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Laos: Damming the Mekong By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0023/ 2015

Q1) As with Xayaburi dam, Cambodia and Vietnam have formally requested Laos for an extension of the consultation period. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) panel of experts rubbished the construction company’s fish diversion scheme – to use two smaller channels. The Cambodian/Vietnam consultation will report their communities want the dam suspended or cancelled. How do you see the scenario in the event that Laos refuse?

ANSWER: The prior consultation period was set for six months in mid-2014 but was only commenced three months later, in October. This is too short a period for proper consideration. The consultation process in both Cambodia and Vietnam produced negative results. Vietnamese scientists weighed in with data gleaned from critical studies. There is not much Vietnam can do. There were some high-level visits late last year and although there was no press reporting that the Don Sahong dam was mentioned it was likely raised in private. Vietnam is likely to try adopting a multipronged approach using bilateral influence, lobbying within ASEAN and enlisting the support of external players like the United States, Japan and Australia. At the moment decision-making in Laos appears to favour going ahead regardless. If Vietnam and Cambodia can mobilize enough support Laos might equivocate. But the precedent of the Xayaburi dams appears to indicate Laos will stand up to this  pressure with backing from China.

Q2) This dam is shaping up to be the first Chinese dam project on Lower Mekong if it goes ahead with Sinohydro being invited by the Malaysian company to handle the construction .How will this affect the geo-politics of the Mekong?

ANSWER: China has an overwhelming presence across mainland Southeast Asia for its role in infrastructure development. This was bolstered by China’s initiative to stand up an Asian Infrastructure Development Bank which most ASEAN members joined at the initial stage including Cambodia and Vietnam. The Malaysian government will protect Malaysian business interests because it favours cosy relations with China. Malaysia is also chair of ASEAN. China’s presence and the likely negative impact the Don Sahong Dam will have on the Lower Mekong will collide with the Lower Mekong Initiative initiated by the United States. There will be posturing and friction as both sides differ over the impact on the downstream environment.

Q3) With so many Chinese dams on the Lancang [Upper Mekong], do you see this growing Chinese stranglehold on the water resources of the Mekong as a threat to water flow, resources and independence of MRC countries and a recipe for geopolitical conflict?

ANSWER: China’s dam building projects have already altered the flow of water to the downstream states. But this is not a weapon that China can easily use because four states are involved – Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. China cannot attempt to hurt one state without affecting its relations with the other three states. It is best to view this as a system of asymmetric  interdependence involving not only water resources but political relations as well. China’s influence over the Mekong is likely to generate friction but not conflict.

Q4) What is the potential for Vietnam to challenge Sinhohydro’s involvement with some tacit US encouragement?

ANSWER: Vietnam will attempt to enlist the support of external players like the United States to delay and/or prevent dam construction. In the end it boils down to how much pressure Laos can withstand to go ahead with this project. Vietnam is on weak grounds to challenge Sinohydro’s involvement because it is a commercial role.

Q5) Given the looming crisis in the Mekong Delta with scientists indicating that if all nine dams go ahead in 20-30 years Vietnam will cease to be a rice exporter; is Vietnam likely to elevate their commitment to halt mainstream dams to a national security level?

ANSWER: One of Vietnam’s deputy ministers of national defence, Senior Lt. Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh, recently identified non-traditional security issues as Vietnam’s third major security concern. He did not elaborate with specific examples. If dam construction continues at its present pace and environmental impacts on the Mekong Delta worsen, Vietnam definitely will raise this to the level of a national security concern. However, in the time frame of two to three decades, mainland Southeast Asia and China should be much more integrated and willing to see food and environmental issues holistically. Cooperation should be easier then than now. Science and technology might also provide a means to mitigate the worst effects of the dams on downstream states.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email:

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