Vancouver Sun 30 August 2010
By Jonathan Manthorpe
Asian giant shares dam information as U.S. takes advantage of China's poor reputation in Southeast Asia
China has made a significant policy about-turn in response to a sharp contest with the United States for friends and influence in Southeast Asia.
After years of rebuffing increasingly anxious requests for information about its dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong River from countries lower down the river's course, Beijing has relented.
China's change of tack comes as Washington is moving to broaden its non-military engagement with Indochina.
Dozens of U.S. officials have been shuttling back and forth to the region promoting cooperative agreements since July last year when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched what is known as the Lower Mekong Initiative.
The aim is to take advantage of China's less than stellar reputation in Southeast Asia by offering development aid and assistance to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos for whom the lower reaches of the Mekong River are a vital economic resource.
At the same time, the U.S. has signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with the 10-nation club of regional countries, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This treaty affirms U.S. commitment to regional peace, stability and involvement in ASEAN processes and institutions.
China is very much aware it has a public relations problem in Southeast Asia, in part because of its belligerent military activities and outlandish territorial claims in the South China Sea.
But for the countries through which the Mekong River flows much suspicion of China stems from its secrecy over its dam-building projects on its stretches of the 4,880 kilometre-long river, which it calls the Lancang.
In recent months there has been a crescendo in the always intense public criticism in the region claiming China's four dams on the upper Mekong are affecting water flows, disturbing fish migrations and populations, and are threatening the livelihoods of up to 70 million people.
But in June, China shifted policy and officials from the Mekong River Commission (MRC), created by a 1995 agreement between Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, were invited to China's Yunnan province to look at two of the four dams. They are reported to have received detailed information about the operation of the dams and their effects on river flows.
The dams were the Jing Hong, already in operation, and the massive Xiaowan, one of the world's tallest dams whose reservoir will take up to 10 years to fill and which will hold 15 billion cubic metres of water, more than five times the capacity of the other three Yunnan dams put together.
China also invited the MRC to send officials to Beijing to discuss how China might play a fuller role in the commission's activities.
China and Burma, which its ruling military regime calls Myanmar, have always kept at arms length from the MRC.
Like all autocratic regimes, they try to avoid exposing their internal affairs to any outside scrutiny or influence, and have therefore only taken "dialogue partner" status with the commission.
China has, until now, been equally unforthcoming about sharing information with the MRC.
MRC officials have usually only learned when decisions have been made and ground broken about Beijing's dam-building plans on the 44 per cent of the Mekong than runs through Chinese territory after rising in the mountains of Tibet. And China has plans for at least another four dams on the Mekong to generate electricity and control floods.
Information about management of the completed dams has been equally hard to come by with China only recently giving detailed information about the wet season flows of water.
Now, apparently, China has indicated it will give information about the dry season flows too.
If China continues to openly share information about its dams and the life of the Mekong in its territory, it will do much to clear up a lot of disagreements and conflicting analysis about what is happening to the Mekong, which does not seem to be functioning as it has in past decades.
Most concerning are low water levels and their effects on such natural wonders as the Tonle Sap, the great lake in central Cambodia usually filled to overflowing every year by waters from the Mekong during the rainy season.
Fish from the Tonle Sap not only provide an incredible 80 per cent of the protein in the diet of Cambodia's 15 million people, the lake also acts as reservoir that feeds water back into the Mekong during the dry season and allows year-round cultivation and cropping in the delta region of Vietnam.
But the low volumes of water in recent years have frequently been blamed on China stemming the flow of the Mekong to fill the dam reservoirs feeding its hydroelectric schemes.
But MRC experts such as chief executive Jeremy Bird doubt this is so. He says he thinks prolonged drought in Southeast Asia is the most likely cause.
Australian author, historian and consultant on southeast Asian affairs, Milton Osborne, says the way the Chinese have tried to defend themselves against the charges by using misleading statements and information has damaged Beijing's cause.
Osborne points to China's regular response that it can't be held responsible for what happens on the lower Mekong, because only about 13 per cent of the water in the river at that point comes from China.
This, Osborne says, is nonsense because during the dry season, when the effects on features such as the Tonle Sap are most profound, at least 40 per cent of the water in the Mekong comes from China.