.
T

he March 2021 meeting in Alaska between Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Chinese leadership, including top diplomat Yang Jiechi, marked a contentious start to what is likely to be the most significant international relationship the Biden administration will forge. President Trump’s engagements with Asia were marked by a conspicuous absence of global leadership and self-defeating, alliance-threatening volatility. The vacuum of US statesmanship allowed China’s President Xi Jinping to entrench his ambitions for his country’s expanding global influence.

The Biden administration will need to identify where tense cooperation with China is a better option than open hostility, and where the US must refuse to accommodate further expansion of Beijing’s power. On climate change, the US and China should work to identify shared objectives. On rebuilding US relations with Japan and South Korea and ensuring the security of Taiwan, the US will show little willingness to compromise.

But reaffirming old alliances will not be sufficient to counter China’s influence. The US must also build alliances with the nations of Southeast Asia, who increasingly inform regional stability. ASEAN countries are characterized by vast geopolitical, religious, and cultural differences. But five of the ten ASEAN members claim parts of the Mekong River, uniting them in shared access to a critical resource and shared vulnerability to China’s upriver management.

China’s dam construction on the upper Mekong began in the 1990s. Today, eleven Chinese mega-dams along the northern reaches of the river consolidate Beijing’s power over the economic stability and environmental sustainability of Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. In 2019, the lower Mekong Basin suffered a punishing drought when China restricted “nearly all of the record rainfall and snowmelt” from traveling downstream. Now, Laos is reporting troubling increases in the Mekong’s water level, evidence that upstream dams are releasing water during what should be the dry season. China’s manipulation of seasonal water flows threatens the livelihoods of farmers and fishermen downriver and imperils the environmental health of one of the world's most important ecosystems.

The US has been late to the game in influencing China’s Mekong activities. At a September 2020 meeting in Hanoi, the US launched the US-Mekong Partnership, outlining a framework for multilateral cooperation and pledging at least $153 million in collaborative projects with Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. But China’s Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism has been in place since 2014 and their regional proximity is a significant advantage. The US needs a comprehensive strategy that addresses governance, sovereignty, and sustainability if it is to counter China’s influence.

To expand the US approach, the Biden administration should work with Mekong countries, including China, to develop a rights-based framework to managing the river. This would allow the US to make the case for good governance and transparency as prerequisites for economic and environmental stability. Such a framework would also include strategies to address climate change, an issue on which the US and China can identify shared interests and pursue sincere cooperation.

Conventional US and European resource management is predicated on private property ownership. In the last five years, legal rulings in Asia have codified a different approach, one that centers resources themselves as the beneficiaries of rights and protection. Bangladesh’s 2019 Supreme Court decision granted all its rivers the same legal status as humans. In 2017, an Indian court designated the Ganges and Yamuna rivers rights-bearing, living entities. These rulings have not been without their drawbacks, including increased vulnerability to eviction for poor fishing communities and challenges to enforcement. But the US could gain much-needed credibility in the region by advancing a framework that reflects regional legal precedents and cultural reverence for the rivers while also granting greater economic and environmental security to the lower Mekong Basin.

China’s unilateral control of upriver Mekong dams damages its relations with Southeast Asia – including illiberal countries who have historically weak alliances with the US. The Biden administration can exploit this tension to weaken allegiances between undemocratic states, shore up new influence in ASEAN countries, and limit China’s ambitious expansion of economic and political power.



About
Carolyn Nash
:
Carolyn Nash (@caroinash) has managed international human rights and governance programs for UNESCO, UNODC, and Trocaire. She has worked in Myanmar, Indonesia, East Timor, Kenya, and Uganda.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Countering China on the Mekong

Photo by Hannah Wright via Unsplash.

April 21, 2021

Reaffirming old alliances will not be sufficient to counter China’s influence.

T

he March 2021 meeting in Alaska between Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Chinese leadership, including top diplomat Yang Jiechi, marked a contentious start to what is likely to be the most significant international relationship the Biden administration will forge. President Trump’s engagements with Asia were marked by a conspicuous absence of global leadership and self-defeating, alliance-threatening volatility. The vacuum of US statesmanship allowed China’s President Xi Jinping to entrench his ambitions for his country’s expanding global influence.

The Biden administration will need to identify where tense cooperation with China is a better option than open hostility, and where the US must refuse to accommodate further expansion of Beijing’s power. On climate change, the US and China should work to identify shared objectives. On rebuilding US relations with Japan and South Korea and ensuring the security of Taiwan, the US will show little willingness to compromise.

But reaffirming old alliances will not be sufficient to counter China’s influence. The US must also build alliances with the nations of Southeast Asia, who increasingly inform regional stability. ASEAN countries are characterized by vast geopolitical, religious, and cultural differences. But five of the ten ASEAN members claim parts of the Mekong River, uniting them in shared access to a critical resource and shared vulnerability to China’s upriver management.

China’s dam construction on the upper Mekong began in the 1990s. Today, eleven Chinese mega-dams along the northern reaches of the river consolidate Beijing’s power over the economic stability and environmental sustainability of Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. In 2019, the lower Mekong Basin suffered a punishing drought when China restricted “nearly all of the record rainfall and snowmelt” from traveling downstream. Now, Laos is reporting troubling increases in the Mekong’s water level, evidence that upstream dams are releasing water during what should be the dry season. China’s manipulation of seasonal water flows threatens the livelihoods of farmers and fishermen downriver and imperils the environmental health of one of the world's most important ecosystems.

The US has been late to the game in influencing China’s Mekong activities. At a September 2020 meeting in Hanoi, the US launched the US-Mekong Partnership, outlining a framework for multilateral cooperation and pledging at least $153 million in collaborative projects with Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. But China’s Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism has been in place since 2014 and their regional proximity is a significant advantage. The US needs a comprehensive strategy that addresses governance, sovereignty, and sustainability if it is to counter China’s influence.

To expand the US approach, the Biden administration should work with Mekong countries, including China, to develop a rights-based framework to managing the river. This would allow the US to make the case for good governance and transparency as prerequisites for economic and environmental stability. Such a framework would also include strategies to address climate change, an issue on which the US and China can identify shared interests and pursue sincere cooperation.

Conventional US and European resource management is predicated on private property ownership. In the last five years, legal rulings in Asia have codified a different approach, one that centers resources themselves as the beneficiaries of rights and protection. Bangladesh’s 2019 Supreme Court decision granted all its rivers the same legal status as humans. In 2017, an Indian court designated the Ganges and Yamuna rivers rights-bearing, living entities. These rulings have not been without their drawbacks, including increased vulnerability to eviction for poor fishing communities and challenges to enforcement. But the US could gain much-needed credibility in the region by advancing a framework that reflects regional legal precedents and cultural reverence for the rivers while also granting greater economic and environmental security to the lower Mekong Basin.

China’s unilateral control of upriver Mekong dams damages its relations with Southeast Asia – including illiberal countries who have historically weak alliances with the US. The Biden administration can exploit this tension to weaken allegiances between undemocratic states, shore up new influence in ASEAN countries, and limit China’s ambitious expansion of economic and political power.



About
Carolyn Nash
:
Carolyn Nash (@caroinash) has managed international human rights and governance programs for UNESCO, UNODC, and Trocaire. She has worked in Myanmar, Indonesia, East Timor, Kenya, and Uganda.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.