China’s influence in Southeast Asia flows through the Mekong

A map of the Mekong River
The Mekong River stretches from the Tibetan Plateau to southern Vietnam. It is a crucial lifeline for the countries through which it flows (source: macpixxel for GIS)
  • The Mekong River is a crucial waterway in Southeast Asia
  • China’s development of upriver segments threatens countries downstream
  • If they coordinated more, these countries could resist China’s influence
  • Instead, they tend to act individually, giving Beijing the upper hand

The Mekong River has long inspired dreams of development in mainland Southeast Asia. During the Cold War, the United States saw taming it as a way to insulate the countries there – Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand – from communist infiltration. U.S. plans, interrupted and made unfeasible by war, were never implemented. Now, almost 30 years later, development has come. China has completed six dams and is planning 14 more on its half of the Mekong, which it calls the Lancang. The dams give China control over the flow of waters and sediment essential to the economies of mainland Southeast Asia and the livelihoods of 60 million people. How the countries in the lower Mekong respond to this challenge will determine how much influence China gains.

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