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INSIGHT-Water wars: Mekong River another front in U.S.-China rivalry


The Mekong River has become a new front in U.S.-China rivalry, environmentalists and officials say, with Beijing overtaking Washington in both spending and influence over downstream countries at the mercy of its control of the river's waters.

    By Kay Johnson and Panu Wongcha-um
    BANGKOK, July 24 (Reuters) - The Mekong River has become a
new front in U.S.-China rivalry, environmentalists and officials
say, with Beijing overtaking Washington in both spending and
influence over downstream countries at the mercy of its control
of the river's waters.
    It's a confrontation in which the Trump administration -
which has largely maintained funding for an Obama-era
environmental and development programmes in the Lower Mekong -
is losing ground.    
    The two powers' struggle recently moved into the realm of
science - with the U.S. and Chinese governments each touting
different reports about whether China's 11 dams on the river
were harming nations downstream.
    China's dams have given it extensive control of the waters
that flow down to Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam,
which have long depended on the river for agriculture,
fisheries, and increasingly for hydropower in Laos.
    That control enables China to set the agenda for development
linked to the waterway, and to exclude the United States from a
role after decades of promoting Mekong projects as a way to
exert its influence in the region.
    "This is becoming a geopolitical issue, much like the South
China Sea, between the United States and China," said Witoon
Permpongsacharoen of the group Mekong Energy and Ecology
    The state of the Mekong is an urgent worry for the 60
million people who depend on it for farming and fishing as it
flows from China, where it is known as the Lancang, through
Southeast Asia before emptying into the sea from Vietnam's
    Last year saw record drought, with Lower Mekong river levels
the lowest in decades. Fewer and smaller fish catches have been
reported for years. [nL3N2ES1IK]
    A U.S. ambassador in the region described China as
"hoarding" water in its 11 dams on its upper portion of the
4,350-km (2,700-mile) river, harming the livelihoods of millions
of people in downstream countries.
    China also has been stepping up activities of its Lancang
Mekong Cooperation group (LMC), a relatively new
intergovernmental body that a second U.S. ambassador decried as
trying to "sideline" the 25-year-old Mekong River Commission
    The MRC traces its origins back to U.S. efforts to promote
development during the Cold War. It works with the governments
of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to foster the sharing
and sustainable development of the river and its resources.
    China’s foreign ministry told Reuters any U.S. suggestion
that Beijing was trying to take over the Mekong conversation was
    "Countries outside the region should refrain from stirring
up trouble out of nothing," the ministry said.
    The U.S.-China rivalry broke into a war of words after a
Washington-funded study in April concluded that China’s dams
held back waters during last year's drought. [nL3N2C125W]
    The study by Eyes on Earth, a U.S.-based research and
consulting company specialising in water, built a prediction
model based on satellite imaging and MRC data that it said
showed "missing" waters downstream, starting in around 2010.
    U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy said he was
"quite surprised" at the stark findings.
    "That was the same here in the region," Murphy told Reuters,
referring to the reaction to the revelation.
    "To learn that a primary source for the diminished level of
the Mekong, and changes in the Mekong in the Lower Mekong
region, is what's happening upstream in China - with essentially
the hoarding of water," Murphy said.
    China reacted with outrage, with its embassy in Thailand
denouncing the study as "politically motivated, aimed at
targeting China with ill intent" - a charge its author and U.S.
officials denied.
    Then, last week, China's Global Times published an article
about a Chinese study it characterized as disproving the Eyes on
Earth report.
    "River dams in China helped alleviate drought along
Lancang-Mekong, research finds," read the headline in the
newspaper published by the People’s Daily, the official
newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party. 
    However, the study by Tsinghua University and the China
Institute of Water Resources in fact said China's dams could, in
future, help alleviate drought, not that they actually did so in
2019, according to a copy obtained by Reuters.
    "We are not meaning to compare with any other report. We aim
to provide some basic facts to facilitate mutual understanding,
trust and therefore cooperation in the basin," lead researcher
Tian Fuqiang told Reuters in an email.
    Researchers will argue about the science, but for the Lower
Mekong countries, it comes down to trust and power.
    Sebastian Strangio, author of a book on Southeast Asia's
relations with China, "In the Dragon's Shadow", said China's
downstream neighbours almost certainly trust China's narrative
less - but Beijing's regional might can't be ignored.
    "They rely on China now for a life-giving resource, and it's
very difficult for them to openly challenge the Chinese
government on its dam building," Strangio said.
    Reluctant to take sides, none of the MRC countries has
commented publicly in favour of either the Chinese or American
    The United States has spent $120 million on its Lower Mekong
Initiative since it was founded 11 years ago.
    China appears to be spending more: in 2016, the
Beijing-sponsored LMC set up a $300 million fund for research
grants to be awarded for the five downstream countries.
    The LMC did not respond to requests for an interview nor to
questions about its 95 proposed projects, planned or underway,
that are on a list reviewed by Reuters from its first
Ministerial Meeting in Beijing in December.
    The Chinese-led group is taking a higher profile with an
annual foreign ministers' meeting and plans for a summit of
leaders, possibly including Chinese President Xi Jinping, while
less heavy-hitting water and environment officials typically go
to MRC meetings, a Thai government official said.
    The LMC drew criticism from the U.S. ambassador to Thailand,
Michael DeSombre, who called it a "parallel organisation" to the
    "We really would encourage the People's Republic of China to
work together with the Mekong River Commission, rather than
trying to sideline it by creating its own organisation that it
controls," DeSombre said.
    Despite the U.S. warnings, officials at the Mekong River
Commission say it welcomes cooperation with the LMC and China.
    One reason is that the commission and member governments
want more data about operations of China's dams, which hold back
a combined capacity 47 billion cubic metres of water.
    In 2002, Beijing started notifying downstream countries of
when it would release water that could cause flooding.
    But China has disclosed little else to enable downstream
countries to make plans and request adjustments in the river's
    China, at a February meeting of the LMC, promised more
cooperation with its neighbours, but when speaking privately,
regional officials are sceptical. 
    "China hasn't shared any constructive data," said a
Vietnamese official who declined to be identified.

Changes in Mekong's water level
 (Additional reporting by Gao Liangping in Beijing, David
Stanway in Shanghai, Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh and Phuong
Nguyen and Khanh Vu in Hanoi
Writing by Kay Johnson
Editing by Robert Birsel)
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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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