China’s pattern of regional conduct has come increasingly into focus in recent times. Its behaviour is much less about maintaining the ‘status quo’, and much more about revising the established dynamics and contours in the region to its preferences. This revisionism is likely to become the primary source of tensions and potential conflict in Southeast Asia.
Nowhere are China’s revisionist aims more evident than in the South China Sea and the upper reaches of the Mekong River, which straddles southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
In the South China Sea, tensions are mounting because of Beijing’s controversial claims over a string of reefs, shoals and fishing areas that are closer to the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia than mainland China. China has constructed artificial islands out of these small rocks, placed military equipment on them and even used them for passenger flights as a way of cementing its claims.
The Philippines has openly opposed Beijing, but Vietnam has remained non-confrontational because Hanoi relies heavily on China for trade, investment and economic development. The rest of the South China Sea claimants — Taiwan, Brunei and Indonesia — have mostly avoided a direct spat with China.
But Indonesia can no longer remain removed from the conflict. On 19 and 20 March Indonesian authorities detained a Chinese fishing trawler and its eight-member crew for trespassing in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands. In response, the Chinese Coast Guard intervened and rammed an Indonesian vessel to free the fishing boat. The incident sparked diplomatic outrage from Jakarta, embarrassing the Chinese.
The incident is part of a trend of growing Chinese belligerence that is illustrated by China’s unwillingness to take part in drafting a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea between ASEAN and China.
In the Mekong region of mainland Southeast Asia, China has similarly handed itself unilateral political power by manipulating natural waterways through the construction of a row of upriver dams.
As the Lower Mekong countries are suffering their worst drought in decades, China has been releasing water from its upstream Jinghong Dam for almost a month from 15 March in an ostensibly benevolent act. Yet this decision is motivated, at least in part, by a desire to grease the inaugural Lancang–Mekong Cooperation (LMC) summit among the six leaders of the Greater Mekong Subregion.
While China’s water discharge is a temporary respite for downstream countries, it shows that the Lower Mekong region has become dependent on China’s goodwill and generosity.
The Mekong, which the Chinese call Lancang, is Southeast Asia’s longest river. It provides livelihoods and habitats for riverfront communities and natural wildlife covering more than 60 million people through the Mekong mainland countries.
China’s damming of the upper Mekong has long been considered a geopolitical risk for the downstream states and a source of potential conflict for the entire Greater Mekong Subregion. That risk has become more serious because of climate change and the rapid development of the Mekong mainland, which now requires more water than ever.
Given its leverage over the downstream countries, China has been eager to convene the LMC summit in Sanya, Hainan province. Beijing has announced a combined loan and credit package worth US$11.5 billion for development projects in the Mekong ranging from railways to industrial parks. Beijing will also set up a water resource centre and fund poverty alleviation projects to the tune of US$200 million, with another US$300 million for regional cooperation over the next five years.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang noted that these plans were part and parcel of China’s own development strategy around the One Belt, One Road initiative, and called for greater trust-building between China and the Lower Mekong countries.
What is significant here is that the LMC summit is effectively pushing aside the longstanding Mekong River Commission (MRC). The MRC was set up by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam in 1995, with international expertise and funding assistance, to manage river resources under international conventions and protocols governing major global waterways. Myanmar and China are dialogue partners of the MRC but Beijing has deliberately marginalised the commission, emphasising insteadits own version in the LMC.
Given its size and location atop the river mouth, China can block the Mekong waterways at will. It has completed six of 15 planned dams. The downstream governments, particularly those of Cambodia and Vietnam, are either too beholden to or dependent on Beijing’s generosity and policy decisions to cry foul. Of course, other countries, including Laos, have also constructed dams on the Mekong. The Mekong dams are not simply a case of China imposing unilateral leverage and power over the rest.
Yet with Laos’ increasing economic dependence on China, and the Thai military government’s overt pro-Beijing posture, China has become a Mekong regional patron of sorts. Cambodia similarly relies on China for development aid and foreign investment. For its part, Vietnam takes a muted stand both on the South China Sea and the Mekong mainland.
Myanmar is the spanner in China’s Mekong designs. Under a newly elected civilian administration, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the government in Naypyitaw may not be as forthcoming.
While it is difficult to deny that the Mekong mainland is effectively China’s backyard, this situation could change down the road if Thailand returns to democratic rule and joins hands with democratised Myanmar.
By being so aggressive in both the Mekong mainland and the South China Sea, China may end up forcing smaller states that want to avoid conflict into a regional alliance against it. To avoid stirring up a united neighbourhood opposition, Beijing would do better to play a major role in crafting rules and institutions in concert with others in the region.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Associate Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.