The Mekong: An Emerging Security Frontier in China-Vietnam Relations

By Huong Le Thu —

Drought in the Mekong delta has created problems for Vietnam. Source: CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Drought in the Mekong delta has created problems for Vietnam. Source: CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

China is giving Vietnam another reason to be anxious about water security. While in recent months Hanoi concentrated on a transition of its political elites, in southern Vietnam the Mekong delta has struggled with a serious drought. The level of the river is the lowest it’s been in 90 years. This year’s El Nino exacerbated the negative effects of the hydropower dams along the river, causing large-scale damage to agriculture and fisheries, estimated at  $780 million.

As the mega-drought continues, all the Mekong countries which rely heavily on their agricultural sector, become ever more dependent on China’s releasing of water. In early March the leaders of the Mekong countries met at Xishuangbanna, China, and announced a sub-regional cooperative response under the auspices of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanisms (LMCM), established in 2014. China is a member of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), and a dialogue member of the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

By establishing another collaboration mechanism, China wants to take a leading role and hopes to shape the rules of cooperation, specifically, to make sure that extra-regional actors are excluded from Mekong affairs. The U.S.-backed Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), announced by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2009 has caused some concerns in Beijing, despite its relatively limited scope. Washington’s initiative concentrates on the Lower Mekong, excluding China, and puts strong emphasis on protecting the ecosystem and sustainable development – a sharp contrast to the Chinese approach.

There are currently 39 hydro-electric dam projects along the river. China’s dam and water diversion strategies serve dual functions. First, diversion serves as an effective bargaining tool, especially with neighbors like Vietnam with which Beijing’s ties are testy. Second, it creates space for hydro-diplomacy, like in the LMCM, in which China has deepened its influence and weakened other riparian coalitions.

Its advantageous upper riparian position gives Beijing leverage to treat the river-based economies, sustainability, and security as a coercive tool. Its control over water distribution is now subject to political bargaining. In fact, China’s aggressive policies in water utilization have already been labelled as “hydro-egoism.” The Mekong is not the only case, as some analysts looking at the case of Brahmaputra River, that China shares with India and Bangladesh, have warned: “China’s thirst will leave others thirsty.”

For Vietnam, facing a natural disaster that can pose severe food security challenges and impact the national economy, the situation is alarming. Lacking preparedness strategies and response mechanisms and coupled with an underdeveloped irrigation infrastructure, Hanoi policymakers are still wrapping their heads around how to respond to China’s river assertiveness.

Not surprisingly, Hanoi is wary of the good intentions of the upstream superpower expressed at the LMCM, as Vietnam is being challenged on its maritime economy front and now on its riparian economy, too. While most of Hanoi’s military, diplomatic, and even economic efforts have been focused on the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, insufficient attention has been given to the strategic waters of Mekong.

Tightening ties with the United States, Japan, and other key actors in the region, investing in military modernization, joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to diversify trade markets, and reducing economic dependence on China are all attempts by Hanoi to limit China’s influence. But while securing more options for its trade and service sectors, Vietnam’s agricultural production has now become heavily dependent on China’s good (or bad) will.

Given the common perception that Cambodia and Laos are beholden to Beijing, the Vietnamese government has reason to be apprehensive, now that it has fallen out of China’s favor. Compared with multiple stakeholders’ interests in the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, it will be difficult to attract external powers’ increased assistance in Mekong matters.

But a combination of climate change and China’s hegemonic ambitions in monopolizing the fresh water management is far-reaching. Stretching 2,700 miles through six countries, the Mekong is one of Asia’s most strategically important trans-boundary waterways. Lower Mekong farmers in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam produce 15 percent of world’s total rice.

Vietnam is situated at the lowest end of the Mekong, at the estuary to the sea, and hence, is the most vulnerable to the water management policies of its neighbours. The Mekong delta is the rice bowl of Vietnam, producing one fourth of the total agricultural output of the country and serving as its most important fishing region. However, due to its low elevation, the Mekong delta is prone to flooding as the sea level rises, resulting in soil salinization, which destroys the cultivation of country’s most important agricultural products.

The massive-scale interference by the upstream dams in the natural water cycles has tremendous ecological consequences, including endangering the ecosystem, disrupting irrigation systems, and limiting access to drinking water. According to the World Commission on Dams, the disruption of fish migration and breeding due to dams on the Mekong will reduce downstream catches by some 70 percent. By mid-April 2016, Vietnam’s rice crop was estimated at the lowest in 8 years, 1.8 million people were already reported to experience water shortages, and thousands of people working in the agricultural sector had migrated to the cities looking for alternative sources of income.

As food commodity prices fluctuate, concerns over the Mekong’s security should expand beyond the mainland Southeast Asian governments. China’s treatment of the Mekong as its own private battery rather than as one of the world’s greatest ecosystems ought to be a matter of global concern. China’s hydropower relations with its neighbour confirm that Beijing’s power-attaining strategy is based on resource-dependence. In the long run, cumulating hydro-power capacity, access to water, and food sustainability will continue to maximize China’s position toward its southern neighbours.

Dr. Huong Le Thu is based at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (Singapore) and affiliated with NCCU Center for Southeast Asian Studies (Taiwan). She can be contacted at:


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