Cooperation between the six countries of the region needs to improve for mutual benefit
Countries in the Mekong Basin, notably those located in the lower part of the river - Asia's seventh longest - are in need of a collective strategy to secure their future, given China's control of the upstream part and ongoing changes in global geopolitics.
The 4,909km river runs from Tibet in China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. But only its lower portion is regulated by an international agreement and an organisation.
The lower part is popularly known as the Mekong, while the upper part in China is called the Lancang.
While all six countries in the basin increasingly utilise resources from the Mekong - such as for the construction of dams in its mainstream and major tributaries, navigation and fishery - there remains no clear procedures for all countries to ensure proper management of the environment and fair resource distribution.
Differences and sometimes disputes over water resource utilisation and management have occurred occasionally over the past decade, when some of these activities led to cross-boundary impacts in the subregion.
Hydro-power construction and operation in the Mekong mainstream in China and Laos' territories have also caused severe impact to the downstream countries. Dams can create fluctuation of water flows, block navigation routes and prevent the natural migration of fish up and down the river.
Four countries in the lower Mekong comprising Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam signed an agreement back in 1995 to establish regulations for river utilisation and set up the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to coordinate and enforce the agreement.
As the intergovernmental organisation, the MRC is struggling to influence the decisions of the individual sovereign nations over the water utilisation, with Laos, a member, deciding to push ahead with the construction of Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams in the Mekong mainstream. More dams, including those in Pak Beng and Pak Lay, are in the pipeline.
While the MRC's major mechanism under the 1995 agreement, known as the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), is blamed for not being so effective in influencing its members' decisions, Laos has decided to redesign its Xayaburi project to be a more environmentally friendly dam.
Although the creditability of the PNPCA as a mechanism to consult stakeholders is less, as seen in the move by civic groups to boycott the latest public hearing on the planned Pak Lay dam recently, MRC officials argue that the mechanism is the sole game in the region to handle the differences on development projects.
The MRC and its four members now face another big challenge in terms of being able to manage the Mekong Basin affairs, as China has sponsored the establishment of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) in 2016 that includes all six Mekong countries into one framework.
While jurisdiction of the MRC and the LMC is different, there are some overlapping areas, particularly in water resource management.
There have been calls over the past few years for the expansion of the MRC to cover the upper part of the Mekong Basin, by inviting China and Myanmar to become full members.
Yet both have maintained their status as "dialogue partners" since 1996. With this status, the MRC has been able to get a certain degree of cooperation on water resource management, with China agreeing to share hydrology information with the organisation.
But other matters remain illusive.
The LMC's institutions and mechanisms show trends of eclipsing the MRC in the near future as Beijing has plenty of resources and funds to forge bilateral cooperation with countries downstream.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who oversees the LMC, has rejected the idea that the MRC is being overshadowed and has suggested that the two organisations would support and complement each other.
The MRC also tries to have closer relations with the LMC's Water Resources Cooperation Centre.
MRC chief executive officer Pham Tuan Phan met senior Chinese officials in Kunming on the sidelines of the First Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Forum last week to discuss further cooperation between the two organisations.
"China has welcomed our call to strengthen cooperation between the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Centre and the MRC for the benefit of the whole Mekong River basin," said Dr Phan. "We will be working on further identifying key areas of cooperation that are vital to our work for sustainable development of the Mekong River and the basin's people."
According to Dr Phan, the head of the Chinese Joint Working Group for the centre Yu Xingjun said the LMC was trying to find possible ways to work with the MRC.
One of the key areas where cooperation is needed is the sharing of flood forecast data from the Jing Hong hydropower station.
Sharing of the hydrological data during the dry season will benefit development planning and drought management in the Mekong, said Dr Phan.
In 2013, China and the MRC renewed the 2002 agreement on the provision of hydrological information on the Mekong River.
Under the agreement, China now provides water-level data during the flood season for five months from June to October twice daily from two stations located on the Mekong in China. This information is fed into the MRC's flood forecasting system.
China contributes 13.5 per cent of the flow of the Mekong River, according to an MRC statement.
The MRC said it needs more cooperation from China and the LMC to update its strategic plans on sustainable hydropower and basin development strategy.
"There is no better time than now for China to cooperate with the MRC if it is for the interest of the whole basin population of over 70 million people," said Dr Phan.
Indeed, the proposal to have closer cooperation between the MRC and the LMC was stressed clearly during an MRC summit in Cambodia's Siem Reap in April this year.
But the leaders of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam did not spell out the term "cooperation" clearly, given the fact that many countries mostly rely on China under many other subregional cooperation schemes.
Cooperation in this sense is not based on equality and reciprocity, but China in many aspects plays the role of a "donor" country.
• The writer is editor of The Nation, Thailand.
• The Asian Writers' Circle is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and writers from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers, websites and social media platforms across the region.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2018, with the headline 'The tussle with China in the Mekong Basin'. Print Edition | Subscribe
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.