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5 Most Important China Stories of 2023 in Southeast Asia’s Climate Landscape

With the overwhelming war in Gaza and the return of rising COVID-19 cases around the world, as we end the year, it’s easy to lose track of other defining events in the past twelve months. 

From China’s river diplomacy in Mekong to the Belt and Road Initiative’s tenth anniversary and the new critical mineral hunt in Indonesia, let us look back to the five most crucial stories to remember of China’s significance in the Southeast Asian climate landscape in 2023.

1. “The Mekong is Dying”: How China’s River Diplomacy Neglects Locals, Exacerbates Climate Change

File image of the aerial view of the Jinghong Hydropower Station on the Lancang River, the Chinese part of the Mekong River, in Jinghong city, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, southwest China’s Yunnan province. Imaginechina Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

By Jitsiree Thongnoi, Bangkok-based independent journalist

Locals living on the bank of the Great River said that China-backed hydropower dams, which were built to meet the rising need for electricity in the region, have at times restricted water, intensifying drought and in turn, contributed to lower food production for the Mekong countries. 

China’s control of water upstream has also led to the unpredictable rise and fall of the Mekong River’s water level downstream, which disrupts the ecosystem in the most devastating ways, threatening birds and fish life cycles.

2. ASEAN Knocks On The West’s Doors While Keeping China Close Amid Territorial Flare-Ups

China’s Premier Li Qiang (2nd L) speaks during the 26th ASEAN-China Summit at the 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta on September 6, 2023. Yasuyoshi CHIBA / POOL / AFP

By Antonia Timmerman, CGSP Southeast Asia Editor

Having China already controlling Indonesia’s nickel processing and accelerating energy investments in Vietnam, members of ASEAN tried to balance its close relations with China with Western powers in September’s summit.

Based on a projection, ASEAN’s GDP will decline in 25 years if there is no climate action, making ASEAN the most vulnerable market in the Asian region, the statement continued. Achieving ASEAN’s emission reduction target requires a cumulative investment of over $1.5 trillion by 2030.

3. South China Sea’s Fish Stocks Are Running Low. China’s Fishing Ban Isn’t Helping

File image of workers on the dock handling fish from the South China Sea in Borneo, Malaysia. Peter Lopeman / Alamy Photo

By Hope Ngo, Taipei-based independent journalist

The collisions between Chinese and Philippines maritime forces in the contested South China Sea took up much of the headlines, but it was not the only crisis in the territory. Fish stocks in the once vibrant South China Sea were in danger of collapsing unless all countries worked together to protect it. China’s fishing ban, meant to revitalize its fishing industry, muddied security concerns and territorial disputes in the region.

4. Belt and Road Initiative at 10: Milestones and Concerns Across Southeast Asia

Passengers on Indonesia’s new Chinese-financed and built high-speed railway that connects Jakarta with Bandung pose for a selfie before boarding. Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP

By Randy Mulyanto, Jakarta-based independent journalist 

Southeast Asians reflected on the ups and downs of China’s BRI in their region, ten years into the initiative. Many see BRI as crucial in helping to build infrastructure in Southeast Asia, filling in capital gaps, and contributing to sustainable development projects in the region. But, there were also concerns, such as environmental neglect, workers’ safety, and issues with corporate social responsibility of Chinese state-owned companies.

5. Nickel Déjà vu: Land Grabbing Smears China-backed Quartz Downstreaming Project

By Leo Galuh and Mas Agung Wilis Yudha Baskoro

This multi-media in-depth feature looks at how China is setting its eyes on the next critical mineral resource to feed its giant green industries: quartz and silica sand, raw materials for solar panels. 

There is a plan to build one of the world’s largest quartz sand factories in the Indonesian island of Rempang. But this project could sacrifice thousands of residents, who will be forced to be evicted from their villages to make way for the factory.

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