The next US-China battleground: Chinese dams on the Mekong River?

The next US-China battleground: Chinese dams on the Mekong River?

  • Chinese dams on the Mekong have been blamed by some for the severe droughts suffered by downstream nations at the turn of the year
  • But conflicting research by US- and Chinese-backed groups suggests a battle of narratives to frame Beijing’s relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours

Chinese dams aren’t the problem causing droughts for downstream nations along the Mekong River – they are part of the solution.

That is the controversial finding of a Chinese study released in July that poured water on claims by a rival US-backed investigation that blamed dams in China for the shortages suffered by Southeast Asian countries on the river’s lower reaches.

The Chinese study, a collaboration between Tsinghua University and China’s Institute of Water Resources, argues that in fact the dams help to alleviate the problem by storing water from the wet season and releasing it in the dry season.

The rival claim has done more than spark an academic discussion on the root cause of shortages so severe that Vietnam declared a state of emergency and Thailand enlisted its military in relief efforts at the turn of the year. Analysts say the competing claims are signs of a battle to control the narratives framing China’s relations with its smaller Southeast Asian neighbours. In short, they say, the Mekong has become the latest front in the US-China rivalry.