As well as plenty of finger-pointing, this year has seen positive developments in the regional conversation over the Mekong. In the run-up to the April meeting of the Mekong River Commission, a collaborative body founded by Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, and at which China and Burma have observer status, China made a welcome gesture of cooperation. It said it would: provide hydrology data from the Manwan and Jinghong reservoirs; consider downstream interests when planning development of the river; and be willing to discuss matters with those affected by such development.
These are all good signs, but I still think China could be more open. For example, why is it handing over data on only the two smaller reservoirs and not the key Xiaowan reservoir, which is 10 times bigger and able to affect river flow over a number of years? It would at least be consistent if China – on grounds of sovereignty – refused to provide any data at all (not, of course, that I’m suggesting it do that). But to provide data on only the smaller reservoirs will only make others wonder what is going on elsewhere. And if further criticism forces China to provide the extra information, then it will appear to be on the back foot.
Could China not be more proactive? After all, the reservoir does not have a lid and there are any number of satellites that could monitor its water levels. And if, as some have speculated, China’s critics have “received support from western, anti-China forces”, it would be a small step for the west to hand over that data to countries on the Mekong. If they aren’t receiving that data, then the speculation is unfounded. Why doesn’t China just hand it over and avoid unnecessary suspicion?
On my visits to south-east Asia, I encountered misunderstandings about China’s actions among the general public. For example, I heard complaints about this or that consequence of the “eight reservoirs” China has built on the Lancang – even though the country has so far only constructed four of the eight it eventually plans to develop.
However, most of the complaints I heard focused not on what China is doing, but on its refusal to communicate, which leaves these communities in the dark. They say China’s authorities are only willing to deal with governments, and not NGOs or the public, and that attempts to obtain information from Chinese embassies and companies are rebuffed. Western nations do better in this respect: many western companies operating in the region actively invite NGOs and the media to visit their construction sites and ask questions. Contacts in Chinese firms tell me western firms are good at winning over those NGOs and media organisations.
One person specifically mentioned two dams located near to each other in Laos. The Chinese-built dam is guarded by the military, and no visitors are allowed. The western-built dam, meanwhile, is open to NGOs and the media and has a constant stream of visitors. He might have sneered at the western method, but you can imagine which the local people prefer.
The Mekong River Commission is an important channel for official contacts, and with support from the United Nations and other international actors, it is highly influential. But when the body was founded in the 1990s, relations between China and many of the participants had not yet normalised, and so China was not invited to participate. This is of course not the country’s fault, but now that friendly relations are in place and China’s development of the river – and the impact downstream – is intensifying, there are hopes that China will take part. The range of competing interests within the body leads many in China to believe it is an inefficient talking-shop, however. And, so as to avoid being held back by the commission, China prefers to remain as an observer only.
As this article makes clear, opinions on how the river should be managed differ from place to place. It is not just a case of China versus downstream nations; the downstream nations themselves have many conflicting interests. No matter how China’s reservoirs are operated, there will be both advantages and disadvantages downstream. We cannot please everyone. But if China unilaterally decides what to do, it may end up failing to win the gratitude of those it helps, while encountering protest by those who are suffering.
If we had the right principles and mechanisms for coordinating multilateral interests and were able to set up the necessary compensation and responsibility systems, things would be different.
As I have said, the demands of Thailand and Laos are completely different from those of Cambodia – but they only complain about China, and not each other. The reason for this, apart from the lack of ability to control the river themselves, is that as all these nations participate in policymaking at the Mekong River Commission. They have a shared responsibility. Whatever the consequences of that policy, nobody can complain that one country is purposely harming another. But China still bears sole responsibility for its actions, so gets no thanks and only criticism. China’s impact on the Mekong is increasing and its participation in a multilateral decision-making mechanism would be of benefit to all involved.
Applying lessons at home
Some foreign observers have blamed the drought in the northern Mekong on China’s “hegemony”, a criticism I have refuted on many occasions. However hydropower operators are behaving outside of China, you can believe it would be even worse at home. Downstream nations may criticise China for ignoring their interests, but I think the energy firms take overseas complaints more seriously than those made domestically, particularly when those complaints come from governments. Complaints from international civil society – the media, mass organisations and NGOs – may not appear to be treated seriously, but the situation is still better than it is in China.
In China there are often conflicts of interest arising from new reservoirs, relocations and changes in water levels; between flood prevention and drought-relief needs and the interests of the hydropower operators themselves; or between development and the environment. There has been fierce debate over the Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River and the Pubugou dam in Sichuan, for example: should the dam be built? How should it be built? And once built how should it be run? Answering all of these questions requires different interests to be weighed up. Today it seems it is only environmental groups that can speak out against hydropower. But these issues cannot be summed up simply as “environment versus development”, and China still lacks the mechanisms to work through them.
In China today, internal reform and opening up to the outside world are two aspects of the same process. China’s participation in globalisation should provide the country with lessons that it can take and apply at home. In the past I have spoken of the lessons Latin America’s largest Chinese-backed firm, Hierro Peru, learned about dealing with independent unions from its experiences with striking workers and the praise Chinalco earned for respecting local land rights at Aurukun in Australia. This knowledge could help Chinese firms at home improve labour rights and reform compulsory land acquisitions.
Similarly, the Mekong controversy could help our hydropower operators learn how to handle relations with other interested parties. I do not believe this dispute is just an international issue, much less that it is appropriate for China simply to adopt a nationalistic stance in dealing with it.
This article was first published in the Economic Observer. It is reproduced here with permission.
Qin Hui is professor of history at Tsinghua University.