China’s plan to dredge the Mekong River to open the trade route to larger cargo ships has been met with protests in Thailand. As agreed by China, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, the project aims to improve cargo access to 630 kilometres of the Mekong River, connecting Yunnan in southern China to Luang Prabang in Laos. If it goes ahead, the project will enable cargo ships, weighing up to 500 tonnes, to gain access to the Mekong River trade route from Kunming to Luang Prabang, connecting ports in China, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. Initially proposed in 2001, the dredging allows an extra 200 tonnes per ship and provides a cheaper alternative to current land routes. The second phase, which is set to begin in 2020, involves constructing further cargo and passenger ports along the Mekong. The infrastructure link forms part of the broader “China-Indochina Peninsula” component of China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Thai conservationists have condemned the project, particularly the plan to dynamite a 1.6km section of the river along the Laotian border in northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai province. Protesters say that the dredging will damage the river’s complex ecological system and erode riverbanks. The Thai Government approved the initial phase of the project in December 2016 and, despite local criticism, engineers have begun surveying the river.
Conservationists in Thailand are protesting China’s “Development Plan for International Navigation on the Lancang-Mekong River: 2015-2025” and its perceived detrimental effects on the environment. The Mekong is the world’s largest freshwater fishery; the livelihoods of over 60 million people are dependent on the river. Environmentalists are concerned for the Pi Long rapids in Chiang Rai that they fear will be destroyed to make way for larger cargo ships. A joint statement by 20 non-governmental organisations argues that the ecological systems of the rapids are crucial to the survival of local fish and birds. Stronger river flows that result from dredging also erode the riverbanks, threatening riverside populations and fisheries.
The concerns in Thailand come amid extensive environmental degradation throughout the Mekong. Hydropower dams have altered fish migration patterns and trapped sediments needed for downstream nutrition. A Danish study found that the construction of eleven new dams, as proposed by Laos and Cambodia, would have ‘high to very high adverse effects’ on the fishery and agricultural industries downstream. According to the study, fish yields could halve in Cambodia and Vietnam, and the Mekong Delta could lose ten per cent of its fish species.
State sovereignty is potentially threatened by the project. Dredging the Mekong River at the Thailand-Laos border has important implications for the territorial integrity of both states because the border is marked at the river’s deepest point. Protesters suggest that the thalweg, the line of lowest elevation that determines parts of the Thai-Laotian border, will be altered by dredging. They argue that if the thalweg is altered, Thailand is likely to lose territory to Laos. Previous China-led efforts to dredge the river in Thailand were postponed in 2003 after the Thai Defence Ministry expressed concern over boundary demarcations.
The project contributes to China’s greater plans in Thailand and the region. In addition to the Mekong River development, the US$5.15 billion ($6.95 billion) China-Thailand railway project aims to strengthen China’s trade links through Laos and Thailand, connecting Kunming with Vientiane and Bangkok, with plans to eventually extend to Singapore. Unfortunately for the Thai protesters, it is unlikely that local conservationists will deter China’s plans.