OPINION: What does Chinese ‘reciprocity’ mean for Mekong’s dams?

by Carl Middleton

The Lancang Mekong supports 70 million people living in the basin(Photo: He Daming)

The Lancang Mekong supports 70 million people living in the basin(Photo: He Daming)

It is now two and a half years since the first Lancang Mekong Cooperation (LMC) leaders’ summit was held in Sanya city on Hainan Island, China. The aim of the LMC – a China led multilateral body involving all six Mekong countries – is to deepen economic, cultural and political ties between China and mainland Southeast Asia. Leaders have repeatedly declared the importance of the Lancang-Mekong River to this cooperation. Reflecting this, on 1-2 November, the LMC will host the “1st Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Forum” in Kunming, China.

The LMC’s second leaders’ summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in January 2018 revealed the swift pace of the initiative. This is reflected in the numerous senior-level meetings between governments, the initiation of almost 200 China-funded projects, and the LMC’s deepening institutionalisation through various LMC secretariats and working groups. Yet, while China has hosted people-to-people exchange programs and university scholarships, the LMC’s state-centric approach has afforded little opportunity for public deliberation about its overall policy principles and direction.

Through the LMC, some government officials and scholars from China have proposed that downstream and upstream countries have both rights and responsibilities towards each other. This concept of ‘reciprocity’ is not yet official LMC policy, but suggests a shift in government position compared to China’s earlier unilateral construction of dams on the Lancang River. Overall, the LMC and its proposition of ‘reciprocity’ appears to be an invitation to negotiate basin-wide water cooperation on the Lancang-Mekong River.

Much, however, remains uncertain. For example, how will the LMC build upon the existing inter-governmental Mekong River Commission, established in 1995 by the four lower basin countries? How will the LMC address concerns of riverside communities and civil society and ensure their meaningful inclusion? And how will countries ensure the river’s ecological health given the strong push for economic growth and associated water infrastructure projects? This article asks whether the LMC and the concept of ‘reciprocity’ is a promising approach to meet these challenges.

For the full article, please click here.

JOURNAL ARTICLE: National Human Rights Institutions, Extraterritorial Obligations and Hydropower in Southeast Asia: Implications of the Region’s Authoritarian Turn


Publication date:
June 2018

Publication: Austrian Journal of Southeast Asia Studies

Carl Middleton

This article examines the role of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and transnational civil society in pursing Extraterritorial Obligation (ETO) cases in Southeast Asia as a means to investigate human rights threatened by cross-border investment projects. Two large hydropower dams under construction in Laos submitted to NHRIs from Thailand and Malaysia, namely the Xayaburi Dam and Don Sahong Dam, are detailed as case studies. The article argues that the emergence of ETOs in Southeast Asia, and its future potential, is dependent upon the collaborative relationship between the NHRIs and transnational civil society networks. Whilst NHRIs are in positions of political authority to investigate cases, civil society also enable cases through networking, research, and public advocacy. Further institutionalization of ETOs is significant to emerging regional and global agendas on business and human rights, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that both the Thai and Malaysian governments have expressed commitment to. However, in Thailand and its neighboring countries where investments are located there has been an authoritarian turn. Reflecting this, there are weakening mandates of NHRIs and reduced civil and political freedoms upon which civil society depends that challenges the ability to investigate and pursue cases.

Read the article here.

CONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS: Mekong, Salween and Red Rivers: Sharing Knowledge and Perspectives Across Borders

CONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS: Mekong, Salween and Red Rivers: Sharing Knowledge and Perspectives Across Borders

Water resources are inextricably linked to local livelihoods and wellbeing, agricultural production and food security, and local, national and the regional economies across the Mekong region. The Mekong, Red and Salween Rivers are all transboundary rivers that are subject to the dynamics of rapid change as the region increasingly integrates economically and socially. Whether development is inclusive, informed and accountable, and the rights and entitlements of marginalized communities recognized, remains a key challenge.

Read More