Mekong River: The next flashpoint in Indo-Pacific

by Editorial

It is the right time now to make the pristine, scenic and mighty Mekong river a strategic piece in the Indo-Pacific puzzle. This is of immense importance to India. But, what does India have to lose, in a river that is hundreds of miles away from the nearest border outpost? A lot. In fact, we’ve lost a lot already. Time, effort, money and more importantly — lives.

Core issue

The Mekong river has its origins in Tibet. Waters pass through five other nations (Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam). The terrain it passes through ranges from the cold plateau of Tibet to dense jungles to fertile agricultural lands of the Mekong delta. While playing a crucial role in environment and economy, and therefore making a direct and indirect impact on lives of, at the very least, 6-7 crore people.

Where does China come in? China plans to use the Mekong river as a trade route for the now infamous signature initiative of President Xi Jinping: Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese companies started blasting sections of the river called Pi Long rapids to ‘make it fit’ for cargo ships to transit to and from China through the river.

Strategic importance

Being part of the Indo-Pacific, India has a significant stake in this region. India’s extended neighbourhood. In 2000, India and five other partner nations (Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam) agreed to form Mekong Ganga Cooperation. This is nothing but India’s outreach towards East Asia. The “Look East Policy” as the Government of India calls it. Under this, a lot of development projects were to be partnered. Including Trans-Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Railway projects. These connectivity projects are far away from debt trap models and are done on partnership basis — free and transparent. No hidden games as that of the Belt & Road Initiative. Also, this started much before the Chinese move.

It might be slow, but steady. We built only on a “need” basis. No forceful imposing of cosmetic/showcase projects at exorbitant amounts on smaller neighbours. While there is a significant progress in the connectivity projects, there is much to catch up to make a deeper economic impact. Many of these small and poor countries are under tighter Chinese influence — economically and strategically. For China, what seemed fine until 2014, suddenly got off rails.

One who has influence over the Mekong river has the sphere of influence over a major chunk of Indo-Pacific theater landmass. The strategic importance is no less than Panama Canal or Suez Canal.

When it comes to the Mekong river, two key players are involved. Myanmar — the first nation downstream after the Mekong river enters from Yunnan province of China. Vietnam, which has the Mekong delta region — the last point before the river flows into the historic Champa Sea — which is part of the Indian cultural sphere, though independent nations. In fact, Mekong holds the unique distinction of flowing through six nations today, which were entirely under Indian cultural sphere of influence. Including Yunnan.

Myanmar

Why Myanmar? Myanmar lies between Andaman Sea/ Bay of Bengal and China’s Yunnan province. The shortest land route for cargo and oil from the Gulf is via Sittwe-Muse-Kunming. This circumvents the Malacca Straits and Champa Sea issues.

 The strategic depth at which China operates to keep a hold on the nations is mind-boggling and elaborate. On Myanmar, while India itself is helping with cultural, security and political capital. On monetary capital, India has roped in Japan for investments to counter Chinese investments and offer an alternative. The SinoJapanese rivalry in Myanmar projects is quite well documented.

 Just after the Myanmar visit of November 2014, the ball started rolling faster. After that visit by Myanmar’s State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Delhi and two-day log meeting with PM Modi, a lot of perception and alignments between two neighbours seem to have changed.

A vision was spelled out by Suu Kyi in her joint press statement during her 2016 Delhi visit. Subsequently, the political and military relations marched forward. In November 2019, two key events happened. First, Myanmar came under heavy criticism and extreme pressure over the Rohingya issue. Myanmar was taken to the International Criminal Court by Gambia. Not Saudi Arabia or Bangladesh or Indonesia. But Gambia. Ironically, this is just after a year of Gambia receiving financial assistance from PRC in return for breaking ties with Taiwan.

Second event. Five people were kidnapped by the Arakan Army. They were there relating to an India-funded construction project in restive Rakhine province. One Indian national (construction worker) died while in AA’s custody. Four others who were also abducted were released safely. While ICC order came in January 2020.

Investigations that followed on a wider issue of Chinese funding and arming insurgents. China was caught red handed by Myanmar. China did sabotage India funded projects in Myanmar. Especially, Trans-Asian Highway/Railway link related projects. And more specifically, the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Project which is key to connecting India’s Northeastern provinces. Not just that. China did mischief against those who were opposing citing environmental and financial issues that exist in China funded China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) projects in Myanmar.

For those who don’t know, Arakan Army is fully funded & armed by China’s PLA directly. As per media reports, the Ministry of State Security (MSS) supports AA too. On the other hand, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) is funded by China indirectly through Pakistan’s ISI, per news reports. AA committed some grave human rights violations on Rohingyas. Just like their adversary ARSA did on Hindus and Buddhists. China funds both. ARSA got assistance from Pakistan is a different story. Overall, China supports a lot of terrorist groups in this region. PLA & MSS even funds insurgent groups in India’s North East — which operate training camps in Myanmar’s jungles. Indian Army and Myanmar’s Tatmadaw did a joint strike on these terror camps many times in the past few years. Some of India’s most-wanted terrorists are tracked to Yunnan Province of China.

By creating an image of Myanmar as a politically unstable State that is also infested with internal trouble, China made Myanmar look unattractive for foreign investments. Thus, keeping Myanmar under its claws of debt trap. This is a double-edged sword. Fact is, China has waged a political, economic and even a sub-conventional proxy war against Myanmar for showing slightest signs of aligning with India — for all peaceful purposes. Myanmar, by now, has understood the game and moved on completely away from Chinese influence. The little influence that we see is also bound to vanish in times to come. The recent meeting between Myanmar’s military chief and Indian Defence Minister was the final nail in the coffin. India upped its game in Myanmar and there will be no looking back.

Vietnam

Mekong protection is key to sustaining the food basket of South East Asia. Be it freshwater fishing, agriculture or poultry. The bigger problem here is that the fear of this damage being irreversible. Making it impossible for future rejuvenation of this natural habitat of precious flora & fauna.

 Development always needs to be sustainable. More importantly, with little to no damage to habitat/ecosystem. Here, we are talking of destroying an entire natural habitat in the middle of a rainforest, for unadulterated greed.

Few months ago, water levels reached a historic low of 1.5 metres. Then, the worst drought in a century this year. Then, there have been reports of this being the reason for saltwater intrusion in the Mekong Delta region. Vietnam’s food basket. This is nothing short of an environmental emergency that Vietnam was battling along with Pandemic. Currently, due to heavy rains in China, the water levels have risen. And the basin is flooded. This is majorly due to irresponsible/unscientific restricting of the flow of Mekong river water. The issue is well documented in local media. This is the level of environmental impact. Though Vietnam took diplomatic steps to raise this issue with China, it is of little help. Vi e t n a m’s e c o n o m i c growth trajectory over the past few years has been upwards and quite robust. They’ve pulled out a large chunk of their people out of poverty. The Mekong delta region of the country has played a crucial role in this. This region is key to the country’s food security in future too. Such projects might have a deep economic & social impact on the people too.

 Cambodia, Lao PDR & Thailand

Cambodia, Lao PDR and Thailand face political and sovereignty issues that are caused due to environmental impact on its people. The issues are very similar to what Vietnam faces. A wave of protests over China’s irresponsible Mekong river projects. Some violent attacks on Chinese workers too. Per one report of Reuters, “Chinese engineers on the Mekong said they were worried that Thai protesters would board the rickety cargo ship where they slept, prompting them to moor it on the Laotian side of the Mekong each night.” Over the past few years, “Mekong River is Not for Sale” has become more than a slogan for the locals. This started rumblings at political & geo-political level as Nations were scrambling themselves while unable to speak out against a mighty China. Vietnam is not alone. Story is similar in Thailand and Lao PDR too. The protests had a political bearing on Lao PDR & Thai Governments at various levels. Sovereignty issue.

China’s overambitious problem

As it is oft-repeated on any issue where China is party to, chances are that the issue most likely originated in China. This one, has its roots in China after PRC setting itself an ambition to control the region’s waters. It might sound like an allegation, but this is their act elsewhere too. More precisely, this is one of the reasons for PRC’s invasion of Tibet. For example: Mekong River Commission was formed — officially in 1995. The Commission has 4 members out of 6 States through which the river flows, as members. The other two exclusions being Myanmar and Tibet/ China.

 In 2012, a rival organization was proposed by someone as big as China’s Premier Li Keqiang. The Lancang – Mekong Cooperation. Now that we know the clout China had those days, it must have had little difficulty in getting all 5 States into this organisation. Who’d have thought of meeting eye to eye with China those days. Leave alone these small nations saying a “No” for an answer. Especially, when this new LMC was spearheaded by no less than China’s Premier. Within a few years, development — China-style — started reaching those areas.

If you haven’t noticed, China copied even the name of Mekong Ganga Cooperation — as PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee suggested in 2000. As Premier Li Keqiang suggested in 2012, it is Lancang-Mekong Cooperation. Humility puts one’s interests behind. Hence, India put Ganga after Mekong. Culture matters.

Only money, no care for the environment, sovereignty or livelihood was given. Problems started.

Course of action

If China’s clout must be curtailed in the region, China’s access to the region’s shores must be restricted. Be it Bay of Bengal or Champa Sea. The only other option is through the Mekong basin. It is here that World’s democracies should partner with these small nations that are hit by China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy. Help them create their own wealth using the Mekong river and keep them independent from China.

The way China has tricked these small nations it’s unlikely that they would ever trust China’s intentions ever again. China too knows this. Hence, China used “mischief” as strategy. Beat Myanmar down and tame Vietnam. Unfortunately for China, both strategies have failed. With Indo-Pacific region heating up, it won’t be wrong to see many democratic political changes which would help the Mekong river flow peacefully. With Vietnam and Myanmar out of China’s sphere of influence, this could happen faster than expected.

 India can pace up the initiatives of Mekong-Ganga Cooperation — where it was last left and speed up the progress First, people to people contact should be made simple and affordable. Second, ease of doing business should be the key driving factor. If the Mekong delta flourishes, India’s Northeast flourishes too. Lastly, the Mekong Ganga Cooperation project, had a dream to run a passenger train from Delhi/Kolkata to Hanoi. Hopefully, we see it in our lifetime.

A good regional cooperation is the need of the hour. Like ASEAN, there should be an Indo-Pacific grouping which could voice collective concerns regarding China’s unsustainable ideas. This is more than enough for wealth creation and people movement. This should be done at the earliest before we lose habitat for good. If we don’t stop this, I am fully sure nature would reclaim itself.

Shreedharan Raman watches strategic moves by countries around the globe, especially China.

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