A woman stands next to the Mekong River bordering Thailand and Laos in Nong Khai, Thailand, October 29, 2019. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters) Antagonizing neighbors, imposing top-down solutions, and not actually solving the underlying problem — as China in other areas, so with water.
There is an understandable tendency to view global actions by the People’s Republic of China as the natural expression of the strength and confidence of the Communist regime in Beijing. In fact, though, most of Beijing’s so-called power moves reflect a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government that recognizes the country’s inherent weakness and the future challenges those weaknesses foreshadow. And many of Beijing’s bold strokes sow the seeds of bitter, unintended fruit that exacerbate those weaknesses.
The well-known Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) for global infrastructure is one example. Initially, it was seen as a classic soft-power move, giving the PRC global economic, political, and military access and influence to check the U.S. and other democratic powers that Beijing propagandists portray as in terminal decline. Missed in that analysis was that the BRI was a gambit for China’s leaders to put state-owned enterprises to work and prioritize the use of excess Chinese labor in BRI projects abroad. Over time, the BRI’s debt diplomacy and the associated chauvinism that is a natural characteristic of China’s government today have come to be seen in a negative light. In fact, the BRI has spurred a backlash in several “partner” countries, with national governments rising and falling based on support for or opposition to the PRC.
Beijing is engaged in another power play; this time, about water. These actions should be seen in the same light. The moves show the PRC flexing its hegemony in its region, putting other countries at a disadvantage, and making them beholden to PRC consideration for a vital resource. Some say that Beijing is weaponizing water. This is a real danger. On closer inspection, though, Beijing’s actions reflect the government’s recognition that extreme measures are need. Water scarcity for human consumption, power, and irrigation is a significant source of potential instability. China’s
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