SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
China is aggressively looking outward. It's investing heavily in Africa, South America, Australia and in its own hemispheric backyard, Southeast Asia. China's Belt and Road Initiative looks to link China to the world through high-speed rail and roads and South Asia's major river, the Mekong. Here's Michael Sullivan as part of our continuing coverage on China's growing role around the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOURISTS SPEAKING)
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The Chinese tourists are here already in Sob Ruak, the tiny tourist town on the Mekong River where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet.
(SOUNDBITE OF COIN FALLING)
VOICE RECORDING: Happy Buddha (laughter).
SULLIVAN: And it's not just tourists. Pretty much every month for the past few years, a trio of Chinese gunboats arrives here from the Chinese port of Guanlei, 160 miles upriver.
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SULLIVAN: The gunboats are careful to turn around just short of Thai waters, where Thai patrol boats bob gently. But the Chinese border patrol force boats don't leave quietly.
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SULLIVAN: China's Xinhua news agency says the joint patrols - sometimes there's a Lao boat, too - are aimed at making the river safe.
ELLIOT BRENNAN: This kind of pressure will be increasing over the coming years, quite simply - those sort of tactics by China just to remind neighbors that influence that they can wield and the hard power, the sharp power that they do hold is increasing. And I don't see that ebbing anytime soon.
SULLIVAN: Elliot Brennan's recent analysis in the Lowy Interpreter is titled "China Eyes Its Next Prize - The Mekong."
BRENNAN: The control of both the South China Sea and the Mekong will strategically sandwich mainland Southeast Asia. Ultimately, Beijing's control of Southeast Asian rivers is the other half of the so-called salami slicing strategy in the region.
SULLIVAN: China has a natural advantage on the Mekong. The river starts on the Tibetan Plateau in China before continuing its nearly 3,000-mile-long journey through five Southeast Asian countries before emptying into the South China Sea, all of them with a history of Chinese political or economic influence.
THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: Unlike the South China Sea, the Mekong space does not have really other major powers involved. So China does not have to contend with the United States like in the South China Sea. But in the Mekong space, China is on its own really.
SULLIVAN: And that concerns Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, who worries about the effects of China's dams on downstream countries in the lower Mekong, where some 60 million people depend on the river for their livelihoods.
PONGSUDHIRAK: This is a situation, I think it can degenerate. If more dams are built and water is more scarce, then it becomes a zero sum. And China can use its upstream position as a strategic leverage and also maybe even as a coercive instrument.
PHONGSEE SRIATTANA: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: Fifty-two-year-old Phongsee Sriattana (ph) runs a tackle shop on the Mekong in Sob Ruak on the Thai side of the river.
SRIATTANA: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: "When I was younger," she says, "I would go to the river with my mother to catch fish. And there were so many, they'd just jump into our drip net. And I'd scooped them into my bucket," she says. "Not anymore."
SRIATTANA: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: "When the Chinese want to send goods downstream, they release the water from their dams," she says. "We used to have giant catfish here before that could reach several hundred pounds in weight." "But after the dam," she says, "the water level fluctuates too much, and the fish can't lay their eggs here anymore."
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SULLIVAN: And China's not done. Ten miles downriver, at the Thai port of Chiang Saen, laborers load boxes of mushrooms and secondhand luxury cars onto a Chinese boat. China wants even bigger boats to carry bigger loads. And to make that possible, it wants to blow up rocks in the river south of here to make it wider and deeper and allow boats to go from China's Yunnan province all the way down to Luang Prabang in Laos.
I meet activist Niwat Roikaew on the Thai side of the river south of Chiang Saen. He's a retired teacher with an encyclopedic knowledge of the river.
NIWAT ROIKAEW: (Through interpreter) If they blast the rocks and rapids, it means they will destroy the ecosystem. And that means they destroy food security for humans, for plants, for animals and for everything.
SULLIVAN: When China sent surveying vessels here last year, Niwat and others protested. They've already done enough damage, he says. After months of protests, the Thai government put the project on hold. Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University thinks that's only temporary.
PONGSUDHIRAK: For Thailand, it's something that China will demand, has been demanding. And China has a pretty heavy price to exact if you don't go along. So I think it's a matter of time.
SULLIVAN: China exerts its influence downstream in many ways. Money works, too, as China funds dams on the Mekong and its tributaries in Cambodia and Laos.
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SULLIVAN: I'm sitting in a fishing boat on the Mekong in the Cambodian district of Sambor, about five hours north of the capital Phnom Penh. And this is where the government is planning a new mega-dam, despite a study the government commissioned but hasn't released that calls the site the worst possible place for one and warns it could literally kill the river. But Cambodia needs electricity badly and may not heed the report's warnings.
Residents on Koh Pdao island, in the middle of the river, are worried about the fish and the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins that bring tourists here - and their cash. Forty-seven-year-old Seng Chanti is one of the fishermen.
SENG CHANTI: (Through interpreter) If the dam happens, for sure no more dolphins, no more fish in this area.
SULLIVAN: But you'll have electricity, I say.
SENG: (Through interpreter) I cannot eat electricity. If there's no fish, no dolphin, how will we survive?
SULLIVAN: The Cambodian government seems intent on pursuing construction of the dam, and the Chinese government seems happy to throw money at Cambodia in exchange for political fealty. Virak Ou heads the Phnom Penh think tank Future Forum.
VIRAK OU: At this stage, the fact that Cambodia has been shifting away from the West makes Cambodia almost completely relying on China for backing. That means that we are beholden to China.
SULLIVAN: The tighter China pulls the downstream countries into its orbit, critics say, the greater the danger to the river. And some analysts say it could get even worse - two words, water scarcity.
BRIAN EYLER: Long term, China, being one of the countries with the least amount of water allocation per capita in the world, is going to need water.
SULLIVAN: And then, says Brian Eyler, who heads the Stimson Center's Southeast Asia program, China could decide to repurpose its dams.
EYLER: As long as those dams are purpose for hydropower, the water will flow down into Southeast Asia. But if political directives change, if resource allocation needs change, then perhaps engineers are going to look at ways to get that water from Mekong dams into China proper.
SULLIVAN: And that would be a problem for the countries downriver, who depend on that water for the fish they eat and the sediment that helps produce the fertile soil downstream, especially in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, some 60 million people who could have to find other ways to feed themselves.
For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan on the Mekong.
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