The Lancang River, part of the 4,800km-long Mekong River, runs 2,160km from the Tanggula Mountains in Qinghai, south through Tibet and Yunnan. From there, it winds between Burma and Laos, then between Thailand and Laos, and on through Cambodia and South Vietnam.
The Mekong provides southwest China with a river route to the markets of Southeast Asia. It is already navigable downstream of Louangphrabang in northern Laos, and obstructions such as reefs and shoals are gradually being removed to facilitate shipping northwards into China. In 2001, the river port of Simao in south Yunnan was designated an international port by the central government and the 890km stretch between Simao and Louangphrabang opened to commercial shipping. Two-way trade between Yunnan and Chiang Rai in northern Thailand has been building fast and tourism is also on the increase.
China is an enthusiastic supporter of economic integration and cooperation along the Mekong, although it is not a full member of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which was set up in 1995 by Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The body exists to promote sustainable development along the river; the Chinese government is a dialogue partner and met with the MRC joint committee for the sixth time in July 2002. Elsewhere, China is keen to take a lead, hosting symposiums on co-operation in trade, investment and development, for example, and on tourism along the Lancang-Mekong.
Most of the countries and regions along the Mekong are poor and underdeveloped, including the 1,000km stretch that runs through Yunnan. Development is constrained by lack of resources. China is not totally reliant on the Mekong as an outlet to Southeast Asia – major road and rail routes from Yunnan are also planned – but opening the river is a priority. The government is spending US$5m on dredging and clearance projects from Yunnan into Laos, and China hopes that 100-tonne vessels will be plying the river in 2003, rising to 300-tonne ships by 2007 as efforts continue.
However, China's plans to develop the Mekong are controversial, and the opening up of a development corridor raises serious environmental concerns. China has been at pains to highlight safeguarding measures – against pollution, for example – but environmentalists object to the destruction of reefs that support river ecosystems.
The Lancang is to have eight hydropower stations, generating a total installed capacity of 15,600MW, and this will inevitably affect the dynamics of the river. The 4,200MW Xiaowan hydropower station, on which construction began in January 2002, will rank second in China after the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, and will back water up in a reservoir of almost 15bn cubic metres. Yunnan sells electricity to Guangdong province, and since the start of this year to Laos. It will increase supplies to the rest of China and to nearby countries in coming years.
China claims that dams will help navigation. It is providing data on water levels and on rainfall to assist its neighbours with flood control, and signed an information-sharing deal with the MRC in April this year. What China (and others) do on the upper Mekong is politically sensitive: Cambodia and Vietnam, in particular, want to be consulted on proposals that might affect them downriver.