China’s 'Two Mountains' framework: Varied responses from Southeast Asia

China has long been propagating its “Two Mountains” concept and has expanded it into the Green Silk Road concept as a sustainable climate governance framework. But many Southeast Asian countries have tailored the concept according to their own needs.
An aerial view shows snow-covered terraced fields and houses in Congjiang county, in China's southwestern Guizhou province on 22 January 2024. (AFP)
An aerial view shows snow-covered terraced fields and houses in Congjiang county, in China's southwestern Guizhou province on 22 January 2024. (AFP)

As the world confronts global climate change, China has advanced the “Two Mountains” concept and expanded it into the Green Silk Road concept as a sustainable climate governance framework. President Xi Jinping has proposed this as a bridge to the global south, including Southeast Asia. Instead of adopting China’s climate frameworks wholesale, however, countries in the region have adapted it piecemeal, in line with their own needs. 

Green Silk Road concept

The Two Mountains concept argues that “aqua-clear water and green mountains” are a country’s valuable assets. The concept deems that overall economic development would be achieved through cleaning up rivers, stopping deforestation, harnessing the use of clean energy, encouraging cash crops, supporting heritage craft industries and promoting rural lifestyle tourism, supported by the use of technology. The goal is to provide an environmental sustainability governance framework, especially for Chinese rural village revitalisation, given that China’s rural landscape comprises 56% of the country’s arable land and grassland.

Since then, the Two Mountains concept has been promoted as the Green Silk Road environmental framework globally and pitched to the global south. At the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in 2017, Xi advocated a “low-carbon, recyclable and sustainable lifestyle … in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030”.

... the rural sector is deeply ingrained in many Southeast Asian countries and local governments do not have the resources to implement changes according to the Chinese climate concepts.

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A view of the Nam Ou Cascade Hydropower Station. (Internet)

At the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2021, he suggested dialogue and cooperation among Asian and European countries for green infrastructure, green energy and green finance along Belt and Road Initiative corridors. There has been some support for China’s concepts. At the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in 2023, for example, UN secretary-general António Guterres complimented the sustainable and climate-resilient development of the Green Silk Road concept.

Varied responses

The Two Mountains concept and the Green Silk Road environmental framework have led to varying responses from Southeast Asian countries. Laos has partnered with Chinese corporations in the two-phased development of the Nam Ou Cascade Hydropower Station along the Mekong River. It has introduced an “eco-friendly village model” to Laotian villagers resettled as a result of the hydropower development.

Apart from Laos, other Southeast Asian countries have either adapted China’s climate concepts to their own needs or have criticised the practicability of the concept. This is because the rural sector is deeply ingrained in many Southeast Asian countries and local governments do not have the resources to implement changes according to the Chinese climate concepts.

As such, the Two Mountains concept has found less traction. Instead, many Southeast Asian governments — Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam — have focused on the Green Silk Road and tapped into China’s technological advancement to pursue their environmental goals.

... given Indonesia’s lack of resources at the local government level, it has largely ignored China’s Two Mountains concept.

In 2023, Vietnam signed an agreement with China on research on marine management in the Gulf of Tonkin. In October 2023, Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin proposed his version of environmental sustainability alongside China’s Green Silk Road. Both Vietnam and Thailand focussed on land and maritime sustainability and less on rural village development.

In Malaysia, the focus is on the development of green technology in partnership with China such as the development of batteries for electric vehicles. On the other hand, the Philippines has raised concerns about over 800 hectares of ocean filling by China that have led to the destruction of the coral reef ecosystem and the impact of marine life in the South China Sea.

In October 2023, the Indonesian government expressed its intention to work with China in its transition to renewal energy and infrastructure development, as part of its goal to reach zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2060. But given Indonesia’s lack of resources at the local government level, it has largely ignored China’s Two Mountains concept.

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Malaysia's Minister of Investment, Trade, and Industry Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz (third from right) with the Managing Director of BYD Malaysia Sdn Bhd, Eagle Zhao (right), at the launch event of BYD Seal in Malaysia, on 22 February 2024. (fotoBERNAMA)

Southeast Asian countries are also mindful that China’s Two Mountains concept and Green Silk Road framework only serve as one of the options to address global climate change. These countries are also exploring numerous options and have implemented their own green sustainability frameworks in line with UN climate goals.

In 2022, ASEAN countries adopted the regional guidelines for sustainable agriculture. Vietnam has implemented the Doi Moi framework. Similarly, Laos has implemented its Green and Sustainable Agriculture Framework. Malaysia has its own green technology policy and the Green Practices Guidelines for the Agriculture Sector.

China’s climate change frameworks and its outreach to the global south are laudable. But it bears repeating that there is no one-size-fits all approach.

Criticisms of China's approach

These countries would also have noted broader criticisms about China’s approach to climate change.

One main criticism is the threat towards biodiversity. This happens when ecologically-friendly infrastructure projects crisscross pristine land and forests, thus endangering animals and wildlife.

A second criticism is that physical landscape and resources are required to implement the Two Mountains concept, given that the concept attempts to integrate agrarian production with rural heritage and lifestyle tourism.

A third criticism is that China continues to be the number one polluter in the world, surpassing the US and India.

A fourth concern is that the continued high level of carbon emission within China will have health impacts on its population in the future.

In short, China’s climate change frameworks and its outreach to the global south are laudable. But it bears repeating that there is no one-size-fits all approach.

This article was first published in Fulcrum, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s blogsite.

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