In March 2016, China got a chance to make its move in the complex geopolitical game played by the three leading Asia-Pacific Region powers (the USA, China and Japan) in the Southeast Asia. This move can be classified as a preventive measure taken to counter propagandistic attack that US and Japan are likely to launch during the Japan-hosted G7 Summit scheduled for the end of the coming May.
A tension in the South China Sea stirred up by the disputes between China and some countries of the Southeast Asia contesting the right of ownership to the archipelagos and separate islands located in the South China Sea might be used as a formal reason for delivering an attack. Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia are among the parties to the dispute. There is no mystery as to which side the two major China’s opponents will sympathise with in this situation.
The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Meeting, held in a resort town of Sanya, Chinese Hainan Island, on March 23 this year was a preventive measure that China took. Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China Li Keqiang and leaders of five other “Big Mekong” countries located along the Lancang-Mekong River (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar) participated in the meeting.
The largest in the Southeast Asia river plays a vital role in the lives of these countries. The Mekong River starts out as a trickle in Tibet and then a number of tributaries, with Lanсang being the largest, enter the mainstream. A series of hydrotechnical constructions that China has been erecting on the Lansang River since the second half of the 1980s, are perceived by the “Big Mekong” countries as a direct threat to their vital interests.
An important step in preparation for the meeting in Sanya was China’s decision to release water in the period from March 16 to April 10 (i.e., during a regular spring drought spell when the Mekong River water level drops to its minimum) from a man-made reservoir that formed as a result of the Jinghong dam construction on the Lancang (Mekong) River a decade ago.
This above 100 m high and about 800 m wide dam was the subject of serious apprehensions and protests on the part of the Mekong River countries. In response, China proclaimed that the main purpose for the construction of such constructions was to generate and provide the remote areas of China’s southwestern provinces with electricity.
The nominal capacity of the dam-based Jinghong hydropower plant is 1,75 MW. A drop in the level of water in the reservoir (following its discharge into the river bed downstream the dam) causes a downslide in the amount of generated electricity. The Mekong River countries should have credited China for its efforts.
Chinese government’s decision to release water was taken in response to the Vietnamese complaint stating that shortage of water during the spring dry season might harm 160 thousand ha of rice fields and 290 thousand ha of fruit plantations in the Mekong Delta. Vietnam’s prospective losses were estimated at over $200 mln.
When announcing Chinese government’s decision to release the required volume of water, a representative of Chinese Foreign Ministry pointed out that the decision is “a strong signal to the world community demonstrating China’s desire to maintain a constructive dialogue and create mechanisms of cooperation with the Mekong River countries.” He also emphasized that Beijing took this step to “facilitate the alleviation of tension” between the People’s Republic of China and Vietnam.
The last statement seems especially significant since out of China’s political opponents in the Southeast Asia, Vietnam can undoubtedly be ranked second behind the Philippines.
As for the “mechanisms of cooperation” mentioned in the speech of the Chinese Foreign Ministry employee, they implied, first of all, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Meeting. It is noteworthy that the November 2015 negotiations between Foreign Ministers of China and the Mekong countries that resulted in announcement of the above-mentioned political platform were held in the city of Jinghong. Near to the city lies the dam that became a reason for the deep-rooted discord between China and other countries of the forum.
The new forum for China and the Mekong River countries will, most probably, expand its agenda beyond issues concerning the regulation of the level of water in Mekong, to ultimately, all the aspects of the inter-state relations.
Indeed, in the course of the first Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Meeting on March 23, 2016 the participants reached an agreement to both join efforts in regulating water issues and to engage in the construction of transport infrastructure facilities, including sea- and airports.
To achieve the set goals, China is planning to issue low interest loans worth of $1.54 bln to its Lancang-Mekong Cooperation partners. It will also open credit lines with regular interest rates totaling at $10 bln. Delivering a speech to the heads of the Mekong River countries, PM Li Keqiang said that China is ready to issue loans for the total amount of $500 mln under selected UN programs promoting the development of small and mid-sized businesses in the third world countries.
All in all, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Meeting and its results seem fully consistent with China’s general policy of tension alleviation that it has been pursuing in relations with its southern neighbours in the past 2-3 years. All steps that China has been taking lately have one goal—to gain the upper hand over China’s main geopolitical rivals in the Southeast Asia.
While the countries of the Southeast Asia perceive the development of various forms of economic cooperation with China as advantageous, China uses it as a main tool in the implementation of its strategy in this region.
The problem, however, lies in the fact that the People’s Republic of China is unwilling to abandon its claim to 80% of the South China Sea area and almost all of located there archipelagos. These claims are supported by certain concrete actions (including defense-type measures) previously discussed in the NEO.
Therefore, it is impossible to talk about Beijing’s achievements at the first Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Meeting without considering the general political context in the Southeast Asia, which does not look overly optimistic, to say the least.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”