The Mekong River connects China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, and is an important link between the six countries. Over the past two decades, the six riparian countries have continuously strengthened water resources cooperation.
Since the launch of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) in 2016, the water resources cooperation among the six countries has made rapid progress. However, with the intensification of China-United States competition, the US regards the Mekong region as a new geopolitical battleground to compete with China.
In 2020, the US established the Mekong-US Partnership (MUSP) and launched the Mekong Dam Monitor (MDM) project. But recently, the MDM group admitted that it had released wrong hydrological data about China, which caused misunderstanding between China and the Mekong countries.
The MDM is an important project of the MUSP. This project is a collaborative partnership formed by the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Program and Eyes on Earth, Inc with funding support from the MUSP, the Chino Cienega Foundation and individual donors. From 2020 to present, MDM monitored the hydrological and climactic information of all China's 11 dams on the Lancang mainstream (Upper Mekong River in China).
According to the “Mekong-US Partnership Plan of Action 2021-2023”, MDM provides objective satellite data on Mekong River water levels behind mainstream river dams, giving Mekong communities information to plan economic activities and climate mitigation strategies.
However, Chinese hydrological research team from Tsinghua University have found the reservoir level readings released by MDM contained serious errors and differed significantly from the actual gauge, which can easily be misused in the hyping of Chinese dams “controlling water” and “hurting downstream countries.” Then, MDM admits that there are some errors in their findings. But their revised data are still incorrect.
The false data released by the MDM had a negative impact on China, but also caused mutual misunderstanding among the six riparian countries in the Mekong basin. For example, the data obtained by MDM’s satellite remote measurements reverse the actual water level rise and fall trends of Xiaowan Reservoir at least in three monitoring periods in 2020, with errors up to 14.84 meters, which is equivalent to some 2.4 billion cubic meters of water.
Even after the revision, MDM’s new data still have an error of up to 8 meters from the actual water level measurement. The incorrect data could be misinterpreted as “China’s dams are causing drought downstream.” And that will also have a negative impact on water resources cooperation among the six riparian countries.
From the geographic perspective, any trans-boundary river includes upstream countries, midstream countries and downstream countries. So is the Mekong River. Six Mekong River riparian countries cooperate and influence each other.
However, when the US and the MDM launched a water public opinion warfare against China, they usually deliberately divided the Mekong River riparian countries into two rival groups. China represents the upstream group and the Mekong countries represent the downstream group. At the same time, the US blamed China for the droughts and floods in the Mekong Basin and ignored the negative impacts of climate change, extreme weather, dam construction in other riparian countries and surge in agricultural water use.
In addition, the US deliberately exaggerates the different demands of riparian countries for water resources development and describes it as an irreconcilable contradiction. The six countries in the Mekong basin are all developing countries.
Based on the differences in geographical location, economic development level and technological capability of the riparian countries, the six countries strive to find a balance between economic development and environmental protection. But the six countries have their own priorities and cooperate with each other.
For example, China focuses on hydropower investment, shipping development and ecological protection. Laos pays more attention to fishery, agriculture and hydropower investment, and aims to become the “battery of Southeast Asia”. Cambodia attaches great importance to hydropower and agriculture. Vietnam is more concerned about agricultural water and energy demand, and Thailand pays more attention to power supply and water disaster prevention, etc.
The US described the different demands of the six riparian countries as irreconcilable contradictions and accused China of only caring about itself. In addition, the US considers China's hydropower investment in the Mekong countries to be a "debt trap" and describes the Mekong River as a “New South China Sea” to cause worry and panic in the Mekong Basin.
Under the LMC, China has continuously strengthened water resources cooperation with member countries. In 2016, China and Mekong countries regard water resources as one of the five key priority areas of the LMC. In 2017, the six countries jointly established the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Center as an important platform for strengthening technical exchanges, capacity building, flood and drought disaster management, information exchange and joint research among six member countries.
In 2021, China held the second Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Forum. The Mekong countries recognized that relevant measures adopted by China played a significant role in flood control, disaster reduction and water resources management in the downstream countries.
All in all, water is the driving force of all nature and the cornerstone of the development of the Mekong region. The US should not use false data to weaponize water resources, nor should it make the Mekong region the next China-US geopolitical battleground. It will be harmful to all countries in the Mekong River basin and will not benefit regional development.