Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc addresses leaders from the Mekong countries and China's Premier Li Keqiang during the 3rd Mekong-Lancang Cooperation Leaders' Meeting, held online in Hanoi on 24 August 2020. (Photo: Quy Le BUI / AFP)

Long Reads

Lancang-Mekong Cooperation: Overcoming the Trust Deficit on the Mekong

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The Lancang Mekong Cooperation has suffered a deficit of trust following the publication of a study in April 2020 raising concerns over the impact of Chinese mainstream dams on the Mekong’s water flow. To overcome the trust deficit on the Mekong, it is important to depoliticise hydrological science by ensuring compliance with standard research procedures and collaboration among relevant institutions.

The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) is one of the most recent cooperation mechanisms established in the Mekong sub-region. Unlike other mechanisms backed by non-riparian states, such as the Mekong-US Partnership (MUP), the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC), the Mekong-Republic of Korea Cooperation (MROK) or the Mekong-Japan Cooperation (MJC), the LMC was established by all riparian states to deal with multifarious regional challenges. 

The genesis of the LMC was the Initiative of Sustainable Development of the Lancang-Mekong Subregion (ISDL) introduced by the Thai government in 2012. This was to facilitate cross-border tourism, water safety, agriculture and fishery. In November 2014, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, at the 17th ASEAN-China Summit, building upon the ISLD model, proposed the LMC as a new mechanism for comprehensive development in the Mekong.

The 1st LMC Foreign Minister’s Meeting in November 2015 unveiled the 3+5 cooperation model, which involved not only economic cooperation but also environmental protection and transboundary water governance. The LMC activities were under the radar until March 2016, when the Chinese government released water from the Jinghong hydropower dam to mitigate the prolonged drought. Some observers interpreted the emergency water release as a token of China’s goodwill. Others saw it as China’s geopolitical move to exert greater influence over downstream countries and a symbolic gesture to gain diplomatic mileage before the 1st LMC Leader’s Meeting in March 2016.

The LMC has since been institutionalised with the establishment of various LMC centres to coordinate its expanding agenda. It has committed to pursuing closer cooperation with other Mekong-related mechanisms, particularly the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) and the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS). The LMC has undertaken various projects on urban water management, health security and food safety standards in the Mekong countries. However, these were largely overshadowed by other infrastructure projects such as the China-Laos highway, the Boten-Vientiane railway, the Kyaukphyu deep seaport in Myanmar and the Navigation Channel Improvement Project, among others. Either way, LMC projects heavily rely on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) funds. While some observers consider the synergy between the LMC and the BRI as part of China’s strategy to reconfigure the balance of power in the Mekong sub-region, this connection allows the LMC to push forward its all-round development agenda with considerable financial support.

This aerial photo taken on 31 October 2019 shows Mekong River in Pak Chom district in the northeastern Thai province, with abnormally low water levels blamed on drought and a recently opened dam hundreds of kilometres upstream in Laos. (Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

A big stress test for the LMC came after severe droughts in June 2019 and rising concerns about the impact of upstream hydropower dams on the water flows. At that time, many experts suspected that Chinese and Laotian dam projects could be the main cause for the deteriorating Mekong flows. In response, the Chinese government committed to speed up a joint research collaboration with the MRC and share year-round hydrological data through planned the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Information Sharing Platform (LMWRC). However, the LMC effort in transboundary water governance was negatively affected by the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020. Since then, the LMC has re-focused its priority on securing funding for its ongoing and planned projects and meeting the growing demand for medical supplies in the Mekong countries. 

EYES ON EARTH STUDY

The attitude towards the LMC changed sharply after April 2020 when the Eyes on Earth (EoE) Study raised concerns about the connection between Chinese upstream dams and negative water flow changes. While the correlation between mainstream water projects and severe droughts in recent years has been extensively discussed, researchers have not found robust evidence for supporting such claims. Compared to other mainstream hydrological studies, the EoE Study attracted significant media attention and different reactions over its new scientific evidence.

The EoE Study estimated the actual water flow based on satellite images and concluded that there is a connection between upstream dams and the alteration of natural river flow. According to the authors, the current predictive model has 89 per cent accuracy and provides a relatively easy guide for measuring hydrological changes within the basin. To increase research credibility, the EoE Study compared its predictive models with the MRC hydrological data and demonstrated the negative effects of the upstream dams on the “missing” water at Chiang Saen gauge, where the water flow changes are most visible.

Although the EoE Study presents an important step in advancing regional discussion on this issue, many scientists are concerned about the misinterpretation of its findings. Furthermore, the study lacks a rigorous peer-review process, shows a limited literature review of contemporary sources and inadequate consideration of the cumulative effects from climate change and left-bank tributaries.

In addition, since the EoE Study was funded by the US-led Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), the objectivity of the research is in question. Building upon the EoE Study, the US-based Stimson Center published a commentary on its website, criticising China’s “lack of transparency” and its water policy choices that “consider water a sovereign resource rather than a shared resource”. According to the review by the Australia-Mekong Partnership for Environmental Resources and Energy Systems (AMPERES), such strong conclusions regarding China’s role and motivation in the 2019 flood were not substantiated, given “the limitations in the background research on the context, simplicity of the method, and lack of comparison with existing studies”. Furthermore, the EoE Study findings were also used in American officials’ speeches to increase political pressure on the Chinese government.

The attitude towards the LMC changed sharply after April 2020 when the Eyes on Earth (EoE) Study raised concerns about the connection between Chinese upstream dams and negative water flow changes.

On the other hand, despite this escalation of political rhetoric and the marginalisation of scientific responses, the EoE Study provides a window of opportunity to enhance existing water cooperation. Such potentially positive outcomes can be observed in the following events. First, at the 3rd LMC Leader’s Meeting in August 2020, China promised to fulfil its commitments on sharing year-round hydrological data and establishing the LMWRC, as well as addressing the prevalent concerns related to COVID-19, regional economic recovery and water resources management. The LMWRC was launched in November 2020; this helped promote the transparency of hydrological data.

Second, the launch of the MUP in September 2020 signals the US government’s greater focus on supporting sustainable river basin development. The MUP draws on the success of the LMI and continues addressing non-traditional security issues that had received positive feedback from downstream countries since 2009. The MUP, however, also demonstrates Washington’s redefined agenda towards Southeast Asia as part of its overall strategic rivalry with China. Other related geopolitical moves include boosting the US military and defence budget on regional security, strengthening the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), and increasing the military assistance component in the US foreign aid budget. The heightened attention from Washington creates both pressure and incentive for the LMC to improve its water cooperation agenda.

Third, the MUP, in collaboration with the Stimson Center and other stakeholders, launched the Mekong Dam Monitor (MDM) in December 2020 to improve the transparency of hydrological data and operationalise the EoE Study findings. The MDM visualises water flow changes in real-time and provides a detailed methodology and other useful statistics related to the Mekong sub-region. The MDM also raises public awareness about transboundary water management and complements the existing MRC mechanism for hydrological data sharing.

The MDM spotted several water fluctuations in early 2021. While some commentators interpret this sudden water change as another Chinese attempt of “manipulating the water flow” and proof of LMWRC incompetence, it turned out that it was the regular hydropower maintenance that had been previously announced on the LMWRC website. In response, China’s Ministry of Water Resources notified the MRC about the scheduled water fluctuation and committed to provide more information with downstream countries if needed. On the other hand, the LMWRC did not mention how much water would be restored after the maintenance.

Since end-January 2021, the LMWRC experienced some communication shortcomings and failed to explain the prolonged water fluctuation that continued until early February 2021. After February 2021, the water levels slowly rose again. Apart from concerns about the abnormally low water levels, the MRC indicated that the discrepancy in outflow estimates by the MRC and China’s Ministry of Water Resources was probably due to different calculation methods. China has committed to share water levels data rather than operational and water discharge data. The LMWRC should consider building more hydrological stations in the upper Lancang River, activate the Lancang-Mekong Multi-stakeholders Platform (LMMP) and revise the notification guidelines at their websites to advance water cooperation.

The MUP continues to be active in alerting dramatic water flow changes, facilitating multi-stakeholder meetings and encouraging journalists to monitor the situation. Meanwhile, the LMWRC continues to advance cooperation with the MRC, including at the LMWRC-MRC online meeting in March 2021 and during the 3rd International Forum on Water Security and Sustainability in late April 2021. However, it is unclear what substantive outcomes can be achieved at the next LMC Foreign Ministers Meeting and how the LMC will regain trust in the LMWRC. At the press reference in March 2021, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Hua Chunying, only emphasised the LMC’s economic benefits and did not reflect the concerns about the LMWRC. Similarly, during a tour of some Mekong countries by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in early 2021, the agenda was predominantly focused on COVID-19 cooperation and economic relations through the LMC rather than on water cooperation.

As for the MDM, it has gained traction for sharing Mekong water-related information, especially its hydrological developments and trends, on social media on a weekly basis. However, a number of MDM posts are of a speculative nature due to the lack of adequate data, for example, on the connection between the Buyuan cascade and the potential impact on fishery or the scope of negative impact of hydropeaking on migratory bird nests and their eggs. Other challenges for the MDM include a bias in the datasets and the issue of whether and how it should collaborate with the LMWRC.

THE LMC’S FUTURE PATHWAYS

There are several pathways to promote the viability of the LMC.

Without systematic de-politicisation of science, substantial scientific investigations within the official research channels, and consensus on complying with the basic research standards, there is a high risk that solutions will remain in the realm of hopes and false expectations.

First, instead of putting all responsibility for sustainable river development on the Chinese government and relying on BRI financing, other Mekong countries should be more active in proposing LMC reforms and diversifying financial sources for LMC activities. However, the ongoing crisis in Myanmar caused by the military coup in February 2021 could be a complicating factor since Myanmar is the co-chair of the LMC this year and also the current country coordinator of ASEAN-China dialogue relations.

Second, the LMWRC and the MDM should find some common ground towards greater synergy. So far, both mechanisms work in silos. Except for their mutual cooperation with the MRC, there is limited hydrological data sharing and dialogue between China and the US. The future pathways for the Mekong sub-region are being discussed through various “isolated” platforms led by different stakeholders. Without constructive and meaningful engagement, especially with Chinese stakeholders, solutions to effectively promote Mekong water cooperation remain elusive.

Third, the persisting misinterpretation of hydrological studies that undermine trust in scientific institutions must be addressed. This problem includes over-simplification of research findings and double standards towards other hydrological studies. Without systematic de-politicisation of science, substantial scientific investigations within the official research channels, and consensus on complying with the basic research standards, there is a high risk that solutions will remain in the realm of hopes and false expectations.

Another related issue is moving the scientific discussion into public media space, which can generate mixed impact. Although public media helps raise public awareness of the problems on the ground, it is simultaneously an easy target for simplification and misinterpretation of the hydrological data. Unlike the standard peer-review process in high-impact research journals or structured dialogue in research conferences that try to delimit the over-statements, scientists in public media space may develop their research arguments and tailor the content to justify their prior beliefs. Therefore, instead of seeking “research shortcuts” and “media sensations”, it may be more reasonable to establish wider consensus among the inter-disciplinary scientific community and verify research findings through peer-review. Going forward, future research should be consulted with the MRC and go through standard research procedures to prevent “information trench wars”. Other remedies include fact-checking mechanisms and closer collaboration between relevant institutions such as the LMWRC, MRC and MDM. It should be noted that any joint research in this regard will be time-consuming and still may not result in conclusive findings.

CONCLUSION

To regain trust in the LMC and depoliticise the water issues, the multiple stakeholders should follow standard research procedures and observe the objectivity of science. Hence, further joint investigations and coordinated action among relevant institutions are necessary to overcome the looming water crisis and build mutual trust among Mekong countries.

The LMC remains a promising intergovernmental platform to promote development and water management in the Mekong region. Thanks to its synergy with the BRI, there are available resources for the LMC to promote all-round cooperation in the Mekong countries. However, the LMC has not yet developed coherent normative frameworks for transboundary water governance. On the other hand, if China delivers on its commitment to secure funding for LMC projects during the COVID-19 pandemic, deepen regional water cooperation, particularly with the MRC and promote mutual understanding among LMC members through collective leadership, the LMC will stand a good chance of overcoming current scepticism about its credibility.

In the long term, the LMC requires structural changes, especially in advancing transparency over its projects and addressing the current water problems. While the LMC may possess sufficient capacity to address these challenges, it is not easy to change the existing mindset, especially the limited willingness on the part of some member countries to take more responsibility in transboundary water management. That being said, the political pressure to change this mindset must come from the Mekong countries themselves rather than from foreign actors.

This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2021/89 published on 1 July 2021. The paper and its footnotes can be accessed at this link.