Trouble brewing on the Mekong

Michael Liu is a second year BA History and International Relations student at Kings. His choice of course reflects his particular interest in the structure-agency problem in geopolitics, where the human side (encompassing anything from personality to historical consciousness) collides with the structural conditions that underpin decision making.

Not all is well in Southeast Asia. The construction of dams along the Mekong, mostly in the upper reaches within Chinese territory, has altered the natural downstream flow of the one major river that supports life for entire populations in riparian Southeast Asian states – Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Resulting droughts and otherwise unnatural flows along the Mekong threaten to pose an existential challenge potentially pitting the smaller ASEAN countries against their big neighbour, China, with political repercussions going far beyond the region. How the situation develops will depend greatly on individual actions taken by relevant parties, which are the main focus of this article.

            The populations of riparian ASEAN states depend on the Mekong as a basic source of food and industry. Such is its vitality that when the Mekong experienced its most serious drought last year in 2019, emergency actions had to be taken to ensure the survival of dependent populations. While research is still ongoing, a consensus appears to be growing that the Chinese dams have played some role in restricting the Mekong’s flow during the wet season, though how decisively is still under debate. In particular, China’s interest in evening out the Mekong’s flow for annual hydroelectric power generation differs from that of the riparian states, which require that additional flows from the wet season proceed unimpeded to swell the lower reaches with much-needed water and wildlife. China is indisputably in the driver’s seat, with many of the relevant dams situated within its sovereign territory in key upstream locations that determine the entire river’s flow.

The theme of smaller ASEAN countries dealing with a large China on a critical security issue has eerie similarities with the ongoing situation in the South China Sea. The analogy is accurate in capturing the severity of the issue but not its geopolitical characteristics. While the South China Sea features a common area with contested territorial claims, the Mekong issue is one not of territoriality but management and control. The dams in question here are fully and indisputably within China’s sovereign control. There are also no sweeping or binding frameworks that can be applied yet, unlike the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the South China Sea.  The resolution of the Mekong issue will rely more on interstate diplomacy than military means in both substance and form.

So far, China has, as a welcome step, committed to sharing hydrological data at the recent Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Forum with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Yet this is still far from a solution proportionate to the issue’s severity. There is currently no mechanism for resolving disputes in research data, or any concrete plan of action regarding the Mekong’s water management. The only foreseeable solution at present is for China to release more water during the wet season. This would require China to make some compromises to its hydropower generation efforts.

China’s exact interests in the Mekong issue are not yet immediately discernible. Beijing’s dominant control of the upper Mekong fits into its broader leverage over mainland Southeast Asia, in particular Laos and Cambodia. It is most probable that Beijing will not engage in open intimidation. Doing so would merely reinforce growing pushback against China, and breed resentment against its closest Southeast Asian partners. Open escalation would draw in external parties against Beijing’s interests, as Chinese academics themselves have recognised. The Mekong is simply not an interest to be pursued with force like in the South China Sea or Taiwan. Even if Beijing desires to force its hand, it is unlikely to succeed fully. Growing disgruntlement against Chinese influence in ASEAN states (even in Cambodia, the most dependent on China) will constrain how much their governments can bend to China, and how successful Chinese enterprises and projects can be. Neither should Beijing expect a free pass given just how existential the Mekong is to riparian Southeast Asia. Even token concessions such as priority access to the coronavirus vaccine may do little to placate riparian ASEAN states in the long run. Beijing’s influence is wide, but by no means complete or absolute – “jagged”, or uneven, as Dr Gregory Raymond from the Australian National University put it.

This essentially means riparian ASEAN states, though not dominant, are more influential than they appear. With open intimidation ruled out, China can nonetheless still use its Mekong leverage for transactional purposes or psychological compulsion more generally on opportunistic occasions. How well and willingly it does so will, however, depend on the resolve of ASEAN states to defend their interests where overall conditions favour a proper solution to the Mekong’s troubles. This is however not guaranteed. Still fresh in ASEAN memory is Cambodia’s deliberate scuppering of ASEAN’s joint communique concerning the South China Sea in 2012 at China’s behest, which prevented a consensus for the first time in ASEAN’s history. Such disregard of the regional, and arguably Cambodia’s own national, interests will place the future conduct of the riparian states under intense scrutiny from other ASEAN members and international observers. At stake is ASEAN’s ability to represent the interests of its members, and perhaps even the membership of riparian states dependent on China, Laos and Cambodia in particular – both states have much to do to prove that their recent admission into ASEAN was not a ‘mistake’ that would harm regional interests on behalf of an external power.

As regional as the issue may be, the Mekong developments have been arousing international interest too, in particular the US and its close allies. Recent American criticisms of Chinese ‘manipulation’ of the Mekong reflect Washington’s desire to compete robustly with China for ‘rules and norms’ as deterrence against Beijing. Neither have Indo-Pacific partners like Japan and Australia refrained from engaging the Mekong region, through developmental assistance or partnerships with the US. Both seek common interests in making riparian Southeast Asia a pluralistic region not wholly dominated by China, and are clearly wary of acts of intimidation by Beijing. The internationalisation of the Mekong issue will certainly provide a degree of agency for riparian ASEAN states. While the US and its partners cannot play a central role, since there are no immediate ‘hard power’ options at their disposal in the Mekong region, their interest in the Mekong may nonetheless make the issue more multilateral in character. This would give ASEAN states additional diplomatic options compared Beijing’s natural preference for bilateral dealings.

In short, while riparian ASEAN states may not hold significant leverage, their actions on the Mekong issue can nonetheless be decisive in shaping the future trajectory of things to come. The Chinese cannot force their way – but if, and only if – the ASEAN states pursue their interests assertively. Meanwhile, investment in the region by the US and its Indo-Pacific partners will count for little if riparian ASEAN states lack the will to defend their existential interests, given that direct exercise of hard power is not an option here for the Indo-Pacific countries. The Mekong issue will most certainly become increasingly complicated, but with Southeast Asia potentially possessing a greater degree of agency than elsewhere.


What is the probability that the risk will materialise? 3/3

What is the predicted size of impact? 2/3

What is the expected speed of onset? 2/3

Will regional or non-regional actors be involved? 2/3

What is the probability of spill-over? 2/3

Total: 11/15 (Elevated Risk)

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