In recent weeks, the United States has taken some assertive steps in the South China Sea—and Beijing is watching anxiously. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an explicit move away from the administration’s usually conciliatory tone when she declared in late July that it would be in America’s “national interest” to help mediate the disputes among China and several other Asian countries over islands and maritime rights in the sea. Then, on July 22, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the United States would resume ties with Indonesian special forces after a 12-year hiatus, with the aim of eventually restoring full military-to-military relations. He also confirmed other collaboration with China’s maritime rivals, including a series of multilateral military training exercises in Cambodia, joint U.S.-Vietnam naval exercises, and serious discussions with Hanoi on sharing nuclear fuel.
It’s clear that the United States is truly “back in Asia,” as Clinton promised in January. But another, subtler regional push, one that’s flown under the radar in Washington, has an even greater capacity to upset Beijing: America’s interference in the Mekong River region. Clinton recently met with the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam and pledged $187 million to support the Lower Mekong Initiative, which has the stated aim of improving education, health, infrastructure, and the environment in the region. It doesn’t have the same firepower as military training exercises—but privately, several Chinese Ministry of National Defense officials have told me that they believe this new, softer approach in the Mekong has the potential to achieve something that all the naval partnerships in the world cannot.
The 2,700-mile-long Mekong River begins on the Tibetan plateau and runs from Yunnan province in China through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. China has built three hydroelectric dams on its stretch of the Mekong (called Lancang in China) and will complete a fourth dam in 2012. At the moment, water levels of the lower Mekong are at record lows, threatening the livelihood of an estimated 70 million people in the countries south of China, where subsistence agriculture supports a large majority of the population. These countries blame Beijing for damming up water to benefit Chinese citizens while people downstream are starving.
There is no conclusive proof that the Chinese dams and water policies are responsible for the low water levels downstream, but Beijing’s refusal to allow extensive inspection of its activities in the Lancang—as well as its disdainful attitude toward the smaller complainants—hasn’t reassured the smaller countries that they’re being treated fairly. They fear a future in which their access to water will be controlled by China’s Ministry of Water Resources.
Beijing can be disdainful and bullying toward smaller countries when it comes to its own interests, as observers of Mekong River politics will confirm. But China’s approach in much of Asia is basically a hearts-and-minds one. It is a major distributor of cheap, no-strings-attached loans to other Asian governments, especially to those countries, such as the Philippines and Thailand, that are occasionally drifting away from Washington’s embrace. Its diplomats are the most numerous and hardworking in all of Asia, spreading a form of regionalist “Asian values” that is specifically designed to exclude American influence. Political officials and strategists in Beijing increasingly talk about a bottom-up approach to regional supremacy, using economic and cultural arguments to persuade Asian elites that Chinese leadership is the sure and benign path to regional prosperity in the future—not American partnership.
Because of this, Washington’s willingness to get involved in the Mekong River dispute could create an almost perfect counterweight to China’s strategy among the tens of millions of people dependent on the river for sustenance. Political elites in almost every Asian country (exceptions include North Korea and Burma) are predisposed to prefer American power over China. However, these days people are increasingly wondering what’s in it for them. While there have been over 40 bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements signed between Asian states, including a China-ASEAN pact that was activated this year, America has concluded and ratified only one, with Singapore. This is why America’s ability to keep Beijing in check over the Mekong River could remind millions of ordinary Asians that U.S. primacy in the region still matters, that American diplomatic clout and military presence has maintained the peace in Asia and kept vital sea lanes safe and open for commerce for decades.
Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage often counseled that “getting China right means getting Asia right.” Strengthening alliances with countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia is still the most important part of this strategy. Establishing new security partnerships with countries such as India, Vietnam, and Indonesia is also critical. But economic development and future prosperity is the region’s top priority. For the tens of millions of Asians in these countries that depend on the Mekong River for their survival and livelihood, nothing matters more than a policy that addresses water rights.
It is still too early to say whether Barack Obama’s administration will pursue wholeheartedly its newfound interests in the Mekong. But lending America’s weight to local “bread and butter” issues is a clever way for Washington to win millions of new friends in the region—and keep one very eager competitor at bay.