Chinese police forces have commenced patrols on the Lancang-Mekong Waterway (Source: Xinhua)

Chinese police forces have commenced patrols on the Lancang-Mekong Waterway (Source: Xinhua)

China is breaking from tradition by seeking to co-police the Mekong with its Southeast Asian partners. It is an ambitious endeavour with many challenges ahead.

This comes as a response to a river hijacking in October last year thatkilled 12 Chinese sailors. The perpetrators were reportedly Thai military personnel engaged in criminal activities. Aside from piracy, criminals are also known to use the waterways for drugs and arms smuggling. Given that the Lancang-Mekong Waterway is an important transport conduit, with 1.5 million tons of goods and 400,000 passengers passing through in 2009 alone, Beijing has strong reasons to improve river security.

Police and paramilitary forces from China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, the four countries adjoined to the Lancang-Mekong Waterway, commenced joint patrols from mid-December last year. Operations are being coordinated from a headquarters in China. Beijing has also offered equipment and training to enhance the riverine surveillance capabilities of Laos and Myanmar.

What is interesting about this endeavour is China’s attempt to show responsibility and leadership. On the one hand, a display of armed police and riverine patrol boats bristled with machine guns is an attempt to restore public confidence in Beijing’s responsiveness to the death of its nationals.

On the other hand, this is the first time China has spearheaded a multilateral border security operation. This initiative comes at a time when Beijing is under close scrutiny for its exploitation of water resources upstream as its dam projects could trigger dramatic environmental and ecological changes downstream to the detriment of the peoples of Southeast Asia. By electing to coordinate and pledging resources towards the four-nation patrols, Beijing would be in a better position to deflect criticism that it is an irresponsible power.

Several factors may reduce the effectiveness of the co-policing endeavour in the short term. China has had no previous experience in prolonged multilateral police operations except for its occasional participation in border management exercises with its Shanghai Cooperation Organisation partners. Other outstanding issues are likely to include miscommunication and questions in relation to what country’s jurisdiction applies. Not to mention the inefficiency and questionable reliability of the law enforcement agencies involved, some alleged to have connections to criminal gangs.

But the greatest challenge is countering the crude effectiveness of the criminals operating on the Mekong. In the latest incident on 6 January, four Chinese cargo vessels and one Burmese patrol craft were struck by a hit-and-run attack. The assailants were well armed, employing grenade launchers, and able to evade reprisal or capture under the cover of darkness. As the operation progresses, security forces will have to develop the necessary tactics and experience through trial and error.

In spite of the formidable obstacles, China’s acceptance of the need to work with other governments in dealing with transnational and non-traditional security issues is better late than never. It is worthy to note that the Greater Mekong Subregion Strategic Framework, endorsed by six countries in December last year, could serve as a catalyst for greater multilateral coordination in security operations on the Mekong. Joint riverine patrols may also give China’s law enforcement agencies a similar kind of experience that the People’s Liberation Army Navy has gained through cooperation with other navies off the coast of Somalia. This could set a precedent applicable to a number of future bilateral or multilateral initiatives, from providing a model for border management activities with Beijing’s neighbours to normalising joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea.

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Wilson's publication, "Examining China's Participation in Bilateral and Multilateral Military Exercises", Security Challenges Journal 7, no. 3 (2011), won first prize in the Australia Defence Business Review's 2011 Young Strategic Writers' Competition (article is available for download at Wilson completed a conjoint degree in LLB (Hons) and BA (Hons) at the University of Auckland. He was a summer research scholar at the Australian National University's Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies and interned with the Lowy Institute of International Policy. His area of expertise includes the South China Sea, China-India relations, and China's military modernisation.
Wilson Chau has 13 post(s) on New Pacific Institute