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China’s demand for aluminium is poisoning Southeast Asia

Soaring Chinese demand for natural resources is wreaking environmental havoc throughout Southeast Asia. Driven by its internal needs to provide breakneck rates of job creation and economic growth, China’s developmental model has repeatedly abused the fickle regulatory environment of its neighbors to drive its thirst for commodities. It has made it clear that, whoever can provide, it will buy. At the behest of Chinese companies, countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia have rolled out the red carpet, with little regard for their fragile ecosystems.

A worker collects aluminum for at a plant on the outskirts of Shanghai. Pic: AP.

By Alistair Denness

China, September 20, 2015

Asian Correspondent

Soaring Chinese demand for natural resources is wreaking environmental havoc throughout Southeast Asia. Driven by its internal needs to provide breakneck rates of job creation and economic growth, China’s developmental model has repeatedly abused the fickle regulatory environment of its neighbors to drive its thirst for commodities. It has made it clear that, whoever can provide, it will buy.  At the behest of Chinese companies, countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia have rolled out the red carpet, with little regard for their fragile ecosystems.

Both Vietnam and Malaysia are major producers of bauxite, the ore required to create aluminum, a metal used in everything from cars to cooking utensils. After Indonesia enacted a ban on mineral exports in 2014, including bauxite ore, China was quick to look to Vietnam and Malaysia to make up for the lost supply and keep its booming aluminum industry – responsible for 55 percent of global aluminum production – from sputtering.

Vietnam is home to the world’s third largest natural deposit of bauxite, with 5.5 billion tons of crude ore reserves. As a result, the Vietnamese government took advantage of this natural wealth by signing agreements with Chinalco, a Chinese state-owned mining group, allowing China to enter and mine for bauxite ore in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region. The mining developments this agreement permitted were implemented 6 years ago, despite concern from environmental agencies as to the dangers bauxite mining would pose to Vietnam’s ecosystem, as well as China’s dubious environmental reputation. Reports of breakages and spills within waste management facilities or containers, deforestation associated with mining and unregulated mines, and river pollution, are but a few of the problems Vietnam has allowed to develop in the slipstream of Chinese demand.

Whistleblowers and critics of the ecocide that follows mass industrial growth have been met with violence, and stories of beatings as well as administrative harassment have emerged from Vietnam. An outspoken campaigner against Chinese territorial and industrial expansion was left bloodied in the streets of Ho Chi Minh city, while a scholar who protests the dangers of unregulated bauxite mining had his movements restricted, limiting his access to family overseas.  This is a worrying indication of how deeply Vietnam is entrenched in its relationship with China and to what extent it will go to protect its industry.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. Pic: AP.

Vietnam is certainly not the only victim of Chinas aggressive policies and demand. Malaysia has leapt into play to meet China’s inexhaustible demand for bauxite, increasing exports from 160,000 tons in 2013 to 10.2 million tons from January to July of this year, indicating that total exports to China in 2015 would be well above the 12 million tons currently predicted. Malaysia is now in danger of causing irreparable damage to its environment and the health of the local population: the industry that has developed there is a knee-jerk reaction to a halting of Indonesia’s exports and there has been little or no thought to the processes that need to be in place in order to regulate an industry with such a tremendous ability to cause damage. Indeed, lax regulations and insatiable Chinese demand have led to a sprawling illegal bauxite mining industry, which has paid little heed to the environment, namely in terms of the management of waste production, the radioactive pollution of Malaysia’s water, as well as the disregard for the population, which has been cheated into giving up their land for bauxite mining by unlicensed miners. While in August the government announced that it would review current laws relating to mining activities to crack down on pollution and up the penalties on “errant bauxite mining operators”, further action to remedy the harmful effects of the industry have yet to be taken.

The mining operations that have sprung up through Southeast Asia to meet China’s exceptionally high demand are both irresponsible and illegal. China, whose bad practices are known worldwide, has effectively encouraged that each of its natural-deposit rich neighbours drop any semblance of regulation – regulation to control both the environmental and human cost – in favour of making money quickly by selling to the world’s second biggest economy. It has manipulated these countries into ignoring the bigger picture in favour of some fast cash.

Despite efforts by leading scientists and environmental campaigners in both Vietnam and Malaysia to put a stop to dangerous bauxite mining activities, both continue to suffer under Chinas economic grip, allowing the country to advance its economy unabated, at the expense of others. 

Mekong River, northern Laos. Pic: International Rivers.

In fact, the entire region is gravely endangered by China’s breakneck rate of development. The Mekong river was previously a haven of environmental beauty, until China built vast hydropower dams to generate electricity to meet its demands. Beijing did not, of course, consult its neighbours before ploughing ahead and irreversibly altering the environment.  The dams have had horribly negative impacts on local communities relying on the river for the life-sustaining activities: fishing and rice growing.  Since the hydro-dam development, water heights are so unpredictable that the same communities can no longer rely on the waterside to support their lifestyles. China is unconcerned: another 11 dams are planned to be constructed by 2020.  While the Mekong worms its way downstream through Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, only China is benefitting while everyone else’s environment suffers. 

Southeast Asian countries need to recognise that just because there is a demand does not mean they have to supply at unsustainable and dangerous levels. China’s economic growth and the demand that is associated with it will slow down eventually and, when it does, each country that has dragged its environment through the dirt to satisfy the Chinese markets will regret their actions and have to find a way to patch up the thousands of holes they tore through ecosystems.

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About the author:
Alistair Denness is a Hanoi-based humanitarian worker with extensive experience working in Southeast Asia. He has a political science degree from the University of Virginia and an MA with a regional focus on East Asia from the University of Fudan.

More at Asian Correspondent

Featured image: A worker collects aluminum for at a plant on the outskirts of Shanghai. Pic: AP.

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