan in March 2016. The CCP took this opportunity to release water downstream as a gesture of goodwill. At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party is also promoting the “One Belt, One Road” investment plan in Southeast Asia, and the “disaster relief” at this time also paves the way for the Chinese Communist Party to invest in Southeast Asian countries.

According to the China Times, the first Cangjiang-Mekong River meeting in 2016 was accompanied by an early list of 78 projects, a special fund for Mekong cooperation, a 10 billion yuan loan and a $10 billion credit line.

The Mekong countries are relatively economically backward, but rich in natural resources. By investing in the Mekong Basin, the CCP can not only expand international trade and export domestic excess capacity through the Belt and Road, but also gain access to the Mekong Basin countries’ rich natural resources.

Taking Laos as an example, the Ministry of Commerce of the CPC said in the Country (Region) Guide for Foreign Investment Cooperation that Laos is rich in Gold, copper, tin, lead, potassium, iron, gypsum, coal, salt and other mineral deposits. Laos is also very rich in hydraulic and forestry resources. Laos has about 17 million hectares of forests, with a national forest cover of about 50%, and produces valuable timber such as teak, sourwood and pearwood. The CCP also imports copper, timber, and agricultural products from Laos. The Chinese Communist Party is also the largest investor in Laos, investing in areas such as hydropower and mineral development.

Cambodia, another country in the Mekong River Basin, is also rich in forestry, mineral deposits, and fisheries resources. Cambodia is rich in high quality timber such as teak, ironwood, rosewood and ebony, and has a variety of bamboo species. Cambodia’s mineral deposits include oil, natural gas, phosphate, gemstones, gold, iron, bauxite, etc. Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia is the largest natural freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and is known as the “Fish Lake”. According to the Ministry of Commerce’s professional service platform “Go Global Navigator”, in 2019, the trade volume between China and Cambodia reached $9.43 billion, up 27.7% year-on-year, and in the same year, Chinese enterprises signed $5.58 billion in new construction contracts in Cambodia, up 93.6% year-on-year.

Wu Fucheng, deputy director of the National Center for Economic Development Strategy at the Taiwan Institute for Economic Research, believes that the CCP has a strong geopolitical strategic purpose in the Mekong area. Wu Fucheng said the CCP’s investment is to build a strategic partnership with ASEAN and deepen the connectivity between the CCP and ASEAN.

By investing in the Mekong River basin, the CCP can also expand shipping lanes. Wang Weiluo noted that the CCP has the opportunity to create alternative shipping beyond the Straits of Malacca and open up an alternative route to the South China Sea through the Mekong River. This would help the CCP import energy such as oil and reduce the US and Japanese restrictions on shipping routes.

People in the Lancang-Mekong River Basin suffer

“The people of the Lancang-Mekong River Basin are suffering from the political leverage of “dams. Not only do the people of the Mekong basin suffer from frequent “droughts,” but their fishing industry has also suffered a significant impact. Wang Weiluo pointed out that after the reservoir was built, the sediment could not go down, and the nutrients for fish were contained in the sediment. And the water going down inside the reservoir is a few degrees cooler than normal river water, which disrupts fish reproduction. Fishermen complain that the harvest is now decreasing and fear that they will lose their basis of survival in the near future.

The people of mainland China are not the beneficiaries of the dam either. First of all, the dams on the Lancang River reservoirs are very high, most of them exceed 100 meters, with the highest reservoir reaching 294.5 meters, said Wang Weiluo. After the construction of the reservoirs, local farmers had to move to the mountains, but the land on the mountains is very poor and not suitable for farming. Secondly, the water for local farmers to irrigate their fields was also restricted because the water inside the Nuozadu and Xiaowan reservoirs had been controlled by hydroelectric power stations. Third, the subsidies provided by the CCP to the reservoir migrants actually come from mainland Chinese taxpayers’ money, not from the money earned from the hydropower stations to subsidize the migrants.

Wang also pointed out a problem often overlooked by outsiders: the flooding of the Lancang River is relatively large, with the actual measured maximum flood peak being 12,800 cubic meters per second, while the Xiaowan reservoir has a discharge capacity of 20,000 cubic meters per second, which is higher than the largest flood peak ever measured in history. So in the event of a problem, the people downstream of the reservoir, including those in the Mekong River basin, would be greatly threatened.

However, some of the electricity generated by these hydropower plants, which are so harmful to the people of the Lancang-Mekong basin, is “abandoned”, meaning that the electricity generated is not used by anyone and is wasted for nothing. Due to overcapacity, 31.4 billion kilowatts of hydropower were wasted in Yunnan Province in 2016, and hydropower plants on the Lancang River are facing the same problem. To reduce “abandoned” power, the CCP has had to reinvest in transmission lines to send electricity from Yunnan to places with higher demand for electricity, such as Guangdong. These investments in hydropower plants and transmission lines seem to have no benefit other than helping the CCP to fill its GDP.

The Mekong: A New Geopolitical “Hot Spot”

In recent years, the international community has become aware of the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party to Southeast Asian countries, and the United States and Japan have taken action accordingly. The Mekong River has also become a new “geopolitical” hotspot.

On February 26, 2021, The Japanese government provided $2.9 million to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to support the MRC and related countries in the Mekong River Basin to monitor and assess environmental issues in the basin.

Prior to that, in September 2020, the U.S. announced the launch of the Mekong-US Partnership to promote stability, peace and sustainable development in the Mekong River Basin, considering the Mekong Basin countries as an integral part of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Vision and the ASEAN Strategic Partnership. According to the BBC, Sun Yun, co-director of the Stimson Center, said the catalyst for the U.S. to launch the program was mainland China’s previous refusal to share hydrological information. The hydrological information would in turn reveal how the Chinese Communist Party operates the dams on the Lancang River.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that the dams built by the Chinese Communist Party are manipulating water volumes in an opaque manner, to the detriment of the Mekong Basin countries. On December 14, 2020, the U.S. Department of State funded Mekong Dam Monitor program was launched to provide near real-time access to satellite monitoring of dam levels on the Lancang River. water levels.

One of the key reasons why the Mekong River has become a “political bargaining chip” for the Chinese Communist Party is the lack of transparency of information. Although the CCP claimed in 2020 that it would share hydrological information on the Lancang River, it has not done so. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) noted that the Mekong’s water level dropped significantly on Dec. 31, 2020, but the Communist Party did not notify downstream until five days later, on Jan. 5, 2021.

Wang Weiluo said, “For transnational rivers, river basin countries basically follow three principles: first, fair and reasonable use of water resources of transnational rivers; second, no significant damage to other countries; and third, if construction is to be done on the river, it needs to be notified to other countries in advance, and only after obtaining the consent of other countries can construction begin. This is the normal international practice.”

However, he said, this practice does not work for the Chinese Communist Party, which is accustomed to “working in the dark.