Beijing’s plans for dam construction in the Yunnan province, a crucial part of China’s 10-year development strategy, are an interesting puzzle. Two rivers run nearly parallel through this impoverished southwestern territory—the Nu River, which becomes the Salween after it crosses the border into Myanmar, and the Lancang River, which is known as the Mekong once it crosses into riparian Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Both rivers fall into the region of China that the central government has targeted for extensive hydropower development, why then, has Beijing proposed to heavily dam the smaller, slower Nu instead of the larger, faster Lancang? If, as officials have stated, the goal of the recent “Develop the West” strategy is to generate power for local development and ease demands on the regional grid, why focus on the river that offers substantially less hydropower potential?
Two explanations seem plausible—one grounded in internal Chinese politics and the other in external, international politics. A comparison of internal and external dynamics reveals that two forces, international institutions and regional economic integration, drive this policy choice. This suggests that external pressures influence China’s internal water management decisions as well as the development of the region’s many transboundary rivers.
China has built more than 40,000 hydroelectric dams—more than half of the global total—with the majority completed in the last two decades. Hydropower development in provinces like Yunnan is part of Beijing’s “Develop the West” initiative, aimed at raising living standards in the country’s poorest provinces while easing demands on the rest of China’s electrical grid.