When I first started studying the Mekong River’s water levels more than a decade ago, the river still ran relatively high, even in dry season–-high enough at least for sizable fish catches in Laos and Cambodia and for adequate drinking water and irrigation for those who depended on the Mekong. That is no longer the case. Now, the river is running at its lowest water level in fifty years, and fishermen in downstream countries are reporting their lowest catch levels in decades. Recently, when I visited Laos and Cambodia, I heard constant complaints from fishermen that they can no longer support themselves. Richard Cronin of the Stimson Center, an expert on the Mekong, has put together a fascinating analysis of the river’s declining levels and dire predictions for the coming years.
The declining water levels also will prove a major test for China. China’s furious dam building on the upstream portions of the Mekong (called the Lancang in China) is clearly at least partially responsible for the reduced water flows, but Beijing thus far has stiff-armed any criticism of its policies by Thai, Cambodian, Lao, and Vietnamese officials. Beijing has simply dismissed these critiques in public. For example, in an interview with the Financial Times, Zhou Xuewen, head of the planning department of China’s Ministry of Water Resources, said Chinese dams “won’t have any influence on the downstream flow [of the river].”
But China cannot keep up this position on the Mekong. If Beijing wants to more boldly challenge the United States and other Western powers on issues like Iran, climate change, currency, and human rights, it needs to cement blocs of allies like the nations in mainland Southeast Asia in order to at least superficially show that China can act for international (or regional) common interests. Beijing has played this game well on climate change, aligning its policies with India and effectively suggesting that it is protecting the common interests of developing nations.
After all, one of the major challenges China faces is the perception that Beijing too often does not act in the common interests of the international community and instead pursues its own narrow interests. If China is perceived that way in its own neighborhood, it would undermine a decade of Chinese efforts to become a good neighbor in Southeast Asia. Beijing can take simple steps to address the Mekong concerns, like joining the Mekong River Commission, participating more fully in regional efforts to monitor river water levels, or at least not simply dismissing concerns by senior leaders in the downstream countries. So far, unfortunately, this type of outreach looks very unlikely.