Skip to content
Subscriber Only
New Economy

How Taming the Mekong Could Give China Unprecedented Power

  • Control of upstream waters helps Beijing influence downstream
  • China now maintains regular military patrols of the river
The Mekong river in Luang Prabang.
The Mekong river in Luang Prabang.Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

The deadly collapse of one of the dozen or so dams dotted along the Mekong River and its tributaries has highlighted the rapid development of a waterway that is increasingly important strategically for China and its neighbors.

For hundreds of thousands of people living on its banks stretching from China through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the river is their lifeline. Flash flooding last month from the failure of an auxiliary dam at a hydroelectricity plant being built along a tributary in southern Laos killed about 30 people. It also caused widespread damage to local economies, leaving at least 6,000 homeless and raising questions about how the river is managed.