Water Resource Hegemony: China’s Control of the Mekong

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Families struggling to maintain their fishing businesses is an unfortunate reality in Laos. Most countries in the Lower Mekong River Basin share this bleak reality. In the past two decades, the water level and quality of the Mekong River in Eastern Asia have declined rapidly.[1] Stretching 2,700 miles, the Mekong is the world’s 12th longest river, running through Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam[2], and it supports 60 million people.[3]

Chinese influence on the Mekong is a substantial factor in the river’s degradation.[4] Staggering economic and developmental goals drive China’s control of the Mekong and lower basin countries’ access to water. Modern economic expansion and attempts at political hegemony through damming of the Mekong illustrate China’s motivating economic and developmental goals.

One of China’s most impactful policies involves the damming of the Mekong.[5] In 2016, China’s president Xi Jinping instituted the Belt and Road Initiative, a project developing infrastructure along the historic Silk Road.[6] The project includes building dams along the Mekong to generate hydroelectric energy for China to expand its economy.[7] The dams damage the river’s natural ecosystems and water flows that communities of the lower basin depend upon for their livelihoods.[8] Additionally, China’s dams cause devastating droughts in lower basin areas. In 2019, the upper Mekong in China experience a particularly intense wet season.[9] Normally, large wet seasons result in high water flows in lower basin areas.[10] However, China’s dams retained almost all of the additional water, forcing lower Mekong communities into a drought despite the natural circumstances.[11]  Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi falsely stated that lack of rain triggered the unprecedented drought, suggesting China played no part.[12] Although global warming and El Nino’s weather patterns are hugely responsible for droughts in the region, China’s domination of the Mekong’s waterways cannot be ignored. China’s control over the Mekong’s water resources enables its hegemony over countries in the lower basin.[13]

Despite the harm that dams create for the Mekong and the communities of its downstream users, Laos contracted with China to build a 684-megawatt dam called the Sanakam.[14] Although dams contribute to the decline of Lao’s fishing-dominant economy, the country agreed to the dam in exchange for economic aid.[15] The Chinese also required that Laos support its policies on Taiwan and Tibet.[16] Since lower basin countries lack a strong economy due to the dam’s disruption of their fishing markets, China can manipulate them into agreeing to relinquish their water resource rights and support globally opposed policy decisions.[17] Furthermore, China portray’s the drought as a universally shared reality among it and the lower basin countries. In reality, China views their water use as a sovereign right rather than a commodity that must be shared with lower basin communities.[18] Agreements like ones with Laos give China power over countries party to the contract and countries farther downstream. China’s manipulation of the Mekong produces transnational consequences that have the potential to cripple nations’ economies.


[1] Ratha Sor et. al., Water Quality Degradation in the Lower Mekong Basin, 13 Water 11 (2021).

[2] Lewis Owen, Mekong River, Britannica (Jan. 24, 2023), https://www.britannica.com/place/Mekong-River.

[3] Philip Citowicki, China’s Control of the Mekong, The Diplomat (May 8, 2020), https://thediplomat.com/2020/05/chinas-control-of-the-mekong/.

[4] Id.

[5] See id.

[6] See James McBride et. al., China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative, Council on Foreign Relations (Feb. 22, 2023), https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative.

[7] Phillip Guerreiro, What Chinese Dams in Laos Tell Us About the Belt and Road Initiative, The Diplomat (Dec. 3, 2021), https://thediplomat.com/2021/12/what-chinese-dams-in-laos-tell-us-about-the-belt-and-road-initiative/.

[8] Sor, supra note 5.

[9] New Evidence : How China Turned Off the Tap on the Mekong River, (Bryan Eyler et al., April 13, 2020).

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] See Nehginpao Kipgen & Megha Gupta, China’s BRI strategy and Laos, The Stateman (June 9, 2020), https://www.thestatesman.com/opinion/chinas-bri-strategy-laos-1502897886.html.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] See Id.

[18] Eyler, supra note 9