Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on China’s geopolitical interests in the Mekong River Basin. Part I examines the politics and impact of hydroelectric projects on the Mekong River Basin. Part II will examine the security challenges to China’s efforts toward economic integration of the Mekong River Basin.
Two decades after the Paris Peace Accord that ended the proxy war in Cambodia, the Mekong Basin has re-emerged as a region of global significance. The rapid infrastructure-led integration of a region some call “Asia’s last frontier” has created tensions between and among China and its five southern neighbors -- Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Both expanded regional cooperation as well as increased competition for access to the rich resources of the once war-torn region have created serious environmental degradation while endangering food security and other dimensions of human security, and even regional stability.
China’s seemingly insatiable demand for raw materials and tropical commodities has made it a fast-growing market for several Mekong countries and an increasingly important regional investor. Economic integration has been boosted by a multibillion dollar network of all-weather roads, bridges, dams and power lines largely financed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) that is linking the countries of the Lower Mekong to each other and to China. To date, the ADB’s Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) cooperative development program has primarily benefited large population centers outside the basin proper in China, Thailand and Vietnam. Unfortunately, the same infrastructure that speeds the flow of people and goods to urban centers also facilitates the environmentally unsustainable exploitation of the forests, minerals, water resources and fisheries that are still the primary source of food and livelihoods to millions of the Mekong’s poorest inhabitants.