Why the Mekong matters

China’s influence on the river is reshaping the environmental and economic future of Southeast Asia, writes Sam Geall

The countries of the Mekong should build a “community of shared future” said China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in December last year. The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Framework (LMC) is “practical and highly effective”, he said. “We do not go after a high-profile ‘talk shop’ but a down-to-earth ‘bulldozer’”.

China has cemented its influence over the transboundary Lancang-Mekong river in recent years, a move that has important implications for the riverine environment and the people that rely on its resources. Its primary vehicle, or “bulldozer” is the LMC, which will drive dam and development projects, special economic zones and trade.

It also illustrates China’s changing approaches to Southeast Asia – the central topic addressed recently in a policy forum The Third Pole and chinadialogue co-organised with the Centre for Social Development Studies (CSDS) and the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University, in Bangkok.

Sharing the river

The Mekong is the world’s twelfth-longest river. It rises in China on the Tibetan Plateau before running through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is second only to the Amazon in terms of biodiversity importance, and the most productive inland fishery in the world, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

In 1995, the Mekong Agreement between the downstream nations of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam established the MRC to “promote and coordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the countries’ mutual benefit and the people’s well-being”. China declined to join as a full member. It has observer status together with Myanmar.

In 2015, China launched the LMC as a multilateral mechanism encompassing all six countries. (China uses the Chinese word Lancang to refer to the upstream section of the Mekong). It is headquartered in Beijing, largely funded by China, and has “eclipsed, surpassed and bypassed” the MRC according to Thitinan Pongsudhirak at the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS), Chulalongkorn University.

The LMC has quickly built up its institutional structures and its remit goes far beyond water and energy: the LMC’s so-called “3+5 mechanism of cooperation” refers to three pillars: political and security issues, economic and sustainable development, and cultural and people-to-people exchanges, and five key priority areas: connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources, and agriculture and poverty reduction.

Before this year’s leaders’ summit, China committed to spending nearly US$12 billion in loans and grants to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The summit then agreed a Five-Year Plan of Action (2018-2022) and a new batch of Chinese-funded cooperation projects.


It is on the issues of water and hydropower dams where immediate impacts of the LMC’s growing power are likely to be felt. Since 1992, when China commissioned the 1.57-gigawatt Manwan Dam on the Lancang, in Yunnan province, the river has been heavily dammed. Almost 60 medium or large hydropower dams are now operational, around 30 under construction and more than 90 planned or proposed.

The dams are mostly built with Chinese technology and finance, and many generate electricity for export to China’s eastern coast. China’s upstream dams can regulate the flow of the river, and have already affected river flows significantly, with both negative and positive effects. But many of the anticipated impacts of the dams are not directly about the water supply.

Eighty percent of the 60 million inhabitants of the Lower Mekong Basin rely directly on the river for their food and livelihoods. Fish is the major source of dietary protein for households. Dams have already had negative impacts on fisheries, river ecologies, and riverbank gardens that depend on the natural, sediment-filled flood pulse of the river.

Local residents and activists say they are catching fewer fish, which is pushing them into agriculture. Freshwater weeds known as kai that fish feed on are being lost, and riverbank gardens need chemical fertiliser inputs because of the loss of sediment. These effects are expected to worsen: researchers warn that basic food security in the Lower Mekong Basin is at high risk of disruption.

One independent Chinese academic assessment found that dams and development, despite generating electricity, helping navigation, and maintaining water quality, had already critically disrupted the river’s “connectivity”. This refers to its ability to transfer energy, materials and organisms between locations; its sediment flow; and most significantly, its fisheries. It also found that hydrology and water supply were “poor”.


Chinese investment is likely to be an important part of regional economic development plans through proposed special economic zones (SEZs) and projects like Thailand’s US$45 billion Eastern Economic Corridor. The LMC, for example, is helping to shape environmental outcomes along the river, as well as the economic model in the region. This is strongly aligned with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through which China is advancing regional development and integration.

Near Chiang Khong, on the banks of the Mekong where northern Thailand borders Laos, chinadialogue visited a proposed SEZ – a state-supported industrial park offering investment incentives such as tax breaks – that aims to attract foreign investment and export-oriented development.

If it is built, it will destroy a wetland that serves as an ecological resource and carbon sink. For the locals opposed to the development, the wetland is a critical, communally managed source of fish (they have documented at least 87 different local fish species in their catch, eight of them endangered), as well as bamboo and herbal medicines. They claim the government and project developers have not consulted communities or assessed the environmental impact.

In Laos and Cambodia, SEZs are often regarded as Chinese enclaves replete with casinos and bars. The most controversial is the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone on the banks of the Mekong in Laos that’s home to a large Chinese-run casino. Environmental NGO Traffic has called it “Ground Zero in the illegal wildlife trade”. It claims animals are openly sold there, including rhinos, helmeted hornbill, gaur, leopards, turtles and the goat-like serow.

Inside the Kings Romans Casino in the Golden Triangle Special Economic ZoneSpecial Economic Zones are often regarded as Chinese enclaves replete with bars and casinos, such as the Kings Romans Casino in the Golden Triangle

Chinese developers also show a strong interest in developing river navigation for trade. Chinese plans approved by the Thai government include extensive blasting of rocks, islets and rapids in Thailand and Laos to enable navigation of larger boats from Yunnan province, in southwestern China.

Accelerated industrial, hydropower and shipping development brings great risks, however, with potentially devastating social, environmental and food security consequences. Without more attention to local environmental and social concerns, the reputation of the LMC and its associated projects, but also the future of the Mekong River and its people, are imperilled.

This is the first article in a series about China’s influence in the Mekong region. It is republished from The Third Pole

The three panel sessions from the recent policy forum are available to watch:

  1. The Belt and Road Initiative: Geopolitical implications for Asia
  2. Transboundary water cooperation: Progress and challenges
  3. Rise of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Framework: Emerging cooperation issues