For years, the principal narrative has been a world attempting to keep China’s maritime ambitions in check in the South China Sea. With one-third of the world’s global trade carried upon these sea lines– estimated at roughly 5 trillion USD annually– it is an understandable concern. But there is another conflict brewing in the region that might become an even more volatile flashpoint in the coming decades.
The Mekong Delta is known only by many Americans as a vital geographical player in the Vietnam War. But it is also home to over 60 million people who depend on the river for water consumption and fisheries resources. Securing the Mekong means securing food and water supplies for Indochinese nations like Thailand and Vietnam. And Thailand and Vietnam are among the world’s largest producers of food commodities like rice. The Mekong matters.
The growing conflict stems from a classic issue of upstream versus downstream nations. Primary players are China and the Southeast Asian states of Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. The world saw similar conflicts between Egypt and Ethiopia on the Nile in Africa and between Turkey and Iraq over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Middle East. In recent years, China and Laos went on a massive dam-building spree throughout the region. Laos’ goal is to create excess hydroelectric energy for export to raise itself out of poverty. China seeks to develop its poorer southern regions like Yunnan province to slow the growing inequality between China’s prosperous coast and its interior.
China needs to improve energy security as its manufacturing base matures and hyper-consumerism sets in. Hydroelectric power is considered a more ecofriendly alternative to coal power plants, a major source of concern in the country’s industrialized regions.
So far, China has completed six large-scale dams in the area, collectively producing about 15,000 megawatts per year. This output is more than sufficient to support cities with as many as 2 million residents. While the six completed dams are already a concern, more alarming for the downstream residents of the Mekong are the projects under construction and on the drawing board. Sources claim the Chinese have up to 28 additional dam projects under consideration with plans to transform the river into a major navigational channel for vessels up to 500 tons.
Ultimately, tens of millions of Indochinese could be at risk of regular droughts, declining agricultural productivity and diminishing fisheries resources. History teaches that loss of control over these necessities for survival tend to cause rising tensions and often, direct conflict. This area is one to keep an eye on as China continues to assert itself in the region and beyond.