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China’s Policies towards the Mekong Region and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.

China’s Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence have been vaunted as the cornerstone of China’s successful foreign policy. However, how is China truly interacting with the world, and specifically with the Mekong countries? In this article, Siwat Varnakomola examines Chinese foreign policy under the pretenses of the FPPC, its environmental ramifications, and the tensions that might arise.



Xiaowan Dam. Picture by International Rivers on Flickr.



Introduction

Since the 1950s, the Chinese Communist Party has claimed that the People’s Republic of China’s policy towards other countries is guided by the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence (FPPC) (Richardson, 2010; Brown, 2017). These consist of “mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, nonaggression, non-interference in others’ internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence” (Richardson, 2010, p. 5).


The year 2014 marked the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the FPPC. Xi Jinping praised China’s success in implementing these principles and contended that China will continue to uphold the FPPC as fundamental guiding principles to Chinese foreign policy for years to come (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 2014).


However, these principles have proven contentious over the past decades. Studies like Strangio (2020), Samaranayake (2021), and Po and Sims (2022) have provided much evidence that China does not seem to conform with what it has claimed. Using a case of Chinese foreign policy towards the Mekong region, this article will contribute to this debate by evaluating if Chinese foreign policy is guided by the FPPC. This could set a pinpoint to appreciate how China is interacting with the world nowadays.


China and the Mekong region under the “common destiny”

The Mekong region is the river basin in Mainland Southeast Asia where the Mekong River flows, from the Tibetan plateau in China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, before emptying in the South China Sea. Geographically, this classifies China as an upstream country while others are downstream. In this sense, any Chinese dam-building activities within its territory could impact the flow of the river’s water to the latter. In other words, this may allow China to utilise its dams to manipulate the river’s flow to the Mekong downstream countries.


Furthermore, this (sub-) region offers geostrategic and geoeconomic benefits to China. On the one hand, the region is endowed with natural resources that are essential for boosting the Chinese economy and ensuring its energy security (Ho, 2013; Geall, 2019). On the other, the region is sandwiched between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, which are indispensable parts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (Khemlani, 2018; Hutt, 2019).


For China, the FPPC, and more specifically, the principles of non-interference, and equality and mutual benefit, are the cornerstone of ‘win-win’ relations, allowing the Party to continuously increase its interaction with countries across the Mekong region since the end of the Cold War (Liebmann, 2005; Middleton & Allouche, 2016; Song et al., 2021). Politically, China has arguably laid the foundation for democratic development in Cambodia by actively engaging in the peace negotiation process of the Cambodian conflict in the 1990s (Strangio, 2020). In the economic sphere, China has helped develop economic and water-sharing collaborative frameworks, such as the Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation Programme and the Thailand-led Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (Biba, 2018; Ono, 2018). With reference to culture, China has promoted people-to-people interaction between the Chinese and the people across the Mekong countries through cultural exchanges, scholarship programmes, and the expansion of the Confucious cultural institutes network (Zhang & Li, 2020; Nguyen, 2014).

In 2015, the Chinese minister of foreign affairs Wang Yi further highlighted these synergies among the parties, emphasising the need to establish the Asian “community of common destiny” (Xu, 2015). This was followed by the establishment of the Chinese-led Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, a multilateral initiative aimed at strengthening the socio-economic development of the Mekong countries to further deepen collaboration between China and the Mekong riparian states (Middleton & Allouche, 2016; Biba, 2018).


A reverse picture: Cases against China’s FPPC

Against this backdrop, China’s activities in the Mekong region seem contradictory to its claims of upholding the principles of non-interference, and equality and mutual benefit. Rather, they reflect an exploitative relationship between China and the Mekong downstream countries in which the former disproportionately reaps benefits at the expense of the latter.


The two most noticeable cases against the principle of non-interference are identified in Strangio (2020) and Po and Sims (2022). Strangio (2020) points out that the Chinese International Liaison Department, which was established in 1950, has been used to sustain relations with armed insurgency groups and the opposition political parties in Myanmar. Similarly, Po and Sims (2022) argue that China has interfered in Cambodian domestic politics through aid, trade, and investments, to nurture Hun Sen’s, the Prime Minister’s, authoritarian regime. On the one hand, this allows China to secure its access to abundant resources in the country, whilst, on the other, Cambodia becomes the main supporter of Chinese foreign policy in this region.


Regarding the principle of equality and mutual benefit, one of the clearest examples is the construction of dams over the upper and lower Mekong River Basin. China has been maintaining that these dams could bring about positive outcomes to both China and the Mekong downstream countries, such as minimising the risk of floods and droughts and generating hydroelectricity to meet both parties’ future energy demands (Liebmann, 2005; Zhang & Li, 2020). The reality seems to be a reverse picture. Having built eleven dams in its territory in the upper Mekong basin in 2019, China enjoyed the benefit of controlling the flow of the river’s water and securing its unlimited access to the Mekong River’s resources.


On the contrary, the Mekong downstream countries suffered from the socio-environmental and geostrategic ramifications resulting from the dam projects (Chen & Stone, 2013; Yeophantong, 2016; Middleton & Allouche, 2016). To exemplify, using remote sensing to track the flow of water in the Mekong River, a 2021 report by Mekong Dam Monitor indicates that restrictions of the dams exacerbated the droughts in the wet season in the Mekong downstream countries as well as caused the unnatural flow patterns of the river’s water (Eyler et al., 2021). Likewise, in Myanmar, the Chinese-backed plan to construct the 6000 megawatts Myitsone Dam in Kachin state to generate hydroelectricity mostly exported to China led to the mass displacement of the Kachin people from their lands and the disruption of the Irrawaddy River’s ecosystem (Yeophantong, 2016). In Cambodia, local communities whose sources of food and income rely on the Mekong River are facing a considerable reduction of fish populations (Strangio, 2020; Po and Sims, 2022). Geostrategically, China could potentially weaponise its control over the river’s water against the Mekong countries if they pursue policies that would undermine the Chinese national interests or related issues, like the territorial dispute in the South China Sea (Khemlani, 2018; Chellaney, 2020; Silver, 2020).


Based on principles? National interests at the heart of the FPPC

All the above cases amplify two realities of China’s policy towards the Mekong downstream countries. First, they point to the exploitative relationship between the two parties. While China enjoys unrestricted access to the river’s resources as well as gains political leverage through its intervention in Mekong countries’ internal affairs, the latter encounter socio-environmental and geostrategic risks resulting from the construction of the Chinese dams.


Second, Chinese foreign policy towards the Mekong region is driven by its core national interests rather than the FPPC. As highlighted above, China damming over the Mekong River at the expense of the people across the downstream countries and interfering in the Cambodian domestic politics to bolster Hun Sen’s authoritarian regime clearly contradict the principles of equality and mutual benefit, and the non-interference, respectively. In this regard, the Chinese FPPC are proven to be rhetoric that China employs to justify its policy towards the Mekong region in favour of itself.


In essence, this rather affirms that national interests still lie at the heart of China’s interaction with the outside world.


Conclusion

This article invites readers to rethink how China is interacting with the world nowadays. Despite China vaunting the FPPC as the guiding principles of its relations with the outside world, a plethora of evidence has demonstrated that this is not the case. As this article has emphasised, these principles have now been diminished to mere rhetoric to justify Chinese policy towards other countries. As China keeps rising on the global stage, it may face tensions stemming from the clash between its cherished FPPC and its core national interests.



This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.


 

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