Chinese Armed Patrols on the Mekong

The recent announcement of a decision by China to join other nations in dispatching armed patrols along the Mekong River should come as no surprise. It comes on the heels of an incident last October when 13 Chinese sailors were killed by suspects who may or may not have been Thai soldiers, and it appears to be a continuation of Beijing’s longstanding claim over the entire South China Sea.

Beijing responded to the October incident by first suspending shipping down the Mekong and by sending its gunboats unannounced down the river to provide its ships with armed escorts from Chinese waters into foreign waters, a move that has concerned some of its neighbors and the international community.

With fears of an increasingly assertive and aggressive China, this decision to send armed patrols has only added fuel to the fire. Such a reaction is understandable at first. Any nation would act to protect its citizens from roaming gangs, particularly when passing through the infamous “Golden Triangle,” the primary opium-producing region in Southeast Asia.

However, this is not the coast of Somalia, where merchant vessels are escorted by armed ships while traversing through international waters. Where Somali pirates have conducted their raids on international waters, the October incident occurred under foreign jurisdiction—that of Thailand. Sending an armed force into foreign territory can be misconstrued as an act of war, or at the very least, an unwelcomed incursion.

Sending the wrong message

It is understandable that China wishes to protect its vessels. However, there must be moderation in its actions. Armed Chinese vessels patrolling the Mekong River to and from its territories will raise the specter of said patrols running the entire length of the river. It is an overreaction to what is a tragic event, a disproportionate use of force that is akin to fishing with grenades. Most importantly, however, it is the wrong message China wants to send to the world.

There is nothing to be gained by the disproportionate use of force. It is a blunt response to a much more complex issue. It is the response of a country that does not understand the value of strength. Maturity demands wisdom, and there is little wisdom in sending armed ships into the territory of your neighbors.

That Beijing wants to play a bigger role on the international stage is nothing new, but this decision has merely furthered the paranoia of some in the world that China is seeking to establish a sphere of influence in the Pacific. Critics are not simply looking at the Mekong incident and its subsequent response as an isolated issue but as part of a greater picture: China’s assertiveness and increasing reach in the Pacific.

China here is proposing a multinational policing body to patrol the entire Mekong, not just the Golden Triangle where the murders occurred, a considerable foray into the territory of sovereign nations. There will be no point for China having its armed force to be present in the Mekong River. Fairly or unfairly, armed patrols tend to juxtapose quite well against any “peaceful” plan for development.

The real problem at hand

This is a quintessential “right idea, wrong execution” scenario. Should China desire to protect its merchant vessels and citizens, it must do so in cooperation with its neighbors sharing the Mekong River—Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. China will never allow a multinational force to enter policing on its territory. Rather than being perceived as acting unilaterally, thus giving rise to the image of an aggressive China, it should endeavor to embrace a multinational solution to what is clearly a multinational issue.

There is a greater issue at hand, one that China and its neighbors have failed to address. It is an issue that, if not addressed, will continue to plague the Mekong River, regardless of how many armed patrols China sends. However well-meaning these river patrols, they fail to address the core problem: lawlessness.

Pervasive lawlessness has permitted criminal organizations to establish their opium farming and drug trade operations in the Golden Triangle. The deaths of the 13 Chinese sailors are a consequence of this “symptom.” Authorities in the area believe that, rather than having been murdered by officers of the Thai army, Golden Triangle warlords are involved. The two most likely, say sources in the area, Naw Kham, a former Burma Army-backed militia leader, who has been active in the Golden Triangle collecting protection money from businesses, both legal and illegal, along the river. Others point at Zhao Wei, owner of the Kings Romans Casino in Laos, opposite Burma’s Golden Triangle Paradise Resort Hotel in Tachilek.

Should China and the five nations who rely on the Mekong River seek to bring security to the region, they must address this core problem immediately. Armed patrols along the Mekong River alone will not prevent another tragic incident, just as coastal patrols along the Somali coast will not prevent acts of piracy.

Given that the Golden Triangle affects not only China but its neighbors as well, why not form a regional policing organization comprised of those six nations? This body would patrol the entire length of the Mekong River with the mandate to protect merchant and civilian vessels from the very same threat that took the lives of those Chinese sailors. China would be able to patrol the Mekong down into Vietnam just as Vietnam would be able to do the same up into China. Such a multinational body, particularly if China elected to lead (an intelligent use of its strength), would be praised for its effort to curb the drug trade.

If China is serious in protecting its vessels against threats, it cannot ignore the greater malaise that is lawlessness. Moreover, it should not act alone when the matter at hand is a regional affair. If China is serious in preventing the death of more sailors, it must do so under the framework of joint-responsibility. Until the law is brought to bear over the Golden Triangle, it does not matter how many armed patrols China or its neighbors send to travel up and down the Mekong River.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law.)