I recently visited Chiang Rai in Thailand with the Asia New Zealand Foundation to discuss the future of the Mekong region with scholars, think tank representatives, engineers, and diplomats from countries bordering the river.
The Chiang Rai dialogue was the third of its kind facilitated by the Asia New Zealand Foundation. New Zealand, you may be aware, does not border the Mekong. Yet what happens there will certainly influence us. A sustainable, peaceful, open Mekong region matters to New Zealand, which explains our long history of development cooperation.
Jordan King: "My time in Thailand was akin to a masterclass in Southeast Asian geopolitics."
Before I share a few insights from the dialogue I want to comment on the value of Track II diplomacy.
In the vernacular of international relations, Track I refers to formal diplomacy (between diplomats), whereas Track II is unofficial diplomacy, typically such fora are attended by well-connected civil society, academic, professional, and media representatives.
Track II dialogue matters. Track II events aren’t a ‘nice to have’, nor are they a kind of international affairs tourism. They are spaces where different sorts of conversations can be had unconstrained by diplomatic protocol and strategy.
Track II dialogue provides possibilities to be frank, creative, and courageous. Themes will filter back into foreign ministries and beyond - influencing how civil society and the academy view certain issues.
New Zealand has few civil society institutions and university departments geared towards Asia, making the Foundation’s Track II programme a unique and important piece of international relations infrastructure. My time in Thailand was akin to a masterclass in Southeast Asian geopolitics.
Prior to the dialogue, the New Zealand delegates met with officials from the New Zealand embassy in Thailand
So what did I take from the Mekong dialogue? Mekong countries are facing three clear and significant challenges. The first is the future of the Mekong River.
Over the next two decades, China’s energy requirements are predicted to increase by around 90 percent. Energy security concerns in New Zealand in the 1980s prompted ‘Think Big’ and the construction of the Clyde Dam. China’s thinking is a little bigger. 19 dams will have been completed in China’s section of the Mekong by the end of next decade, joined by an additional nine in Laos feeding into China’s grid.
New hydroelectricity projects will make worse the ecological and social harms already faced by Mekong communities.
On the current path, countries' energy expansion goals aren't accounting for the significant pressure new development will put on the environment and local communities. Damming is placing fish stocks at risk in a region dependent on fisheries for food and employment of millions. It's uncertain whether a plan to manage these challenges can realistically come together.
The second area of uncertainty is in Mekong regional politics. There are a number of organisations competing for the power to make policy on future Mekong River developments. Geography has dealt a powerful hand to some in the competition. Downstream countries will struggle for leverage because many proposed 'mega-dam' projects will be built upstream in China and Laos.
The Foundation's executive director Simon Draper addressing delegates
Great power competition is a third challenge. The US and China have differing visions for the future of the region. China's Belt and Road Initiative, a major infrastructure project designed to move goods in and out of China with ease, is investing heavily in the region. High speed rail from China to Singapore is one key project. The US doesn't want China calling the shots in the region and is developing its 'Indo-Pacific strategy' to rival China. It is currently unclear what US initiatives are planned for countries along the Mekong, but it is clear they will face a difficult dance between the two powers.
What happens with these issues in the Mekong will have implications far beyond the region. The prioritisation of environmental and social protections in the Mekong would create a powerful international precedent. If countries active in the region commit to shared rules and robust protections for both sustainable development and rules-based trading life will be more predictable…especially for small trading nations at the bottom of the world.