01/12/2007, 00.00
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Mideast oil to be shipped up the Mekong River

China is seeking an alternative route to the Strait of Malacca. River shipping has already been operation between Thailand and China’s Yunnan province. But environmental risks are high in a river that gives life to 60 million people.

Bangkok (AsiaNews/Agencies) – China wants to import Mideast oil through the Mekong River to avoid the unsafe Malacca Strait. As an oil shipping route it is already operational but there are strong environmental concerns that accidental spills could adversely affect the livelihoods of nearly 60 million people living along its banks.

Two Chinese ships made their maiden journey on December 29 carrying a total of 300 tons of refined oil up the Mekong. The two vessels arrived at a port in China's south-western province of Yunnan with a cargo that was shipped from a port in Thailand's northern province of Chiang Rai, China's state news agency Xinhua reported.

China’s estimated total annual oil imports have now reached 140 million tonnes per year, and about 75 per cent currently flows through the narrow, pirate-infested Strait of Malacca.

Piracy is not the only perceived vulnerability though. Beijing has also concerns that in a potential conflict with US fuel shipments through the waterway could be choked off, hence the importance of the Mekong.

The Mekong, which originates in the Chinese-controlled Tibetan plateau, crosses Yunnan province and for the next 4,880 kilometres (3,038 miles) makes its way along the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, then crosses into Cambodia and Vietnam to finally reach the South China Sea.

At least 60 million people in South-East Asia live along the Mekong's muddy banks and depend on it for food, transport and water.

According to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-governmental body comprising the lower-basin countries of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, communities living along the river's lower basin in particular depend on it for its bountiful fish supply. The annual fishery in the lower Mekong accounts for nearly 2 per cent of “the total world catch and 20 per cent of all fish caught from inland waters of the world.”

China has tried to build dams upstream but has butted against opposition from the other members of the river basin concerned about their consequences.

The two small dams that it has built have already reduced water flow into northern Thailand, especially in the dry season.

In 2004 the river was made accessible to large cargo ships when a series of rocky rapids in Laos were cleared by Chinese engineers. Since then there has been a growing trade along the river flowing mainly from southern China to northern Thailand.

Last year Beijing successfully moved to secure an increase in the quota of oil moved up the Mekong. The initial agreement signed by Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and China, permitted a monthly shipping quota of a mere 1,200 tons of refined oil, but after the landmark oil shipment last month, Beijing had set its sights on transporting close to “70,000 tons of refined oil each year from Thailand alone via the Mekong River,” said Qiao Xinmin, a Chinese maritime-affairs official, quoted in Xinhua.

The shipment of oil on the Mekong has environmental groups up in arms. “The whole deal was done in secrecy with no information released to the public or attempts to get the people's views, especially those living along the Mekong River,” said Premrudee Daoroung, co-director of the Bangkok-based Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA). “This confirms who controls the Mekong.”

To make matters worse, Thailand and China have recently struck a deal that would oil to be moved from Thailand to southern China in ships not built to perform the role of oil tankers.

“If there is an oil spill, it will spread fast downstream and we will not be able to contain it like they do in the ocean,” said Chainarong Srettachau, director of the Thai chapter of the South-east Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN).

For the experts, Beijing is flexing its economic power in the region and won’t be distracted by environmental concerns because it wants an alternative route to the Strait of Malacca.

Its oil route along the Mekong River is one of two plans to avoid the Strait of Malacca. In a deal with Myanmar, China also plans to build an oil pipeline linking Myanmar's deep-water port of Sittwe in the Gulf of Bengal to the Yunnan provincial capital Kunming.

One of the proposed routes heads across Arakan and Shan states, areas inhabited mainly by various ethnic minority groups, before entering southern China.

“There will be a lot of forced relocation . . . because the [pipeline] route goes through heavily populated areas,” said Wong Aung, spokesman for the Shwe Gas Movement, a NGO fighting for the rights of the ethnic-Arakan community in Myanmar. “The Chinese don't care about environmental destruction in their need for oil.” (PB)

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