n 2011, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for increased American engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. This followed the 2009 introduction of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), an American policy that established reengagement with five of the countries (Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand) that border the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. The goal of the LMI is to “positively contribute” to “education, the environment, health, and infrastructure” in the Mekong River region. Though the policy sets several diverse goals aimed at stimulating development along the Mekong, including improving water sanitation and advancing English-learning opportunities, one of its larger geopolitical initiatives has little to do with the Mekong river countries. In the shadow of a looming Chinese presence, the LMI clearly seeks to establish better geopolitical balance in the Mekong river area.
The U.S. has many reasons to be competitive with a growing Chinese superpower. In 2010, China became the world’s second-largest economy; only the U.S. amasses a larger annual GDP. Over the last two years, the relationship between the two countries has been defined by escalating trade tensions. It only makes sense that conflict between the two powerhouses would meet in the Mekong river region, where Chinese influence has been growing for over a decade.
At first, China began building hydropower stations on its part of the Mekong river. Then came the patrol boats, which China began sending to the region in 2011, following an attack on two Chinese cargo ships. And China was only getting started. The country has future plans to make parts of the Mekong wider and deeper, changes that would allow China to increase commerce in the region. Additionally, China has targeted Cambodian cities for massive infrastructure projects, including a bid for a megadam in Sambor, an undertaking which would devastate the livelihoods of Cambodian workers. After all, downstream from China, over 60 million people in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia depend on the Mekong river for food and/or income.
The U.S. and China are competing for economic dominance in an arena where they are the world’s two biggest superpowers. Though Chinese influence is growing the world over, nowhere is it felt stronger than in Southeast Asia. American influence, too, is growing, with the U.S. investing $17 billion dollars in the Mekong in 2017 and trading $109 billion dollars with the region in 2018. The United States, however, has a reason larger than economics to become involved in the Mekong River region. Along the Mekong River, Chinese development is wreaking havoc on the environment.
Southeast Asia is one of the most critical regions in the world for climate change, and the coastal cities that make up much of the Mekong region are especially vulnerable.
Currently, Southeast Asia is one of the most critical regions in the world for climate change, and the coastal cities that make up much of the Mekong region are especially vulnerable. Further, the dams China has already built on the Mekong reduce water levels, hurting local fish populations and damaging farms downstream. China’s plans to make the river wider promise even more environmental damage, threatening food security for people in the region.
Further, the environmental impact of Beijing’s future development projects along the Mekong could have an even more severe environmental impact on the region. In Cambodia, where China has plans to build its biggest dam yet at Sambor, the environmental impact could be massive. A study commissioned by the Cambodian government found that the dam could “literally kill the river,” threatening fish populations and exacerbating the impacts of climate change. The report even identified Sambor as the “worst possible place” to build a hydropower dam.
Cambodia, however, has something to gain from infrastructure projects with China. Though the Sambor dam project would devastate the environment in the region, it would also provide Cambodia with valuable access to electricity. Currently, only 53% of Cambodian households have access to grid-quality electricity, and most of the country’s energy is imported. Similar pressures exist with other Chinese projects elsewhere along the Mekong. In Thailand, environmental activists were successful in stopping China from making the river wider and deeper. Protests went on for months, and the Thai government put the plans on hold. However, the pressure to expand the Mekong in Thailand doesn’t just come from Beijing—certain Thai businesses are in favor of the growing the river to allow for more trade with China.
As it celebrates the ten-year anniversary of the LMI, the U.S. needs to look past its trade disputes with Beijing and consider the environmental impact growing Chinese influence has had on the Mekong region. With coastal cities that are already vulnerable to climate change, the Mekong region is especially vulnerable to infrastructure projects that could potentially damage the river’s life-giving resources. And as the Mekong River countries develop, the U.S. needs to be mindful of the incentives they may have to strike deals with China. As China’s building projects extend beyond the hydropower dams which have already created environmental damage along the Mekong, the U.S. would be wise to build upon the sustainable development initiatives it established in the LMI and foster development that actually benefits the environment. The lifeblood of the lower Mekong River states may just depend upon it.