Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

China's Performance in International Resource Politics: Lessons from the Mekong

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

China's Performance in International Resource Politics: Lessons from the Mekong

Article excerpt

The chemical accident in the northern Chinese industrial province Jilin on 13 November 2005 brought the environmental and information policy of the People's Republic into the spotlight. Set flee by an explosion in a petrochemical plant, an 80 km (50 miles) stretch of polluted water ran down the river Songhuan, threatening the main, if not only, source of freshwater for the nine million inhabitants of Harbin which lies several hundred kilometres downstream from Jilin. This, however, was not a singular event in an otherwise sound environment but rather a sudden escalation of a long-term process that had been leading in the same direction. The doubling of prices for drinking water within hours, the temporary migration of hundreds of thousands of people and a local fight for water were therefore again not a isolated event that is unlikely to recur but rather a forecast of the future of many Chinese mega-cities especially in the north. Moreover, the river Songhuan, which failed to deliver any potable water for more than a week, was not a reliable source of freshwater before, since it was increasingly unable to supply the growing population with their increasing per capita demands. Nor was the now desperately polluted river clean and healthy before, since not more than 10 per cent of sewage water is reportedly clarified or treated in the province of Harbin before returning into the watershed and then eventually into the river. Finally, the way in which the national government tried to camouflage the incident is not only an indication that what happened in Harbin was not an isolated incident for this place, but that it is probably not uncommon for other cities, too.

The story of Chinese water resources and Chinese water policy does not only have a domestic but also an international, transboundary dimension, which will be examined in this article. Since China is approaching the status of a world superpower, its problems become the world's problems, in several ways: in international hydropolitics China is supposed to be one of the key actors of the future. An enormous and still growing population combined with a seemingly unbreakable economic expansion of around 10 per cent per annum give rise to the apprehension that China will have to quench its thirst by increasingly exploiting sources that do not stem from or remain within its own territory. As China is and will be involved in disputes over transboundary freshwater resources there is an urgent need to analyse its policy guidelines, its flame of action and the rationale behind its water policy. The sources, however, that could supply analysts with the necessary information to assess China's course of action are as scarce as freshwater in the dry Manchurian north.

This article therefore proposes to step back and analyse China's actor behaviour from the sidelines, that is, derived from the course of action taken by China in transboundary water regimes. This case study will focus on the Mekong basin cooperation, politically revolving around the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an international body that serves as a negotiation platform and epistemic community. A thorough examination of the tentative and highly unsatisfactory steps that China takes towards closer cooperation with the four MRC members--the downstream riparian states--Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam--an assessment of its dam building policy and its performance in the hydrological data exchange with the MRC might contribute to the disclosure of China's ambitions and strategies in water politics. From the perspective of Political Science, this study will evaluate China's performance as an actor in international water politics based on International Relations theory. China, the argument goes, is an actor driven by essentially Realist (in the sense of the realist school of international relations) categories of power equation, interest, relative gains and reciprocity. A framework for action addressing China, also in the field of international water politics has to draw from the same set of premises to guarantee practical appropriateness. …

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