Downstream is Actually Downstream: BRI, Hydropower, and Chinese Imperialism in Southeast Asia

Author: Stevan Harrell (University of Washington)

After the 1952 revolution that brought him to power, Gamal Abdel Nasser obtained British and American financing for the Aswan High Dam, which would provide electricity and water to Egyptian farmers, but would stop the Nile floods that had fertilized the rich farmlands since before the days of the Pharaohs. When the US and UK withdrew their financing for geopolitical reasons, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal (a project of British Imperialism), and Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt and captured the canal. They gave it back, but Nasser then proceeded to obtain Soviet financing for the dam, which was completed in 1970. It is difficult to do counterfactual history and say what would have happened if the British and American imperialist had not withdrawn their funding, but the geopolitics of the Middle East might have turned out differently. China is now engaged in large-scale dam building as part of its current imperial expansion, otherwise known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It remains to be seen what the medium- and long-term geopolitical effects might be.

Chinese imperialism and American imperialism

At a recent academic conference, I heard an eminent China scholar say it outright: “China is on its way to reclaiming its status as the world’s main country.” This will happen sooner or later, given China’s huge size and its projected economic, diplomatic, and military growth. The status of “main country” almost always depends partly on imperialism: forcing others into giving up their resources on unequal terms. The British Empire was the “main country” for over a century, succeeded by the United States for the last century-plus. China’s domestic development has now reached the point where it both needs to grab resources from other countries and has the economic and technological means to do so; soon it will have the military means as well.

The Belt and Road Initiative is the latest phase of Chinese imperialism. But it is the inheritor of both deep and recent historical precedents. The previous phase (which is still going on) relied on extraction of resources from the periphery of the People’s Republic territory itself—the so-called “ethnic minority” regions in the west of the country. First oil and minerals, and now increasingly hydroelectric power, were extracted and exported to fuel urbanization, industrialization, and rising standards of material consumption in the demographically denser, wealthier, more urbanized areas of China Proper, inhabited mainly by the Han majority. China Proper-based regimes had extracted resources and expanded their political control over these areas for millennia, and the CCP regime continued these exploitative, colonial policies during its early decades. But this resource imperialism intensified after 2000, when the Central Party and Government authorities announced the “Great Opening of the West” initiative (西部大开发, Xibu da kaifa, which might also be translated “Great [Resource] Exploitation of the West”). The Initiative began building roads, railroads, airports, schools, medical facilities, and even new cities in the western parts of the country. Of course, like many colonial enterprises, the Great Opening brought undoubted material benefits to western regions—minority people are now healthier, longer-lived, better-educated, and better connected to the world than they were in the late 20th century. The price everywhere has been greater cultural assimilation, loss of local community self-sufficiency, and, paradoxically, a widening material gap between the interior and China Proper, even as the interior has gained materially, since China Proper has gained faster. In other words, the project perfectly fits the definition of extractive colonialism. For some parts of the peripheral regions, these gains and losses may balance out; for others, particularly the occupied nations of Tibet and Xinjiang, material prosperity has been overshadowed by political, religious, and ethnic repression, culminating in the “People’s War on Terror” that has imprisoned over a million Uyghur, Kazakh, and other local Xinjiang people in a vast network of concentration camps and forced-labor sweatshops.

Like the American empire before it, the current Chinese empire has reached the practical limits of territorial conquest, with the possible exception of Taiwan. Unlike the current American empire, the fledgling next-phase Chinese empire is not yet militarily strong enough to use force to bring recalcitrant neo-colonies in line without actually instituting more than temporary rule (as the US did in Iraq in 2003). China may become strong enough for overseas military adventurism in the fairly near future (perhaps artificial islands in the South China Sea are the opening curtain of the military drama), but for now China must rely on economic colonialism to achieve its aims of securing resources. Thus, the BRI. As part of its attempt to justify the initiative ideologically, the BRI is named after the various “Silk Roads” across Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans—ironically first dubbed such by a German imperialist explorer, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, in the 1870s. But unlike those historical roads, the BRI is an explicitly colonial initiative, not a roughly symmetrical series of belts and roads that facilitate trade, much less a magnanimous effort to help other countries grow economically (though it does do that). It is rather an attempt to secure resources for the main country, as it outgrows its domestic supply. The parallels to past and present US imperialism are close, if not absolute—China’s BRI lacks any moralistic excuse parallel to the US ideology of spreading democracy.

Another parallel between the BRI and US imperialism is their direct connection to previous, more direct forms of colonization. During its westward expansion, the US slaughtered and then severely marginalized the indigenous inhabitants of its continually expanding territory until it reached its limit of conquest at the shores of the second shining sea. After this, the American empire expanded to Latin America, the Pacific, and eventually, less directly to much of the rest of the world through less direct methods. Similarly, China reached its limits at its Central and Southeast Asian borders, but has begun to expand further through other means. And in China’s case this further expansion is closely connected to its previous and ongoing imperial efforts within the PRC borders. Nowhere is this connection closer or more obvious than in construction of hydroelectric power facilities in China’s Southwest and in the nations of the Southeast Asian Mainland.

Hydropower in China

China now has over 350 million gigawatts of installed hydro power, about 27% of the total world capacity. Large-scale hydropower is the ultimate environmental tradeoff. On the one hand, it a source of electric power that is both renewable (rivers continue to run to the sea) and almost free of greenhouse gas emissions (only raw materials extraction, equipment manufacture, and transportation create GHG, and over the lifetime of the dam, total emissions per kilowatt hour are probably less than 10% of a coal-fired plant). But turning a big section of a river into a lake, along with inundating farmland and often riverside cities in doing so, can create agricultural land shortages, population relocation, landslides, microclimate changes, biodiversity loss, and sometimes even earthquakes.

In the early years of the PRC, most of the big dams (big, that is, by the standards of those years) were built in China proper, leading up to the mother of all dams, the world’s biggest hydroelectric facility at Sanxia, or Three Gorges, in western Hubei, built between 1993 and 2009 and capable of generating 22 GW of power. But hydropower in China Proper has demographic and political consequences—in addition to the universal environmental downsides of big hydro, all the big dams built in China Proper from the 1950s to the early 2000s required massive relocations of local Han Chinese farmers, with concomitant social and secondary environmental consequences. The rivers of China’s Southwest, however, typically run through sparsely populated mountain regions, and even their sparse populations tend to be politically powerless non-Han peoples. Besides, there are a lot of rivers in the Southwest, with large water volumes and steep gradients. Two of the most important of these are the Lancang and Nu, known outside China respectively as the Mekong and Salween.

Since the 1990s, the Lancang has been the site of massive hydrological, ecological, and social changes to local communities brought about as part of the Great Opening of the west. There are now already nine big dams on the Lancang. The uppermost of these, the 990 MW Wunonglong dam and the Lidi dam immediately below, both began producing electricity in late 2018 and 2019. Farther downstream in Yunnan, a cascade of seven dams on the lower section of the Lancang includes the Nuozhadu megadam, with an installed capacity of 5.8 GW, and extends to the Jinghong and Ganlanba dams in Sipsong Banna Dai Autonomous Prefecture near the borders between Yunnan, Myanmar, and Laos. At least 15 more dams have been planned along the whole course of the river from near its source on the Tibetan Plateau all the way to the Lao border.

The cascade of dams on the Lancang has affected all the downstream Mekong countries—Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, in diverse ways. First, Yunnan dams affected the hydrology and thus the ecology of the downriver countries. The Mekong watershed contains some of the largest and most productive inland capture fisheries in the world, most notably around the large Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia. Most of these fisheries depend on the seasonal flux of the Mekong—the river’s volume varies greatly between the low season from December through May and the flood season from June through November. During the flood season, the Mekong backflows into the Tonle Sap, increasing its surface area from about 2500 km2 in the dry season to over 15,000 km2 during the floods. This variation drives the life cycle of many local fish species. Upstream dams on the Lancang, however, damp the yearly fluctuations (and thus, of course, retarding floods and enabling irrigation besides evening out hydropower generation), and in the process disrupt the fish life cycle. This effect increased markedly in 2014 when Nuozhadu, the largest Lancang dam, came on line. Recently, China has received pushback about diminished Mekong flows not only from Cambodia, but also from Vietnam, whose Mekong delta at its southern tip is also experiencing possible negative ecosystem effects.

Lancang dams have not only affected the ecology of downstream nations, but also their economic development. Yunnan, one of China’s poorer provinces, exports Lancang dam power not only to wealthier and more urbanized parts of China to the east, but also to rapidly developing parts of Southeast Asia, especially Thailand. And this is where the earlier phase of China’s hydraulic imperialism meets the later phase that is part of the BRI. Laos, the poorest country in mainland Southeast Asia, is also the country with the most hydroelectric dams, most of them on tributaries of the Mekong. Many existing, under-construction, and proposed dams on the Mekong and its tributaries were built as part of the BRI by one of China’s “big five” hydroelectric companies: about half of Laos’s 90 operating and planned hydroelectric dams, including four planned on the Mekong mainstream, are Chinese-financed. And China has recently offered the downstream countries membership in the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism, offering in addition to build special economic zones, bridges, highways, railways, and pipelines, and to help with improvement of local electricity grids.

Laos’s dams already produce more power than the country needs at present, and Laos has thus become a resource exporter, calling itself “the Battery of Asia.” Its government continues to prioritize hydropower development on the Mekong and its tributaries, planning for generation capacity to eventually reach 26 GW. Similar in some ways to the oil-producing states of the Middle East and elsewhere, Laos has often ignored environmental effects of hydroelectric installations, which bring in needed foreign exchange. Most of the electricity from Laos’s dams is exported to Thailand, which grew much wealthier in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and became a net importer of hydroelectricity, actively promoting Lao hydropower (much of it China-financed) in order to further develop its own poorer areas, particularly the Northeast. Dams in Laos, like those in Yunnan, are potentially disruptive to the fisheries and agricultural economy of Cambodia and the ecology of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The Xayaburi dam in particular, which came on line in 2019 right at a time of drought in Southeast Asia, occasioned protests by the governments of both Cambodia and Vietnam, but started producing power anyway.

China is not done building big dams; it plans to add another 170 GW of installed capacity to its current 350 GW by 2050. But Chinese dam builders realize that domestic hydroelectric potential is limited; indeed this is one reason why they have expanded aggressively into Southeast Asia, and have even begun to operate in Africa and Latin America. But there are still rivers in China ripe for the damming. Most prominent among these is the Nu, which runs in a parallel north-south gorge west of the Lancang, and like its neighbor over the mountains flows across a border, in this case renamed Thanlwin or Salween, into the politically unstable ethnic minority regions of northeastern Myanmar, where ethnic independence militias have been fighting the central government off and on since the 1960s.

There are as yet no dams on the mainstream of the Nu river, other than a couple of small ones near its headwaters in southeastern Tibet. It has thus been dubbed “China’s last wild river” by conservationists and environmental advocates both in China and internationally. The term “wild” is a misnomer by American semantic standards; there are villages of Lisu, Nu, and other ethnic groups all along its course, and a 600-km highway parallels its so-called “wild” section. But there are as yet no dams. This is surprising, since China’s dam builders, often in alliance with local officials eager for development opportunities, have been planning a cascade of 13 large dams, similar to those along the Lancang, since the 1990s. Such eminences as former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao have opposed damming the river, but when he retired in 2012 it seemed that the opposition would crumble. Surprisingly, this hasn’t happened yet, and aside from a fancy website and some elaborate plans, earth movers have not yet moved any earth.

Building dams along the Nu would certainly have ecological effects in Myanmar comparable to those of the Lancang dams in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. But of more immediate concern to Myanmar are five dams planned on the mainstream of the Salween, three scheduled to sell power mainly to China, and the others to Thailand. Conflicts over these dam plans reflect the legacy of the massive Myitsone dam, planned for the mainstream but suspended in 2011 among much controversy, partly because Yunnan, as mentioned above, is currently exporting power. But if China begins to curtail further construction of coal-, gas-, and nuclear-powered plants, and if the impressive expansion of China’s wind and solar power installations cannot keep up with demand, there may be further pressure toward building dams on the Salween. It also remains to be seen how the military coup of early 2021 will affect dam building and other BRI infrastructure projects in Myanmar.

Regardless of whether China ends up buying or selling power from the dams its company builds in Southeast Asia and elsewhere as parts of the BRI, more Chinese involvement in dams means closer ties to Southeast Asian governments, and more opportunities for China to bring them into its imperial orbit and make their resources available as necessary, which is the overall purpose of the BRI. And, of course, dams are only a small part of BRI infrastructure construction all over the world. Like imperial projects before them, these activities will have some benefits for some people in the receiving countries. But like all imperial projects, they will benefit the colonists more than the colonized. And China plans to keep building dams.