Can we expect conflict over the Mekong river?

By: Paul Millar - Posted on: May 3, 2016 | Cambodia

Professor Marvin C. Ott, a leading Southeast Asia scholar, discusses the potential for conflict over the Mekong river and its resources

Marvin C. Ott

Will we see an escalation of regional conflict as a result of Mekong dam projects?

There is relatively little potential for conflict because the power differential between China and the Lower Mekong states is so great. For Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam there is simply no plausible way to respond to China’s use of the leverage the dams provide, except via diplomacy. If China uses the dams to coerce and intimidate the downstream states, the result will be growing tension, fear and resentment – but not military conflict.

Some have called the Mekong river the next South China Sea in terms of global conflict.
Do you think this is accurate?

There is almost no parallel between the Mekong and the South China Sea except that both feature China’s growing ambition to subordinate Southeast Asia in a latter-day tribute system. In the South China Sea, the Southeast Asian claimants have some leverage and capacity to resist China’s growing encroachment – particularly with the US Navy present. The Mekong states have almost no room to manoeuvre, no capacity to resist, and the US is only a marginal factor.

What impact will this have on people in the region?

The dams also have a profound strategic effect because they give China life-and-death power over the economies of the downstream states. Consequently, we are now entering a new geopolitical era in mainland Southeast Asia – one where China’s power is magnified in an unprecedented way.

Marvin C. Ott is a professor and visiting scholar in Southeast Asia Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.