By BRIAN SPEGELE And ERIC BELLMAN
A ship travels along the Mekong River in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in a January 2011 photo.
China is considering sending armed police boats down the Mekong River after attacks on Chinese vessels in Thailand’s part of the river, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported, a move that comes amid growing regional worries over China’s strategic influence in the region.
Unlike current protection of China’s commercial vessels in international waters, for example off the coast of Africa, the Mekong plan would mean an armed Chinese presence on its smaller neighbors’ territories, potentially opening a new strategic frontier for China in Southeast Asia.
Xinhua said China was consulting with the governments of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand on the plan, which experts say would be the first of its kind for China in Southeast Asia. Suspicion of China’s efforts to extend its economic and strategic reach in the region have run high over the past year, fueled by territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Cheng Jun, a spokesman for the Border Control Bureau of China’s Ministry of Public Security said the plan is still being negotiated, and declined to comment further.
If the plan gets off the ground, Chinese police vessels could escort commercial ships beyond China’s borders in the part of the Mekong near the Golden Triangle. The region, where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet, is one of the world’s major opium-producing areas and is plagued by violent drug gangs who harass shippers.
The plan for a Mekong presence signals China’s lack of confidence in the ability of individual states such as Thailand to fight drug smuggling and secure its shipping lanes. Beijing has in the past leaned on its smaller neighbors—for whom trade with China has become increasingly important—to get them to agree to its conditions.
“The hidden anxiety [for Southeast Asian nations] is, yes we want cooperation with China, yes we make money through economic interchange, but this might lead to a more or less permanent presence,” said Carlyle Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Australian Defence Force Academy at the University of New South Wales. “It becomes a conduit of Chinese influence.”
It’s unclear how large a Chinese force along the river might be or and whether Chinese agents would be authorized to directly target non-Chinese pirates or drug smugglers. Chinese state-run media quoted sources this week as saying the force could be between 600 and nearly 1,000 people.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei declined to comment on the reported plan during a regular press briefing on Wednesday. A spokeswoman for the Thailand government, Titima Chaisang, said Thursday that the four countries have agreed to cooperate on safety issues on the Mekong but the Chinese patrol “has to be discussed further among the four countries.”
Officials from Laos couldn’t be reached.
China suspended shipping along the Mekong last month after 13 Chinese sailors were murdered in attacks on two cargo ships. The incident received prominent attention in China’s state-run press. Nine Thai soldiers were later arrested in connection with the case.
Late in October, senior leaders from Laos, Myanmar and Thailand met with China’s security chief, Zhou Yongkang, in Beijing. Mr. Zhou, a member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, said Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao were personally involved in the investigation of the Chinese sailors’ murders.
Mr. Hong, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said China hoped shipping on the river would resume before a meeting of Greater Mekong Subregion leaders in December. The shipping suspension isn’t expected to significantly disrupt trade flows because ships sailing the Mekong often serve local communities, and aren’t connected to major commercial centers.
Southeast Asian states have worked jointly on security issues in the past. Joint air and sea patrols involving Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore target piracy in the Malacca Strait, for example.
China’s claims in the South China Sea have won it few friends in the region. Beijing claims the entire South China Sea, which is thought to be rich in oil and gas resources, and is also claimed in whole or in part by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.