When the state tabloid China Daily ran a paid advertisement in the New York Times extolling the virtues of Beijing’s proliferating dams in Laos, the piece sparked a new cold war controversy.

Entitled “Employment on hydroelectric project in Laos delivers better lives”, the piece stated that a proposed cascade of dams on the Nam Ou River will enable well-paid local workers to buy pickup trucks and provide the poor country with badly needed electricity.

The paid placement also noted the Nam Ou cascade “is a key part of the China-led Belt and Road Initiative and is the first project undertaken by a Chinese-invested company to cover an entire river.”

With its rising regional clout and massive state resources, China has recently gained a clear upper hand vis-à-vis the United States and Japan in determining the crucial waterway’s future development and direction.

It’s an economics-over-environment vision that downstream nations have often opposed but without recourse or resources to fight back there is little they can do as US and Japan-backed counter-initiatives for the river wash away into irrelevance.

A cargo boat on the Mekong River near the Pak Ou tributary, Luang Prabang, Laos, February 1, 2017. Photo: Wikimedia/Christian Terrissen

The new cold war on the Mekong is being fought in part on environmental grounds. International Rivers, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), views China’s dam-building differently than as portrayed in the New York Times’ paid advertisement.

The group states on its website that the propaganda piece “paints a rosy picture of a highly destructive set of dams currently under construction in Southeast Asia.”

Rather than benefiting economically from the construction of new dams, International Rivers claims that farmers affected by the project have lost their land and that many never received the compensation they were promised.

The cascade has resulted in the forced relocation of over 4,000 people and undermined livelihoods for tens of thousands more villages in the river’s basin, the NGO says.

It also claims the company, China Power, is developing 350 kilometers of the 450-kilometer-long river and has “rejected offers from the International Finance Corporation and the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to participate in a broader watershed management planning.”

That is hardly surprising. In recent years, China has managed to outmaneuver the MRC, a decades-old initiative which brings together Mekong River countries for development projects, with the creation of its own Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC).

Lancang is the Chinese name for the Mekong River and the forum, which includes all the riparian countries from the river’s headwaters to its exit in the South China Sea, explicitly excludes traditional regional donors like Japan and the UnitStates.

According to Carl Middleton and Jeremy Allouche, two Western scholars writing for the Italian journal the International Spectator, the LMC “proposes programs on both economic and water resource development, and anticipates hydro-diplomacy via China’s dam-engineered control of the headwaters” of the Mekong.

Source: International Rivers

With China’s LMC pitted against the mainly Western and Japanese funded MRC, the new US-China cold war is impacting on the fate of a river that flows through no less than six countries, namely China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

It’s a long-term vision that is fast coming to fruition. In January 2011, the China Daily published a wide-ranging plan of action for the LMC with what then seemed like overly ambitious plans for economic cooperation, trade promotion and pledges to build “a long-term, stable, sustainable and diversified financing system” for LMC members.

The plan’s so-called “water resources utilization”, of course, entailed the construction of more dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries such as the Nam Ou.

Combined with the still ongoing construction of a high-speed railroad from China’s southwestern Yunnan province down to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, China will soon link with neighboring Southeast Asia in ways hitherto unseen in the region’s history.

The MRC, on the other hand, is a legacy of the old US versus Soviet Union Cold War and as such has become increasingly weak, ineffectual and anachronistic, critics say.

Initially known as the Mekong Committee, it was established in 1957 under a statute endorsed by the United Nations, but conceived by Raymond Wheeler, a retired US general.

His model was the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of US president Franklin Roosevelt’s grand New Deal schemes in the 1930s. That project saw the construction of dams along the Tennessee River and brought electricity, irrigation and flood-control benefits to several US states.

But transplanting the idea to Southeast Asia — especially amid the instability of the past Cold War and later the wars in Indochina —didn’t have the same result.

Water levels run low on the Mekong River. Photo: AFP Forum/Paritta Wangkiat
Water levels often run low on the Mekong River downstream from China’s dams. Photo: AFP Forum/Paritta Wangkiat

China was never a partner to the MRC’s forerunner, nor was Myanmar, as the move was part of a wider Cold War strategy to unite the pro-Western regimes in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam against communist China and North Vietnam.

The headquarters of the committee was located in Bangkok, a hub for the US military during the Vietnam war. It was not until the wars ended in the mid-1990s that the group became more cohesive.

Renamed the Mekong River Commission, it included three of the original members and pulled in a reunited Vietnam as the fourth.

But without China or Myanmar’s participation, the new setup was as ineffective as the old because it could not fully monitor and maintain flows of the entire Mekong River, which has its origin in the southern mountains of China. The LMC’s riparian membership, on the other hand, overcomes those hurdles.

Although a new US scheme created in 2009 known as the Lower Mekong Initiative also includes Myanmar, it has not achieved any marked progress, as its plans for health, education and infrastructure development have remained largely on the drawing board.

It’s traction has also been constrained by geopolitics. Laos and Cambodia are much closer to China than the US, and even Myanmar is sliding back into China’s orbit after a brief but now truncated dalliance with the West.

While the US and other Western countries have condemned and sanctioned human rights abuses in Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam, China raises no qualms in light of its own considerable abuses.

Chinese construction companies are also much less concerned about the environmental impacts of their projects than their Western and Japanese competitors, which are constrained by strict environmental and financial accountability rules.

Chinese cargo ships sail on the Mekong near the Golden Triangle at the border between  Myanmar, Laos and Thailand in March 2016. Patrols on the river by the Laotian army and Myanmar police have subdued pirates but drug production and trafficking in the region is booming - despite the presence of Chinese gunboats. Photo: Reuters
Chinese cargo ships sail on the Mekong near the Golden Triangle at the border between Myanmar, Laos and Thailand in March 2016. Photo: Facebook

Moreover, the Nam Ou cascade is not the only Chinese mega-project in the pipeline for the river.

China is now constructing another cascade of dams on the Mekong, a vast project which when completed could include as many as 14 hydroelectric power stations on its territory before the river flows south and forms the border between Laos and Myanmar.

To be sure, downstream countries have aired complaints about the river’s impeded flow. Vietnam, which experienced its worst drought in 90 years in 2016, blamed that disaster in part on the parching impact of China’s upstream dams.

Similar concerns have been raised in Laos, where water levels on the Mekong fluctuate widely when China opens and closes its dams. At times the once mighty Mekong is completely dried up around Laos’ capital city.

But with China controlling both the flow of water and development funds, there is little the downstream countries can do apart from cooperate with Beijing’s ambitions and designs.

The MRC and its new offshoot the Lower Mekong Initiative, meanwhile, seem destined to slip further into irrelevance while China’s LMC is by all indications so far built to stay.