CHIANG KHONG: Ninety-seven kilometres of rocks in Thai waters stand between Beijing and dominance over the Mekong, a mighty river that feeds millions as it threads south from the Tibetan plateau through five countries before emptying into the South China Sea.
China has long wanted to dredge the riverbed in northern Thailand to open passage for massive cargo ships — and potentially military vessels.
The dredging project, once started, will be the most extensive and costliest in the world as it has a budget of $700 billion.
Ultimately a link could be carved from Yunnan province thousands of kilometres south through the Mekong countries — Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and
There, the river emerges into the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and the centerpiece of Beijing’s trade and security strategy for its Asian neighbourhood.
Under the tagline “Shared River, Shared Future” China insists it seeks only the sustainable development of the river and to split the spoils of a trade and energy boom with its Mekong neighbours and their market of 240 million people.
But squeezed for value by the dams lacing China’s portion of the river — and further downstream — the Mekong is already changing.
Fish stocks have collapsed say Thai fisherman, and nutrient-rich land in the Vietnamese delta is sinking as the sediment flow shrinks.
The river is rivalled only by the Amazon for its biodiversity, environmentalists say, but now endemic species like the giant Mekong catfish and river dolphins are facing extinction.
Environment versus big business. Geopolitics throttling a lifeline to 60 million people — big themes are playing out on a slow-moving river.
Zhang Jingjin’s tour group run through a catalogue of selfie poses in front of the “Welcome to The Golden Triangle” gate. Below swirls a few hundred muddy meters of the Mekong.
It is the ‘Golden Triangle’, the intersection of northern Thailand with Myanmar and Laos, notorious for conflict and drugs — but now getting plump on Chinese investment.
“If more boats can pass there will be more visitors, more trade and more business,” Zhang, a jovial elevator salesman from Beijing, says. “Business is good for everyone.” First the shoal at the Golden Triangle will have to go — one of 15 sets of rocks, rapids and sandbars impeding ships’ progress along the river.
Once removed and dredged, deep-hulled boats carrying 500-plus tonnes of cargo could make the 600-kilometer journey from Yunnan to the Laotian colonial-era jewel of Luang Prabang.
The vision is to festoon both banks of the waterway with Special Economic Zones (SEZs) replete with condos, ports, rail and road links.
From Laos much of the river has already been opened south towards Cambodia, two key — and poor — allies readily softened up by Beijing’s investment billions.