Thursday, July 30, 2020

Mekong River: The Next Flashpoint in Indo-Pacific

It is right time now to make the pristine, scenic & mighty Mekong river a strategic piece in the Indo-Pacific puzzle. This is of immense importance to India. But, what does India have to lose, in a river that is hundreds of miles away from nearest border outpost? A lot. In fact, we’ve lost a lot already. Time, effort, money and more importantly – lives.

Core issue

Mekong river that has its origins in Tibet. Waters pass through 5 other nations (Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia & Vietnam). The terrain it passes through ranges from cold plateau of Tibet to dense jungles to fertile agricultural lands of Mekong Delta. While playing a crucial role environment, economy & therefore making a direct & indirect impact on lives of, at the very least, 6-7 Crore people.

Where does China come in? China plans to use Mekong river as a trade route for the now infamous signature initiative of General Secretary Xi Jinping: Belt & Road Initiative. Chinese Companies started blasting sections of the river called Pi Long rapids to ‘make it fit’ for cargo ships to transit to & from China through the river.

Strategic importance

Being part of the Indo-Pacific, India has a significant stake in this region. India’s extended neighborhood. In the year 2000, India and five other partner nations (Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia & Vietnam) agreed to form Mekong Ganga Cooperation. This is nothing but, India’s outreach towards East Asia. The “Look East Policy” as Government of India calls it. Under this, a lot of development projects were to be partnered. Including Trans-Asian Highway & Trans-Asian Railway projects. These connectivity projects are far away from debt trap models and are done on partnership basis – free and transparent. No hidden games as that of Belt & Road Initiative. Also, this started much before General Secretary.

It might be slow, but steady. We built only on a “need” basis. No forceful imposing of cosmetic / showcase projects at exorbitant amounts on smaller neighbors. While there is a significant progress in the connectivity projects, there is much to catch up to make deeper economic impact. Many of these small & poor countries are under tighter Chinese influence – economically & strategically. For China, what seemed fine until 2014, suddenly got off rails.

One who has influence over Mekong River, has the sphere of influence over a major chunk of Indo-Pacific theater land mass. The strategic importance is no less than Panama Canal or Suez Canal.

When it comes to Mekong River, two key players are involved. Myanmar – the first nation downstream after Mekong river enters from Yunnan Province of China. Vietnam, which has the Mekong Delta region – the last point before the river flows into the historic Champa Sea – which is part of the Indian cultural sphere, though independent nations. In fact, Mekong holds the unique distinction of flowing through 6 Nations today, which were entirely under Indian cultural sphere of influence. Including Yunnan.


Why Myanmar? Myanmar lies between Andaman Sea / Bay of Bengal and China’s Yunnan province. The shortest land route for cargo & oil from Gulf is via Sittwe – Muse – Kunming. This circumvents the Malacca Straits and Champa Sea issues.

The strategic depth at which China operates to keep a hold on the nations is mindboggling & quite elaborate. On Myanmar, while India itself is helping with cultural, security & political capital. On monetary capital, India has roped in Japan for investments to counter Chinese investments and offer an alternative. The Sino-Japanese rivalry in Myanmar projects is quite well documented.

Just after Myanmar visit of November 2014, ball started rolling faster. After that visit by Myanmar’s State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Delhi and two-day log meeting with PM Modi, a lot of perception and alignments between two neighbors seem to have changed.

A vision was spelled out by Madam Suu Kyi in her joint press statement during her 2016 Delhi visit. Subsequently, the political & military relations marched forward. In November 2019, two key events happened. First, Myanmar came under heavy criticism & extreme pressure over Rohingya issue. Myanmar was taken to International Criminal Court by Gambia. Not Saudi Arabia or Bangladesh or Indonesia. But, Gambia. Ironically, this is just after a year of Gambia receiving financial assistance from PRC in return for breaking ties with Taiwan.

Second event. Five people were kidnapped by Arakan Army. They were there relating to an India funded construction project in restive Rakhine province. One Indian National (construction worker) died while in AA’s custody. Four others who were also abducted were released safely. While ICC order came in January 2020.

Investigations that followed on a wider issue of Chinese funding & arming insurgents. China was caught red handed by Myanmar. China did sabotage India funded projects in Myanmar. Especially, Trans-Asian Highway / Railway link related projects. And more specifically, the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Project which is key to connecting India’s North Eastern provinces. Not just that. China did mischief against those who were opposing citing environmental & financial issues that exists in China funded China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) projects in Myanmar.

Pic Source: Wiki Commons

For those who don’t know, Arakan Army is fully funded & armed by China’s PLA directly. Per media reports Ministry of State Security (MSS) supports AA too. On the other hand, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) is funded by China indirectly through Pakistan’s ISI, per news reports. AA committed some grave human rights violations on Rohingyas. Just like their adversary ARSA did on Hindus and Buddhists. China funds both. ARSA got assistance from Pakistan is a different story. Overall, China supports a lot of terrorist groups in this region. PLA & MSS even funds insurgent groups in India’s North East – which operate training camps in Myanmar’s jungles. Indian Army & Myanmar’s Tatmadaw did a joint strike on these terror camps many times in the past few years. Some of India’s most wanted terrorists are tracked to Yunnan Province of China.

By creating an image of Myanmar as a politically unstable State that is also infested with internal trouble, China made Myanmar look unattractive for foreign investments. Thus, keeping Myanmar under its claws of debt trap. This is double wedged sword. Fact is, China has waged a political, economic & even a sub-conventional proxy war against Myanmar for showing slightest signs of aligning with India – for all peaceful purposes. Myanmar, by now, has understood the game and moved on completely away from Chinese influence. The little influence that we see is also bound to vanish in times to come. The recent meeting between Myanmar’s Military Chief & Indian Defense Minister was the final nail in the coffin. India upped its game in Myanmar and there will be no looking back.


Mekong protection is key to sustaining food basket of South East Asia. Be it freshwater fishing, agriculture or poultry. The bigger problem here is that the fear of this damage being irreversible. Making it impossible for future rejuvenation of this natural habitat of precious flora & fauna.

Development always needs to be sustainable. More importantly, with little to no damage to habitat / ecosystem. Here, we are talking of destroying an entire natural habitat in the middle of a rainforest, for unadulterated greed.

Few months ago, water levels reached a historic low of 1.5meters. Then, worst drought in a century this year. Then, there have been reports of this being the reason for saltwater intrusion in the Mekong Delta region. Vietnam’s food basket. This is nothing short of environmental emergency that Vietnam was battling along with Pandemic. Currently, due to heavy rains in China, the water levels have risen. And the basin is flooded. This is majorly due to irresponsible / unscientific restricting of the flow of Mekong river water. The issue is well documented in local media. This is the level of environmental impact. Though Vietnam took diplomatic steps to raise this issue with China, it is of little help.

Vietnam’s economic growth trajectory over the past few years has been upwards and quite robust. They’ve pulled out large chunk of their people out of poverty. The Mekong delta region of the country has played a crucial role in this. This region is key to the country’s food security in future too. Such projects might have a deep economic & social impact on the people too.

Cambodia, Lao PDR & Thailand

Cambodia, Lao PDR & Thailand face political & sovereignty issues that are caused due to environmental impact on its people. The issues are very similar to what Vietnam faces. A wave of protests over China’s irresponsible Mekong river projects. Some violent attacks on Chinese workers too. Per one report of Reuters, “Chinese engineers on the Mekong said they were worried that Thai protesters would board the rickety cargo ship where they slept, prompting them to moor it on the Laotian side of the Mekong each night.” Over past few years, “Mekong River is Not for Sale” has become more than a slogan for the locals. This started rumblings at political & geo-political level as Nations were scrambling themselves while unable to speak out against a mighty China. Vietnam is not alone. Story is similar in Thailand and Lao PDR too. The protests had a political bearing on Lao PDR & Thai Governments at various levels. Sovereignty issue.