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SOUTH-EAST ASIA: China Goes for Friendly Giant Role in Mekong

Analysis by Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jun 13 2010 (IPS) - The Mekong River is steadily emerging as a testing ground for public diplomacy, Chinese style. Beijing, it appears, wants to reach out to its southern neighbours who share the river more as a friendly giant than an imposing bully.

An unprecedented move to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding two of four dams on the upper stretches of the river that snakes through southern China is only the latest in a diplomatic shift towards openness taking shape since mid-March.

On Jun. 7, senior government officials from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam were offered their first glimpse of the newly built Xiaowan dam and the older Jing Hong dam as part of a fact-finding tour. It was a groundbreaking journey into the mountainous terrain of China’s Yunnan province that had, till this month, been forbidden territory to officials from the Mekong River Basin countries.

The welcome mat was rolled out by Beijing in early April during the first summit of the Mekong River countries, which also include Burma (or Myanmar), in addition to the four river basin countries and China. That summit in the Thai resort town of Hua Hin was to mark the 15th anniversary of the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which paved the way for the creation of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-governmental body of the four lower Mekong countries tasked to manage and develop the basin area.

“The Chinese government indicated at the summit that they would like to be more open with governments in the lower Mekong countries,” Damian Kean, an MRC spokesman, told IPS from his headquarters in Vientiane. “It was keen to address the concerns of the lower basin countries.”

March marked a noticeable turning point in China shedding its secretive policies about its designs on the Mekong River, which begins its 4,660- kilometre long journey from the Tibetan plateau, heads through Yunnan, then passes Burma before snaking its way through the basin to empty out into the South China Sea in southern Vietnam.

What prompted this move was the withering criticism China’s four completed dams (of a cascade of eight planned on the upper Mekong) came under as the river dried up in the basin, hitting a low not seen in the past 50 years. Among the affected were the 60 million people living in the basin, who depend on fishing in the Mekong for their livelihood.

Thailand was the staging area for Beijing’s offer of an olive branch. After all, it was from this South-east Asian country that most of the anti-dam criticism by environmental and grassroots activists emerged. Groups like Save the Mekong Coalition, a Bangkok-based network, declared that the “changes to the Mekong River’s daily hydrology and sediment load since the early 1990s have already been linked to the operation of the (Chinese) dam cascade.”

To calm such opposition, Chen Dehai, a Chinese diplomat from the Bangkok embassy, held a press conference in March, breaking China’s silence about the dams that had prevailed since the Manwan, the first of the Chinese dams in the upper Mekong, came on line in 1992.

The Chinese dams were not the reason for the record drop in the Mekong’s water level during this year’s dry season, Chen told reporters in the Thai capital. “The average annual runoff volume of the Lancang River at the outbound point (of China) is approximately 64 billion cubic metres, accounting for only 13.5 percent of the Mekong’s run off volume at the (South China) sea outlet,” he said, using the Chinese name for the Mekong.

This view was echoed by another Chinese diplomat in a rare appearance at a discussion about the Mekong held on Apr. 1 at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. The Xiaowan, the largest of the dams, had begun to impound water since July 2009, but such operations had stopped at the beginning of the dry season, Yao Wen, the first secretary to the Chinese mission in Bangkok, told participants at the ‘Public Forum on Sharing the Mekong River’.

During his visit to Bangkok in March, China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue had reportedly offered reassuring words of friendship to its Mekong neighbours. “China would not do anything to damage mutual interest with neighbouring countries in the Mekong,” Hu was reported to have told Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

“China has realised that its past approach of avoiding public engagement and public diplomacy with the lower Mekong countries has not worked,” said Carl Middleton, Mekong programme coordinator for International Rivers, a U.S.- based environmental lobby.

Yet what seems lacking so far is a recognition by Beijing about its past errors in building four dams without consulting communities in the lower Mekong, Middleton told IPS. “People need to be compensated for the past errors.”

The information about the dams that China is now willing to share with the lower Mekong countries and the MRC should be given to the communities in the lower Mekong, he added. “China needs to recognise that the Mekong is a shared river if regional peace and prosperity is to be achieved.”

Achieving such regional peace is in Beijing’s interest for geo-political reasons, too, say analysts in the wake of new interest shown by the U.S. government to help manage and develop the Mekong river, which Washington lost interest in soon after its defeat during the U.S. war in Vietnam.

In mid-May, the MRC and the Mississippi River Commission inked their first deal for river management cooperation, confirming a plan that was unveiled last July by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the first-ever U.S.- Lower Mekong Ministerial Meeting in the southern Thai resort of Phuket.

During that visit, Clinton also signed the Treaty of Amity, a regional security deal that Beijing had already signed in 2003.

“China’s public diplomacy to reach out to the lower Mekong countries is a direct response to the U.S. signing the Treaty of Amity last year,” said Kavi Chongkittavorn, a columnist on regional affairs for ‘The Nation’, an English- language daily in Thailand. “Beijing lost the advantage it had and cannot afford to have a negative image in the region.”

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