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Water Dragon: China’s dams and its effect on the South China Sea dispute

September 26, 2012

The majority of international furore over China’s extensive damming of its major rivers has primarily concerned itself with the potential environmental effects and the displacement of the people who inhabit the area. However the far reaching environmental consequences of China’s dams fundamentally affect the political landscape and regional power balance in East and South East Asia.

Water, more than any other resource, is a powerful tool in foreign policy as it is completely essential for a nation to function. This means that nations that rely on others for a reliable supply of water are generally doomed to diplomatic subservience to their water patron. Ariel Sharon described the 1967 Six Day War as an effort to avoid this dynamic with Arab world as Syria was working on diverting river flows away from Israel.

China, though it may be a regional power, has had a tumultuous and sometimes antagonistic relationship with its neighbours. China’s dams have the potential to enhance its position against its immediate neighbours regarding one of the regions most contested issues: ownership of the South China Sea, a region estimated to potentially contain 213 billion barrels of oil and 2 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas.
China, since 1947, has laid claim to numerous islands in the South China Sea, specifically the Paracels Islands, Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. Vietnam also claims ownership of the Spratly Islands and argues that they have been part of the Vietnamese state since the 17th century. The Philippines, meanwhile, also lays claim the Scarborough Shoal, which is close to its borders. Brunei and Malaysia argue that much of the South China Sea is within their Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) as outlined by the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. While Brunei does not claim any islands, Malaysia argues that they have ownership over a portion of the Spratly Islands.

These competing claims used to be sorted behind closed doors with earlier pragmatic rulers such as Deng Xiaoping taking a soft approach and putting the issue aside while focussing on joint developments. Nevertheless China clashed militarily with Vietnam over the Paracels in 1974 and the Spratlys in 1988. This year China faced off with the Philippines on the Scarborough Shoal after a Philippine frigate was deployed to deter Chinese fishing vessels. As well as sending large surveillance ships, China quarantined all tropical fruit imports from the Philippines as a form of economic coercion.

However these forms of coercion may soon not be necessary for China – water may become a far more formidable weapon of policy than economic sanctions or military might. China has built three dams along the upper Mekong River. China’s fourth Mekong dam at Xiowan is due for completion this year which, at 292m, is the world’s tallest dam. It has a reservoir that holds 15 billion cubic meters of water, five times the combined storage of the previous three Mekong dams. By 2014 China aims to have another larger Mekong dam at Nouzhadu which will hold 23 billion cubic meters. The Mekong is the river that feeds South East Asia, including Vietnam’s rice paddies and Cambodia’s great lakes which act as a nursery for the regions fisheries. In short China’s grip over the Mekong ensures its grip over a population of 70million in South East Asia.

While China is most definitely not the only country in the region to dam the Mekong, it is the only country to do so without consulting with, or obeying the rules of, the Mekong River Commission (MRC), whose membership is made up of the nations which are most dependent on the Mekong: Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Laos, which aspires to carve a niche for itself as an energy exporter to its neighbours, started constructing the ambitious Xayaburi Dam, but has bowed to MRC pressure and has currently paused construction. In contrast China has refused to join the MRC and builds with impunity.
It does seem like China’s gambit has paid off. In 2010 during the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional forum, Beijing pre-warned all attending nations not to raise the issue of the South China Sea. The issue was raised but China was not diplomatically alone. Laos, in spite of a ‘special relationship’ with Vietnam, put its support firmly behind Beijing, as did Cambodia, despite its historical debts to Vietnam. The fact is that China now has the ability to destroy the agriculture of both Laos and Cambodia. Furthermore China by restricting the Mekong’s flow can also scupper Laos’ ambitions to be South East Asia’s battery. Diplomatically China can rely on their support allowing it to escape overwhelming regional pressure from its rival claimants on the South China Sea. Eventually Vietnam may recognise its weakened position vis-à-vis China and accept the subservience that water dependency dictates.

The US has spent recent years attempting to act as arbiter and aims to resolve the dispute in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Hillary Clinton in 2009 announced ‘the US is back in South East Asia’, but China’s control over the regions veins makes this statement seem hollow. As one official said to journalist Donald Emmerson during the ASEAN forum, ‘for us in Asia, the US is geopolitical, but China is geographical’.

China’s interactions with its South Eastern neighbours offer a glimpse of the power China can draw on due to its geography. As long as China occupies the Tibetan plateau, it will also control the source of the Indus River and the Brahmaputra River, which it has recently started damming to divert water to its scorched Northern plains, causing great concern to Bangladesh which depends on the river. It also borders the source of the Ganges. With the majority of South East Asia, Pakistan and Bangladesh dependent on water sourced from Chinese territory, the frustration that the US and the West has found in sorting out the South China Sea dispute may soon become the norm when dealing diplomatically with large swaths of Asia as nations begin to realise their dependency on the favour of their new river god.

BBC. 2012. Q & A: South China Sea Dispute. BBC News Website ( Copy available from author.
Brown, David. 2011. Mekong dams test a ‘special relationship’. Asia Times Online ( Copy available from author.
Darwish, Adel. 2003. Analysis: Middle East Water Wars. BBC News Website ( Copy available from author.
EIA. 2008. South China Sea. US Energy Information Administration website ( Copy available from author.
Emmerson, Donald K. 2010. Greater China. Asia Times Online ( Copy available from author.
Glaser, Bonnie. 2012. Trouble in the South China Sea. Foreign Policy Website (,0). Copy available from author.
Hubpages. 2012. Hydro Projects in Tibet: Thirsty Dragon, Restless Neighbours. Hubpages (Hydro Projects in Tibet: Thirsty Dragon, Restless Neighbours). Copy available from author.
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Richardson, Michael. 2009. River of discord. The Third Pole website ( Copy available from author.
Wyroll, Paul. 2011. The Xayaburi dam: challenges of transboundary water governance on the Mekong River. Global Water Forum ( Copy available from author.


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