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Analyst: The Mekong is a Chance for China to Improve Its Soft Power Footprint

FILE PHOTO - Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program, spoke at the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the US-ASEAN Partnership, Washington, DC, Tuesday, May 16, 2017. (Seourn Vathana/VOA Khmer)
FILE PHOTO - Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program, spoke at the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the US-ASEAN Partnership, Washington, DC, Tuesday, May 16, 2017. (Seourn Vathana/VOA Khmer)

The Mekong River Commission is meeting in Siem Reap province this week to discuss alternative energy solutions, large-scale Chinese investment, and governance issues.

[Editor’s Note: The Mekong River Commission, a grouping of the states that make up the Mekong Sub-Region, is meeting in Siem Reap province this week where they will discuss alternative energy solutions, large-scale Chinese investment and governance issues, among others. VOA Khmer’s Aun Chhengpor spoke to Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program, on the sidelines of the summit about the future prospects of the region’s iconic waterway.]

VOA: What have been your expectations out of the Mekong River Commission Summit this year?

Eyler: I’ve come to the summit with two objectives. First, I’d like to observe and analyze how the results of the recent Mekong River Commission Secretariat’s Council Study are being interpreted by various countries and how these results can be integrated into water, energy and other economic planning processes throughout the countries of the Mekong region. Second I am here to promote and explore with stakeholders a new and alternative pathway to energy and water developments in the basin at large. To get back to the first point, the Council Study clearly demonstrates that the business-as-usual trajectory of hydropower development is one that leads to a zero-sum game for the region and food and water security. So, the Mekong will likely transition from a region that is water-rich, food-rich, and energy-poor to one that is energy-rich, but food-poor and water-poor. And that’s not the result that we want to see. The Council Study again clearly demonstrates that the trade-offs to hydropower development are not optimized. So this is where the second point comes in. The second point is that there can be a way to optimize that nexus of water, energy, and food. We can get a lot of energy out of this basin without but profound impacts on food security and water flow. And that’s done through thinking about where dams are sited, how they are operated, who buys the power, and, most importantly, examining how some of those dam projects, whether they are on the mainstream or the tributaries, can be replaced with other forms of energy generations like solar, wind, and other forms of energy generating .

VOA: What do you see as the new changes to this narrative of Mekong governance?

Eyler: One is how electricity demand is changing in the region. Thailand, so far, has been the major purchaser of power from the Mekong mainstream and the tributaries, particularly in Laos. But Thailand is going through a revision of its power development plans which could conclude that Thailand needs less or no more power from the Mekong. Thailand is beginning to make major advances in renewable energy generation inside its borders. The jury is still out in the decision-making process on this, so we will see how that plays out. China, as well, previously wanted to purchase a lot of power from the Mekong basin. That’s no longer the case. In fact, China wants to sell power from Yunnan province to other Mekong countries. So that puts the whole hydropower venture in the Lower Mekong under question: Do we really need all of these dams? Is the demand for those dams going to be there? Dams development on the mainstream or the tributaries is driven by the demand for power from the other parts of the Mekong region. The other change is just the reality that, right now, we have the technical and the analytical tools to make the right decisions about a future energy mix that again optimizes water and food security for the region. Those tools exist in Southeast Asia, and it is just a matter of building the political will and having leaders make decisions about reducing long-term risks rather than producing some short-term gains.

VOA: What do you see as the newly-emerging challenges to the Mekong basin governance?

Eyler: I think some challenges that have to be addressed are, one, flood management. With climate change, we are going to see more intense climate events. Typically, rural people of the Mekong are used to living with floods and can adapt but intense weather will impact the poor the most. Cities like Phnom Penh are urbanizing into surrounding floodplains. If you look at former Boeung Kak Lake, the north Phnom Penh, the area near where the new airport is to be built, these are floodplain areas that can be wrecked by flooding. Poorly planned urban development will send water to places where it typically doesn’t go and is not allowed to drain. I think this is a new challenge that we have to deal with. Another one is a kind of periodic challenge of people living along the Mekong who have to cope with sudden flooding in the dry season. There are communities of tens of thousands of people all the way through the basin that utilize the river banks for agricultural purposes, and that contributes to the important part of their livelihoods. But when China releases the water from upstream dams in the dry season, just like China did two weeks ago, you have sudden floods that can wash out the fields that are beginning to sprout vegetables and other crops, wash away livestock and machinery. These unexpected floods also impact critical animal and bird species that make habitats along the riverside during the dry season.

VOA: What can be the alternative approaches for better transboundary water management?

Eyler: I think the most optimized approach to transboundary water management is, by my analysis, to flip the question on its head. Instead of focusing so much on water, let’s look at it through the lens of energy development because it’s really energy development that is causing the most profound impacts. The Council Study confirms how the greatest impacts come from hydropower even compared to the impacts of climate change. So we have to think about energy, and we need to work on alternative energy development solutions because the technology is here now to make that change. I am talking about solar, wind, and decentralized distribution and transmission processes that can help shave down peak demands, reduce the needs for so much power, bring the power to the people who need it more quickly, and help the country industrialize. After all these our outcomes desired by Mekong countries.

VOA: With the creation of the China-led Lancang-Mekong Cooperation initiative, are you concerned about the growing geopolitical competition that could politicize Mekong governance?

Eyler: I think the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism came out of the gate very strong, looking like a new powerhouse, but that’s China’s style. China is known to “cross the river while feeling the stones” and often purposely lacks of planning processes in the shaping periods of new initiatives. China often forms a plan as time passes. So, even though it looks like a big game-changer, the Chinese stakeholders involved in the LMC mechanism have not figured out its strategies for engaging in the basin. That’s one thing that’s important to know. Another is that, since there is still time for Chinese stakeholders to state the motivation and the action for interacting in the region, I think the Chinese stakeholders driving the process are not looking to replace or supplant any major organizations, but rather are looking for a way to complement and fill gaps. This insight comes from Southeast Asian stakeholders who have been interacting with the Chinese on this. That’s a good sign. However, China’s soft power footprint in the region is quite poor. China’s actions in the past have been a kind of “one step forward two steps back”, if you will. And Chinese stakeholders do not enjoy a favorable reputation by most people in the region. That’s true, I believe, in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, and Thailand as well. The LMC is another chance, I guess, for China to improve its soft power position and to improve its investment footprints. But if China doesn’t get this right, I don’t think the Lower Mekong will have much patience for Chinese stakeholder in the region in the future.

VOA: Do you see any ways that the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation can synergize with the other existing relevant mechanisms?

Eyler: Yes, and I think that’s why there is such a large group of Chinese stakeholders here. The LMC is being discussed within the context of the Mekong River Commission. Perhaps the LMC can build a pathway to China joining the Mekong River Commission that we will see. I think that will be a good move, but I doubt if it will happen. But I do know that the Chinese stakeholders are looking to build bridges into these mechanisms, and, again, not seeking to supplant them.

Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.