If you are the world’s second-largest power, what do you dream about? How do you go about making this dream come true?
Put bluntly, the Mekong River region represents a crucial testing ground for Beijing’s mid- to long-term ambitions — not acknowledged officially — to become the hegemon in East Asia and possibly beyond.
This is in part because the Mekong River region is situated in China’s immediate vicinity. The region is comprised of mostly small countries amenable to influence but with great strategic importance. China is also the river’s most upstream riparian, with more than 10 mainstream dams completed or under construction. The geographic and economic advantages over the other Mekong countries have already made China the Mekong’s quasi-natural hegemon.
The key question for China’s leaders is how to best perform this hegemonic role. One of the primary objectives of a hegemon is to ensure compliance. Four mechanisms can be identified to achieve this: coercive, utilitarian, normative and ideological.