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Resource Conflicts Coming in Southeast Asia

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on October 27th, 2004

While we fret about North Korea and the Taiwan Strait, what are literally life and death issues for the peoples of Southeast Asia are being raised by little noted, ongoing actions by China with respect to the rivers that feed that region, but have their headwaters in Chinese controlled territory. As our colleague Milton Osborne makes clear in an important article available through this website (River at Risk: The Mekong and the Water Politics of China and Southeast Asia), China’s current program of damming the waters of the Mekong river before it enters Southeast Asia, and blasting away the rocks and rapids that have prevented its use for large scale navigation, are sowing the seeds for major problems ahead.

Osborne has written two books about the Mekong, on which he is almost certainly the western world’s leading expert. The article presented here is vital background reading for anyone interested in the Asian future.

For although the story pivots on one river and its importance, the real issue is much larger. Water is already a contentious issue in the American west, in the Middle East, in the Pakistani and Indian sections of the Punjab, and in China herself—where the great rivers that nourished her civilization, the Huang [Yellow], the Huai, and the Changjiang [Yangtze] are now thoroughly polluted not only with sewage but also with complex chemicals and even nuclear isotopes discarded from hospitals, and dammed and tapped so much that the Yellow, for example, regularly ceases to flow.

The history of mainland Southeast Asia can be written as a story of rivers, their valleys, and the civilizations they make possible—and no river in the region has been more important in this respect than the Mekong, which from its origins in the highlands of eastern Tibet flows through the Chinese province of Yunnan and on its way to the sea touches or passes through Laos, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Most importantly, its seasonal inflow and outflow expand (to 9,500 square miles) and shrink (to 1,000 square miles) the great Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia, which since the times of the Angkor kingdom has provided the food (40% of protein today, according to some estimates) for the people around it. The case of the lake is only one example of how the delicate ecosystem of an entire subcontinent, and with it, the survival of millions of people, are being threatened by ill-considered, unilateral actions—in this case by China.

Frightening as this story is for natural and human ecology and survival, it also has a very worrying strategic aspect. For what recourse has Southeast Asia, home to half a billion people, have when confronted by these actions? Whatever China may say, it cannot have escaped Beijing’s attention that just as Turkey can exert immense pressure on Syria and Iraq because it has dammed the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, so China gains leverage of some kind over Southeast Asia by controlling water flow.

This leverage is probably welcome to the current Chinese regime, which fought Vietnam in 1979, is deeply involved in Cambodia, and even more deeply in Burma. But it risks creating chronic disputes that will prove difficult to resolve.

For every action in diplomacy and military affairs has a reaction, as in physics, except that the nature and timing of the reaction cannot be predicted. One can be certain, however, that interfering with the basic agriculture and fishing that feed so many Southeast Asians can only lead to trouble—or should we say more trouble?—around China’s periphery, where she already has trouble enough.

What will be the result? At IASC we expect the gradual emergence of an informal entente of states that will increasingly limit China’s political and military room for maneuver. After Korea, India and Japan, add at least some Southeast Asian countries to the potential members of that group.

Related Links
   River at Risk: The Mekong and the Water Politics of China and Southeast Asia

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