Southeast Asia is a region developing and expanding fast in terms of population, importance, and interconnectedness. While the future beckons promisingly for the continued success of the region, potential backsliding into instability threatens to change this trajectory. Non-traditional aspects of security now take the forefront of issues threatening this backsliding. While changes in the balance of power between Southeast Asian nations or the efficacy of institutions remain integral to the region’s future, threats like a warming and unpredictable climate or breaches in cyber-security now have the potential to drastically change the state of security in the region.
The issue with perhaps the most disruptive potential is that of food security. While this largely has been considered an issue or goal of development studies, its impact on the security of nations is now being recognised as significant. Studies conducted for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) show striking patterns of correlation between rising food prices and the emergence of disruption and conflict. This can range from spikes in anti-government sentiment and irregular migration, to the outbreak of civil conflict and upticks in participation in rebel movements and organised crime., Disruptions to the affordable and ready access to food will inevitably have severe impacts on the stability of any country. Reporting from Foreign Policy summates this idea in stating that lack of food security will have ‘serious implications for global political stability’, and that it could lead to ‘mass displacement as people migrate to more arable [regions] in search of stable food supplies’.
The ability of food insecurity to destabilise at the individual level as well as the national and international levels is what makes this threat particularly dramatic. Within the Southeast Asian region, food security is increasingly being cited as a cause for concern. According to recent indexing produced by The Economist, the region, not including Singapore, ranks 1.3 points below the global average., This ranking has the potential to deteriorate significantly given concerns for the long-term agricultural productivity in the region. Aside from sheerly security concerns, the risk also is also compounded by economic dimensions as import-export balances and national income are affected by reductions in agricultural production, requiring a higher reliance on foreign markets.
The area of most concern within Southeast Asia is the potentially exponential deterioration of production depending on the Mekong River System. As the river flows through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, deterioration in the system would represent a significant issue afflicting Southeast Asia as a whole. The river currently discharges an estimated 475 cubic kilometres of fresh water annually, feeding a delta of 795,000 km2 in size. The benefits of this flow are felt to such an extent that the river is sometimes referred to as the ‘mother of waters’, reflecting its importance to the lives of tens of millions of people.
Deteriorations in the river system are a particular concern for the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam and the Tonle Sap region of Cambodia. The former of these regions is responsible for 90% of the rice exports of Vietnam and the livelihoods of 17 million people, whilst the collapse of the later would define Cambodia as a failed state., On current trajectory, Laos and Cambodia are predicted to be unable to match domestic production with domestic demand by 2030. While these events would cause significant harm and displacement for the people of these countries, the effects of this contingency would inevitably spill across borders, potentially causing sharp increases in food prices and reductions in food availability throughout Southeast Asia. This undoubtedly would be felt in conjunction with other economical or security concerns that go along with having increasingly insecure neighbours.
This issue takes particular relevance given current developments afflicting the Mekong. As the river crosses through multiple nations, many issues persist around shared management of the system. Here, unilateral decisions, especially those like the damming of the river, are a particular cause for concern. These developments can have drastic impacts for downstream productivity. In particular, projects such as damming are seen to have a substantial impact on sediment deposits and water availability for downstream populations. This makes agricultural yields in any given area harder to predict, hurting the ability of small-scale farmers to plan for the future, and making agricultural investments seem riskier. Additionally, increasing rates of glacial melt at the sources of the river in the Tibetan Plateau further complicate the issue by causing seasonal flows to become increasingly erratic. While these developments may be approached and mitigated through the use of effective multilateral action, there are strong incentives for some states to resist concerted action, or to otherwise seek benefit from their geographic positioning at the detriment of other regional players.
In explaining why this may be the case, considering how cooperation on this issue is incentivised or disincentivised provides a road map for current patterns of behaviour. When it comes to the issue of increasing rates of glacial melt, the reasoning behind lack of effective action is similar to lethargies affecting other environmental issues. That is, as the phenomenon is caused by increasing carbon emissions globally, the attribution of blame or responsibility becomes difficult, hindering effective approaches to the issue. The cost of action would also be high, likely requiring significant systemic change with no promise of reciprocation from other stake holders. However, costs of inaction could verge on being catastrophic. A UNESCO report states that the glaciated regions of Asia are the fastest receding in the world. The report estimated that the water requirements of over a billion people are met by these glaciers. In South Asia alone, increased rates of melt are expected to affect well over 177 million people in terms of income and livelihood.
As most Southeast Asian nations are positioned geographically far from the glaciated areas feeding the Mekong, it will however remain difficult to direct regional attention to the issue. East and South Asian countries positioned relatively closer to the sources of the river may have a greater role to play in initiating dialogue and coordinated responses. Considering that the health of the Mekong is integral to the futures of some Southeast Asian nations, such actions would signify a great deal of regional responsibility and forward thinking on the part of instigating nations. This may entail the creation of water sharing agreements, information sharing initiatives, and memorandums of understanding regarding norms and expectations of behaviour which affects the river. An appreciation of the spill-over effects of food insecurity and broader regional malaise is required in order to make such decisions. This would come as an alternative to potential zero-sum thinking pursued through conventional geopolitics. While there are areas of concern that South-Eastern Mekong states should act upon (like unsustainable activities or overuse of the Delta), responsibility for a large amount of the river’s health lies with upstream states.
The greatest present risk to the future productivity of the region is the feared ‘sinking of the Mekong’. The Delta’s land mass (primarily located in Vietnam) is sustained through constant flow of sediment from upstream, mentioned earlier. Because of this, any alterations to these flows will impact the total land mass available for productive activities. While decreasing flows from glaciers may impact this in the future, more immediately impactful is the development of damming projects in upstream states. At the date of writing, these dams are primarily located in China with some beginning to appear in Laos. The eight currently finished damming projects have already affected around 50% of the usual sediment flows. If additional damming projects are completed as planned, sediment deposits will be restricted by more than 96% of their current levels. Such development of the river also has the potential to restrict migratory fish and their breeding patterns, further harming productivity of downstream fisheries. Fishermen in the region already express worries about the future of their wellbeing, lamenting the change in their catch from only a decade earlier.
The substantial impacts of this damming can point to potentially callous disregard for water and food security on the part of upstream states. The impacts on Vietnamese and Cambodian productive regions in particular point to large absences in regional responsibility especially as it regards policy actions from Beijing. Current publications note the effect of the Mekong’s damming to be excessive, potentially leading to complete inundation of the Mekong Delta by the turn of the century. This phenomenon will occur as the rate of sediment deposit is eventually exceeded by rates of sea-level rise; it is likely this will be accompanied by a salination of the delta, limiting agricultural and fishery productivity to a fraction of current levels. This could become a direct cause of failure for food security in two Southeast Asian nations, with certain ramifications for surrounding countries. The pursuit of energy security on the part of the Chinese state is noted, however, the benefits of these projects may quickly lead to the emergence of a flashpoint in the region. Calls from lower Mekong states to cease the damming have become louder in recent years, especially from the sub-state level. Hearing and responding to these calls is likely to bring higher levels of sustained benefit for Beijing.
The falsification of Chinese led narratives, however, prompts speculation that the behaviour is likely to be unyielding. With regards to Mekong damming, one article published by China’s Global Times is titled: ‘from being responsible neighbour to biodiversity protection vanguard’. The article criticises the prevalence of ‘Western media outlets … bashing Chinese hydropower stations, claiming that the Chinese stations at upstream of Mekong River are responsible for aggravating droughts in downstream countries’. In response to this criticism, the outlet instead claims Chinese hydropower projects have a positive role to play in flood mitigation and biodiversity promotion. This is in stark contrast with facts on the ground, where substantial flooding in Cambodia is directly attributable to the dams.
In South Asia, this pattern of behaviour is mirrored. A recent ‘super hydropower’ damming project proposed by Beijing on the Brahmaputra River also points to an apparent disregard for consequence. The project has stoked fears in India regarding declines in the availability of water in the productive regions of the river basin. The seeming disregard for these concerns has led commentators to point to the potential goal of ‘hydro-hegemony’ being pursued by the Chinese state. In commenting on the prospects of damming Asian rivers, The Diplomat notes the potential for the management of transboundary river systems to be influenced by ‘the greater socio-political context’ existing between nations. By this it is meant that there are potentially strong incentives for transboundary systems to be wielded as a tool of geopolitical leverage.
However, while the presence of transboundary rivers may exacerbate tensions, they may also be used to facilitate cooperation on a greater level. The common good of the river systems and associated environmental goods can provide a tangible source of shared responsibility. Philip Hirsch, a commentator on the region, points to this dichotomy of potential outcomes in stating that ‘perhaps in no other arena is the conflation of geopolitics with the environmental agenda as significant as in the case of transboundary river basins.’ Given the potentially disastrous effects on non-cooperation, particularly as caused through the use of damming for hydroelectric purposes, the Mekong may provide a decisive focal point for shared dialogue and future relations. Whether or not these relations provide positive dividends depends on the self-awareness of nations, and the impacts they desire to have on the region in which they reside.
Regional cooperation based around the environments of South and Southeast Asia have the potential to create a road map to future cooperation. The development of the Hindu-Kush Himalayas is overseen by a group of South and Central Asian nations (HKH countries), and the lower Mekong is, to an extent, regulated by the Mekong River Commission. The variable in this situation is whether Beijing will engage effectively in regional dialogues or exclude itself so that it may continue to act with impunity. At this current point in time, it appears as though China’s long standing ‘non-participation, non-discussion, non-recognition’ attitude is taking the lead. This strong-arming approach to regional issues misses the point of cooperation in this instance; the outcome of participation is not compromising the nation’s power, but rather seeking assurance of stability in its neighbourhood. Leveraging natural resources may reap dividends in the medium-term but it is inevitable that this will create a messy operating environment in the future. The Mekong can provide a gathering point by which nations can initiate dialogue and work towards mutually beneficial outcomes. That being said, if Beijing insists on asserting a ‘rights to territorial sovereignty’ mentality it may achieve hydro-hegemony at the cost of food security, human security, and a rapidly deteriorating regional security environment.
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Foreign Policy. ‘The Global Food Crisis is Here’, Jason Hickel, viewed 1st December. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/08/21/the-global-food-crisis-is-here/
Radio Free Asia. ‘Despite Seasonal Floods Now, Experts See Risk of Mekong Drying Up’, Dan Southerland, viewed 5th December. https://www.rfa.org/english/commentaries/mekong-threats-09132019155403.html
The Diplomat. ‘The Precarious State of the Mekong’, Nicholas Muller, viewed 5th December. https://thediplomat.com/2022/11/the-precarious-state-of-the-mekong/
NBC News. ‘Chinese Dams on Mekong River Endanger Fish Stocks, Livelihoods, Activists Say’, Keir Simmons, Rhoda Kwan, Nat Sumon & Jennifer Jett, viewed 5th December. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/chinese-dams-mekong-river-endanger-fish-stocks-livelihoods-activists-say-n1288720
Global Times. ‘A Glimpse of China’s largest Hydroelectric Project Along Lancang River: from being Responsible Neigbor ro Biodiversity Protection Vanguard’, Zhao Yusha & Cao Siqi in Pu’er, viewed 7th December. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202209/1276056.shtml
The Diplomat. ‘China’s Super Hydropower Dam and fears of Sino-Indian Water Wars’, Genevieve Donnellon-May, viewed 12th December https://thediplomat.com/2022/12/chinas-super-hydropower-dam-and-fears-of-sino-indian-water-wars/
Author: Thomas Robert Bartley (Intern at CESASS UGM)