Testimony

China’s Activities In Southeast Asia And The Implications For U.S. Interests

in Program

Hearing statement

February 4, 2010
Dr. Richard P. Cronin
Senior Associate and Director, Southeast Asia Program
The Stimson Center
Washington, DC

Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission

“China’s Activities in Southeast Asia and the Implications for U.S. Interests”

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before this hearing on China’s activities in
Southeast Asia and their implications for U.S. interests. I will address all of the questions
that were posed in the invitation to testify, but I will preface my responses with some
background and context to China’s current activities in the region and their implications
for U.S. policy as well as U.S interests.

As in testimony that I gave on this issue at a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on East
Asia and the Pacific, we can better understand what is driving Chinese policy if we keep
in mind at least two important factors that have influenced China’s approach. First,
China is feeling its strength while it still feels the humiliation of the past aggrandizement
of Imperial China by the western colonial powers, Russia, and Japan, who occupied and
alienated Chinese territory. Even some of its comparatively weak South China Sea
neighbors encroached on China’s position during the chaos of Mao’s Cultural
Revolution, when Chinese attention was focused inward. Thus, China remains
determined to redress what it sees as past injuries and reclaim what it views, rightly or
wrongly, as its own. This includes the position it once held as the dominant power in
what the world still calls the South China Sea. Not incidentally, Taiwan also makes most
of the same claims, and on the same basis.

Second, much of China’s assertive behavior is a spillover effect of its rapid economic
growth and increasing hunger for secure supplies of energy. China’s anxiety to sustain
growth through the current global recession – which ultimately will require wrenching
policy changes to generate more domestic growth – also seems to be a factor. In would
be better for China and its neighbors and other trading partners if its leaders understood
the working and ultimate efficiency of global markets and were not wedded to a
mercantilist approach to locking up energy and other natural resources through long term
contracts, but China is not alone in this competition.

China’s desire for regional and global influence commensurate with its rising power is
normal and to be expected, and need not necessarily conflict with U.S. interests. On the
whole, successive U.S. administrations as well as China’s neighbors have cautiously
welcomed its economic rise and the bigger economies, including Japan especially, have
promoted important ties of investment and trade. Also for context, during the Cold War
the United States tacitly accepted a nuclear armed China as an important strategic
counterweight to the then Soviet Union. Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 the
United States has sought Chinese cooperation on a number of fronts, most notably
nuclear proliferation – to which China had long contributed, for instance, by supplying
nuclear materials, technology, missiles and even bomb designs to Pakistan. China seems
to have stopped its proliferation activities and now recognizes that it has a mutual interest
with the United States and other Asia-Pacific countries in seeking to moderate the actions
of its client state, North Korea. China’s reluctant agreement to host the 6-Party Talks
greatly encouraged U.S. hopes that Beijing would become a “responsible stakeholder.”

In the past several years, however, the mood in the Executive Branch, the Congress and
the American public has begun to change, partly in response to trade and currency issues,
but also in response to China’s increasing assertiveness in pursuing its geopolitical
interests. China also appears somewhat less helpful regarding North Korea, a
maddeningly recalcitrant client but still valuable buffer state. And lately, China has
cracked down on dissidents, provoked a dispute that could cause Google to abandon the
Chinese market, and hacked into U.S. government and private sector computer networks,
apparently to gain access to high technology related to national security and challenging
U.S. companies’ valuable technology and intellectual property.

Especially in the South China Sea, China has become increasingly assertive – even
provocative — towards its neighbors in regard to maritime boundary issues. China
appears to have decided to abandon the conciliatory stance that it adapted in mid-1995,
when it realized that its clumsy effort to re-enforce its maritime territorial claims by
occupying Mischief Reef in the Spratly island chain, had backfired by generating an
unusual show of ASEAN solidarity.

The State Department and Defense Department are concerned about reports of pressure
by China on U.S. multinational oil and gas companies not to drill in blocks offered by
Vietnam, as well as the March 2009 harassment of the US Navy ship “Impeccable” in
waters 75 miles South of Hainan Island. The crudeness of Chinese challenges suggests a
concerted effort to change the established rules to China’s advantage.

At the time of the Spratlys incident in 1995 the United States took no stand on the
disputed claims and only called for the peaceful resolution of maritime territorial disputes
and non-interference in the rights of free passage of warships in straits and exclusive
economic zones. Now, the State and Defense departments as well as the U.S. Navy,
which has long had strong influence on U.S. policy regarding maritime boundary disputes
and freedom of navigation, have shown more concern over the substance of China’s
claim to nearly the whole South China Sea as “historical waters.” A major concern is
that this approach is not in accordance with the principles of the UN Convention on the
Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In March 2009 the contested sovereignty of the Paracel
island chain flared up when China sent a “fishery patrol ship,” which the Beijing News
said was a converted warship into the open sea between the Spratlys and the Paracel
island chain. China’s seized the Paracels from the disintegrating former South
Vietnamese government in 1974 in a bloody engagement.

Finally, another factor that indirectly may be affecting U.S. concerns about China’s
activities in Southeast Asia is the current strain in U.S.-Japan alliance relations over the
Futenma base relocation plan, and the general shift in the Japanese political climate
toward a more nationalistic and independent posture. What most if not all Southeast
Asian governments want is for both the United States and Japan to pay more attention to
the region and especially to increase their business investment and ODA.

 

Specific Responses to Questions

China’s positions on sovereignty and maritime claims and how they impact regional and
U.S. interests

Largely because China claims most of the South China Sea as “Historical Waters,” it has
a maritime territorial dispute with nearly every other littoral country. Most of these
disputes, the parties to the conflict, the issues and historical context are shown in the
chart that accompanies my written testimony. The historical waters claim has some
limited validity under the 1982 UN Commission on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but
only under very narrow circumstances which generally are not applicable when more
than one country is a claimant. Otherwise, the UNCLOS has a very clear set of principles
for determining territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones, or EEZs.

The historical seas claim is most troublesome in regard to the open sea and China’s claim
to small islets as in the Spratlys and Paracels which are much nearer to the coasts of other
claimants. By some accounts, acceptance of a so-called “nine dashed line” on a Chinese
map, also called “U-Shaped Line” – which pushes China’s claim deep into what normally
would be the EEZs of Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines – would give it 80 percent
of the area of the South China Sea. This was the basis for the Philippines’ strong
objection to China’s seizure and occupation of Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, since the
reef is well within the former’s claimed EEZ.

In some other areas, such as the Gulf of Tonkin, which is bounded by Vietnam and
China’s Guangxi Province, Liuzhou Peninsula, and Hainan Island, China is not the only
country asserting a historical waters claim. Vietnam, in fact bases its claim in the Gulf of
Tonkin partly as historical waters, which would give it a much larger share of the Gulf
than under the normal UNCLOS rules, and also on the basis of a vertical line drawn by
the French colonial power in the Sino-French Treaty of 1887. The median line between
Hainan Island and the Vietnamese coast, which would be the usual way of adjudicating a
claim under UNCLOS, would favor China in the Gulf itself, but not in other parts of the
Vietnamese coastline.

Also, all of the littoral countries of the Gulf of Thailand – Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia
and Vietnam have disputes with one or more of the others. Malaysia and Thailand signed
a joint development agreement for part of the disputed area, but other claims between
them remain in dispute.

The territorial issues have become much more acute in recent years as the result of rising
prices for oil and gas and the rapid depletion of wild fish stocks throughout the region.
Fisheries, which are an important source of protein in many Asian diets, are rapidly being
degraded by overfishing, pollution and other causes, and prices are rising along with
increasing scarcity.

The Chinese as well as their neighbors have increasingly used force or the threat of force
to protect what they view as there own fishing grounds. This pattern also includes
actions such as the seizure of fishing boats by countries other than China.

But in the end, China is much the more powerful country and its increasing muscle
flexing over its maritime territorial disputes with Southeast Asian countries poses a
growing problem for legitimate American and Southeast Asian interests, including
freedom of navigation, access to rich undersea oil and gas deposits, and the cooperative
and sustainable development of other seabed resources, fisheries, and estuaries. The
consequences of China’s behavior in the South China Sea in particular include threats to
regional peace and stability, economic development, traditional subsistence livelihoods,
and food security.

The current state of China’s maritime disputes with Southeast Asian nations in the South
China Sea and Gulf of Tonkin

There has been no progress towards resolving any of these disputes between China and
its neighbors, though a few settlements have been reached by other claimants with each
other. China has objected to agreements that involve waters that it also claims.
In fact, most of the territorial disputes have become more heated because the UNCLOS
required countries to submit formal claims by May 13, 2009. Several countries have
already have lodged complaints about other countries’ submissions. China, for instance,
objected strongly to a joint submission by Malaysia (states on Borneo) and Vietnam and
to a separate submission by Vietnam alone.

More important than the details of these disputes is China’s increasing willingness to use
force and threats to back up its claims. After the 1995 Spratlys incident ASEAN
brokered an agreement by China and the other parties not to build any more structures on
disputed reefs and atolls. In March 2002 ASEAN and China agreed not to use force to
resolve the disputes and in November of that year the parties signed a Declaration on the
Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which included not only an agreement not to
use force but also to undertake confidence-building measures. Nothing much has come
of these agreements. Beginning in 2005 the national oil companies of China, Vietnam
and the Philippines have reportedly conducted jointly conducted seismic in waters that
included the Spratlys, to what result I do not know.

China created further regional consternation in late 2007 when it established a new
administrative center on Hainan with responsibility for managing the Paracels and
Spratlys, and Macclessfield Bank. Also known as the Zhongsha Islands, its extensive
atolls and shoals must be avoided by large ships but the area is a rich fishery. Vietnam is
the most directly affected by this action but the Philippines also claims the Bank.

China’s construction of hydropower dams on the mainstream of the Mekong River, their
impact on Lower Mekong Countries, and potential nontraditional security threats (NTS)
and their effect on the United States

There are few if any regions of the world where the adage “geography is destiny” is more
apparent than in the Mekong River Basin. China, by far the largest and most powerful
country in the region sits astride both the source and the part with the largest hydropower
potential. China recently completed and has begun filling the fourth of a massive eightdam
at Xiaowan, southwest of Kunming, the provincial capital. The 292 meters-high
Xiaowan Dam, the world’s highest compound concrete arch dam, would tower 100
meters over the Hoover Dam, which is of a similar type.

Most importantly, the Xiaowan Dam’s reservoir will hold 15 billion meters of water,
enough to regulate the river for the benefit of China’s hydropower production, water
storage and to maintain navigation in the dry season, when the river is only inches deep
in many places. China has begun to construct four other dams upstream of Xiaowan,
including one with even larger storage capacity.

China has several goals in constructing a massive eight dam cascade in Yunnan. First,
the Upper Mekong, which the Chinese call the Lancang, has nearly the energy potential
of the Three Gorges Dam, heretofore China’s largest construction project. China sees the exploitation
of river’s energy potential as the key to its “Go West” infrastructure development project,
now Beijing’s most expensive and highest priority national endeavor. Second, China
wants to maximize the navigation potential of the river as far south as the Khone Falls,
the only really large geographic obstacle between Yunnan and the Mekong Delta, where
it disappears into the South China Sea. Third, despite growing recognition of the human
and environmental cost of past infrastructure projects, China continues to suffer from a
mind-set that is strongly biased towards harnessing nature for development. Fourth,
China is determined to incorporating the natural resources of the Mekong Basin into its
manufacturing supply chain expanding its political and economic influence.

China’s military, economic development and geopolitical objectives of China pose the
most important but by no means the only threat to human security and regional stability
in the Mekong Basin. In varying degrees the former warring countries of Cambodia,
Laos, Thailand and Vietnam also are pursuing short sighted, environmentally
unsustainable development policies, in the cases of Laos and Cambodia, in conjunction
with Chinese ambitions for regional economic integration.

The plans of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia to build up to 13 dams on the mainstream of
the lower half of the river are, if anything, even more immediately threatening to the
human and food security and livelihoods of tens of millions of people. Two dams in
particular – Laos’ Don Sahong project at the Khone Falls on its border with Cambodia
and Cambodia’s plan to build a 35 or more kilometers-wide dam across the Sambor
Rapids, roughly equidistant between the Khone Falls to the north and its capital, Phnom
Penh to the south.

These two dams, either alone or together, are a threat to critical migratory paths for 70
percent of the most commercially valuable species of wild fish. At Don Sahong, a
Malaysian company, Mega First Corporation Berhad, has contracted with the Lao
government to build a 240-360 megawatt dam on the Hou Sahong, the only one of 18
channels that allows unimpeded year round spawning migration by hundreds of fish
species that are worth as much as $9 billion or more annually and which supply up to 80
percent of the animal protein of as many as 60 million people. A Chinese company has
an agreement with the Government of Cambodia for the Sambor Dam project, which
would create a total barrier to the spawning migration of many of the same fish species
that transit the Hou Sahong channel at Khone Falls.

Time does not permit detailing the other dam projects in Laos and Cambodia, many of
which are still on the drawing boards. Nor, is there time to walk you through the rather
fascinating origin of these projects in an early Cold War Era scheme largely drawn up by
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation — the folks who gave
us the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Hoover Dam, and the massive dams on the
Columbia River. Much larger than the TVA, the massive Lower Mekong development
scheme was the work of a U.S.-led multinational Mekong Committee organized loosely
under UN auspices. The scheme even included a dam above the Sambor rapids that
would completely cover the falls with locks to facilitate the navigation of Ocean going
ships all the way from the South China Sea to the border of Laos and Yunnan. The
project sought to protect the region against communism through development and also to
enable the United States to extract important strategic minerals, which are there in
abundance.

The main point of my mentioning this American led-scheme is to remind us that it isn’t
that long since the word environment was not part of our lexicon, and also to underscore
China’s continuing fascination with very large hydropower dams that have gone out of
fashion in most of the world.

If completed as claimed, the mainstream dams in both the Upper Mekong in China and
the Lower Mekong in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia will have an almost incalculable
impact on human and food security and livelihoods in the whole Mekong Basin. These
projects also pose a direct threat to the hard earned peace and stability of the Mekong
Region and mainland Southeast Asia.

I would summarize these impacts as follows:

First, China’s massive Yunnan cascade will allow China to regulate the river, mainly by
holding enough water in reservoirs during the monsoon season floods to facilitate ship
navigation and power generation by its own smaller dams through the dry season. It will
also both facilitate and provide control over the viability of the Lower Mekong dams. In
other words, the downstream countries dams cannot be operated during the several
months when the river does not have enough water to turn the turbines. The downstream
countries will have to depend on China to release a sufficient amount of water at the right
time. China may never feel the need to turn off the tap, but it will operate the dams in
accordance with its own power loads, water storage needs, and downstream navigation.
From an environmental and ecological perspective, putting 20-40 more percent of water
in the river during the dry season, as China intends, will create a major disruption of the
river’s ecology and its enormous productivity of aquatic life which is based on seasonal
extremes of wet and dry.

Second, the Chinese scheme will likely seriously disrupt the finely balanced interaction
of the flood and drought with Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Great Lake and the river of the
same name which connects the lake to the Mekong mainstream at Phnom Penh. Each
year the raging flood waters – known as the “flood pulse” — causing the Tonle Sap River
to reverse course west-ward. The rising flood waters turn the river and the Great Lake
into a vast temporary wetland the size of Lake Superior, which becomes the nursery of
billions of fish that have spawned upstream during the dry season and been carried down
by the flood. When the flood eases the Great Lake flows back in to the mainstream over
a period of three months, bringing with it a new generation of fish and giving the Mekong
Delta enough water for a third rice crop.

Third, both the Chinese and Lower Mekong dams will seriously threaten the viability of
the Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s most important source of fish and its “rice bowl.” The
dams will hold back the silt that rebuilds the Delta each year and keeps the South China
Sea at bay. Already, smaller alterations of the river’s flow in the Delta have created a
major problem of seawater infiltration and land submersion. The upstream dams will
alter the river’s flow in still unpredictable ways, threatening the rice fields that produce
40 percent of Vietnam’s output and possibly making some population centers inhabitable.
Finally, two threats less talked about are an earthquake that would rupture a Chinese dam
in Yunnan, a seismically active region, or a rains of such magnitude that the sluice gates
would have to be opened to save one of these large to mega-sized dams. In either case,
the consequences downstream would be catastrophic.

One might well ask if the consequences are so dire, why would governments – especially
in the Lower Mekong – push forward with these plans.

In the Lower Mekong, governments appear to be beguiled by the proposals, mainly by
Chinese, Thai, and other foreign private and state owned development companies to
construct “free” projects that will produce tax revenues and be turned over to the
governments in 25 years. These offers are especially attractive to the governments of
Laos, which seeks to become the “battery of Southeast Asia and to Cambodia, which
likewise wants to export electricity and also badly needs electricity for industrial
development.

Another major factor is that the Lao and Cambodian governments are not capable of
carrying out comprehensive full cost-benefit analysis that reflects the true costs to the
environmental and human security.

Unfortunately, the projects are being financed by Chinese, Thai and other foreign
developers who care little about the cost side of the equation to the countries and their
people. Thailand’s Electrical Generating Authority has been the main financier of dams
in Laos to produce power for the Thai grid. Some Chinese companies want to buy power
from Laos and Burma, but others see these projects as simple commercial “build-ownoperate-
transfer (BOOT)” opportunities.

Less clear are the motives of Chinese state-owned banks and aid-giving agencies. Some
see this all as emanating from Beijing, while others – including some respected Chinese
academics – feel that China’s senior leaders are not aware of the huge potential for
“blowback” if its state owned entities turn the Mekong into another version of the
Yangtze or Yellow rivers.

The projects are so environmentally destructive that the World Bank and the Asian
Development Bank could not finance them, and they will be extremely reluctant to put
themselves in the position of being tainted by participation. Because the banks are not
likely to stand by if fish stocks and livelihoods are devastated, they are at risk of ending
up trying to help, thereby playing the role of the people who follow a parade of elephants
with brooms and shovels!

So far, it would appear that the multilateral banks are reluctant to criticize the projects
directly. Moreover, the ADB is building a regional power grid under its multibillion
dollar Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) cooperative development project. The grid is
mainly oriented towards hydropower projects. The GMS, which includes China (Yunnan
and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region), Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar/Burma,
Thailand, and Vietnam, is playing a major role in the physical integration of the region
with Southwestern China. Because of opposition from China, which incidentally now
holds the largest share of voting power on the ADB Board of Directors after Japan and
the United States, the GMS does not include cooperation on the river that gives the region
its name.

 

Southeast Asian Response?

It is difficult to identify any clear Southeast Asian response to either the South China Sea
disputes or China’s development plans for the Mekong River and those of some of its
downstream neighbors. On the South China Sea, any collective response has been
prevented by the fact that the involved countries also have disputes with each other –
often over the same areas claimed by China – and because of the intimidating effect of
China’s superior military power and readiness to flex its muscles.

The Mekong situation is similar. Several countries have their own priority projects and
ASEAN itself has shown almost no interest in the issue. On the other hand, Statements
by Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva beginning last summer appear to presage
a possible shift in Thai policy toward hydropower on the Mekong River. In a June 19,
2009 meeting with representatives of the Save the Mekong Coalition, a grouping of some
twenty NGOs, Abhisit appeared to depart from Thailand’s traditional policy of looking to
the Mekong Basin for new sources of electrical power to meet growing demands for
power and water. The prime minister told the delegation “that he will take up the issue of
dam construction on the Mekong River for discussion at the bilateral, regional and
international levels, whether with the Mekong River Commission, with Thailand’s fellow
ASEAN members, or with ASEAN’s dialogue partners…” Significantly, while Prime
Minister Abhisit emphasized that Thailand alone could not “agree or disagree” to projects
proposed for an international river, he appeared to put down a marker that the
construction of dams should take place only after “consultation … based on data obtained
from surveys that conform to international standards and are acceptable to all parties
involved.”

Prime Minister Abhisit brought this new perspective to a meeting in Hanoi with
Vietnamese leaders on July 12. In a joint statement, Abhisit and Vietnamese Prime
Minister Nguyen Tan Dung pledged to work with each other and other countries in the
Mekong basin to both tap and protect water resources of the Mekong River in order to
protect legitimate and long-term rights of all downstream and upstream countries for the
sake of common sustainable development in the sub-region”. The meeting with the
environmental advocates followed the initiation by Save the Mekong on June 18, 2009 of
a world-wide campaign against hydropower dam construction on the Mekong
mainstream, backed by thousands of supportive postcards from throughout the world.

The only institutional player is the Mekong River Commission (MRC) which was
reconstituted in 1995 out of the long moribund Mekong Committee. The MRC is
comprised of the four Lower Mekong countries, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
China and Myanmar/Burma have accepted only observer status.

In theory the MRC exists to promote cooperative, sustainable and equitable water
management, but it cannot really do that so long as the member countries are not willing
to surrender even some of their sovereign rights.

That said, the MRC Secretariat does carry out important research on fisheries and other
environmental and water management issues. Should the four MRC member counties
decide to give it the necessary authority, the Commission is the most logical institution to
promote cooperative, sustainable and equitable water management and the protection of
fisheries on the Lower Mekong. But China and less importantly, Burma/Myanmar, need
to join or closely cooperate with the MRC to avert a pending disaster.

Somewhat remarkably, given the record of his predecessors, the current CEO of the
Commission, Jeremy Bird, has gained enough latitude from the member governments to
take up the issue of mainstream dams and fisheries as part of the MRC’s Basin
Development Plan. Two well attended “regional stakeholder forums” on the MRC Basin
Development Plan in Vientiane, Laos, the MRC headquarters in September 2008, and in
Chiang Rai, Thailand, this past October, were structured, among other purposes, to
sensitize governmental decisionmakers and the public to the scientifically established
incompatibility of mainstream dams and migratory fisheries.

I attended both of these forums as a member of a non-governmental organization, the
Stimson Center. One of the most remarkable aspects of the second regional stakeholder
forum in Chiang Rai last October was the presence of a six or eight member Chinese
delegation headed by a senior Chinese diplomat. This contrasted sharply with the first
stakeholder meeting in Vientiane, which was attended only by a couple of Chinese
representatives who had no authority to engage in any give-and-take discussion of
downstream complaints. At the Chiang Rai meeting this The delegation faced so much
criticism from Lower Mekong and international NGOs, and representatives of civil
society organizations that the leader acknowledged to the delegates at the end of the
workshop that he had heard their message and would take it back to Beijing. What he
reported and what may have registered remains unknown outside the Chinese
government.

The air of secrecy surrounding China’s Yunnan dams and most of the Lower Mekong
dam proposals has created almost a complete absence of transparency. The Chinese
provide little information on future construction and how the dams will be operated. On
the Lower Mekong, Chinese, Thai and other countries’ companies, both private and stateowned,
are concluding deals with governments with a total absence even of simple
coordination. Instead, the environment is one of uncoordinated and even chaotic
competition. Also critically important, local communities remain woefully under
informed as to projects that will have drastic impacts on their lives: from outright
displacement and physical relocation to the decimation of fish populations.

 

How Should the U.S. Respond?

It has become increasingly obvious in recent months that policymakers in the Obama
administration and many in Congress from both parties, as well as the Washington
foreign and security policy community, have concluded that an unhealthy geopolitical
shift is underway that seems to favor China, especially in Southeast Asia. On the one
hand, the global economic and financial crisis still requires close engagement between
Washington and Beijing, though narrower calculations than just the desire for
harmonious relations will likely drive economic and financial policies in both countries.
Likewise, we will continue to seek China’s cooperation on the North Korean nuclear
threat because we must, even though the results thus far have been disappointing to say
the least. On the other hand, increasing repression of freedom of speech as evidenced in
recent widespread arrests and trials of Chinese dissidents and the Google controversy are
negatively affecting American and other perceptions of China’s readiness to fully
integrate into the new information-based global economy.

In Southeast Asia in particular, China’s deepening involvement in recklessly destructive
infrastructure projects such as the construction of hydropower dams on the mainstream of
the Mekong River are creating anxiety and drawing the United States back into the region
again after years of comparative neglect. Secretary of State Clinton’s statement “We’re
back” to the ASEAN leaders in Phuket last July was clearly a response to concern that
China’s involvement in the region was potentially destabilizing, especially in the Mekong
Basin and the South China Sea. In the latter case, American officials at the State
Department and the Pentagon are concerned about the increasing behind-the-scenes
tensions in China-Vietnam relations, both over China’s Yunnan dams and proposed dam
projects in Laos and Cambodia, which they fear pose a dire threat to the physical viability
of the Mekong Delta.

 

Two Proposals

What the United States could or should do about these issues is a complicated question
with no easy answers, since U.S. leverage in either the South China Sea or the Mekong
River Basin is very limited.

Still, with regard to the South China Sea disputes, I believe that the U.S. should support
or lead an international initiative to give non-littoral user countries and other
“stakeholders” like the shipping, fishing, and oil and gas industries a role in engaging
with China and Southeast Asian countries to promote cooperation and accepted rules of
the road without resolving the underlying disputes. Many in Japan and elsewhere call for
in effect “internationalizing” highly transited straits and shipping routes. Many other
nations and private entities have a legitimate interest in promoting cooperative fisheries
management, protecting coral reefs and participating. The initiative would be welcomed
by most countries, including U.S. allies including Japan, Thailand, Australia and the
Philippines, as well as other littoral states with shared concerns like Vietnam, Indonesia,
Malaysia and Singapore.

The initiative could begin with a Track II or Track I and one half (with government
officials participating in their own capacity based on their expertise. The meeting should
be held somewhere in the region. A side benefit could be to put a new and positive item
for bilateral cooperation on the agenda of the U.S.-Japan alliance, which is struggling
with a lot of negative issues at the moment. Both countries could interact with their
respective regional constituencies.

With regard to the Mekong hydropower issue, the Obama administration has already
undertaken some positive steps like the Initialing of a Letter or Intent with the CEO of the
MRC for a Mississippi-Mekong sister river partnership. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
brought that proposal to the annual ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Phuket last
July as prime evidence of the intent of the Administration to reengage with Southeast
Asia. The State Department has now re-named the proposal the Lower Mekong Initiative
(LWI), and set up a working small group within Bureau of East Asia and the Pacific.
Interestingly, while Thailand the host government of the ASEAN meeting played a very
positive role in organizing a meeting between Secretary of State Clinton and her
counterparts from the four MRC countries, the other governments appeared to welcome
this indication of U.S. interest. The LMI covers a number of areas of cooperation
including the environment and climate change adaptation, health, education, and
infrastructure, the latter is the area where the United States could make a positive
contribution towards averting an environmental and socioeconomic disaster. Fortunately,
the US has a lot to offer–especially in the areas of technology assistance, capacitybuilding
and assistance to carrying out full-scope environmental and socioeconomic costbenefit
analysis.

I believe it is not too late to influence what happens on the Lower Mekong. If I may selfadvertise
a bit, Stimson recently completed a 9 minute video documentary that uses GIS
data and software coupled with computer generated animation, along with more
traditional documentary tools, to show the impacts on the environment, fisheries and
people of the proposed Don Sahong and Sambor dam projects. These projects will also
put more stress if not decimate endangered species like the Irrawaddy Fresh Water
Dolphin and Giant Mekong Catfish, which are becoming import sources of
environmental tourism dollars. A link to the video can be found on the Stimson Center’s
Southeast Asia Program website.

If I may I would also like to submit for the record an article of mine in the December
2009-January 2010 issue of Survival, which is published by the International Institute of
Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. The article, “Mekong Dams and the Perils of Peace”
makes a fuller analysis than I can give here of the geostrategic consequences of China’s
Yunnan dam cascade.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to participate in this important hearing. I am
prepared to answer any questions you may have and supply any follow-up information
that would be helpful.

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