By Chheang Vannarith
Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 7, 2016
The Mekong countries of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam are emerging to be not only the new growth center but also a new strategic frontier in Asia.
With a population of around 240 million and a combined GDP of $664 billion, the Mekong region has geopolitical significance and economic weight. It is located at the junction of the enormous emerging markets of Asia and their combined population of about 3.3 billion.
Myanmar’s landmark election and the likelihood of a peaceful and smooth power transition have drawn more international attention and interest to the Mekong region as a whole. Myanmar is expected to be a key regional actor and now possibly a catalyst of regional peace, democracy, and development.
Major powers have been actively engaging with the Mekong countries through various ways and means. For China, the region is perceived as its most important strategic backyard and as a traditional sphere of influence. China has strong political, economic and cultural interests in its Mekong neighbors.
However, China is concerned that its regional interests are being challenged by the US. From the South China Sea to the Mekong River, China perceives the US to be its main strategic competitor. China is also skeptical of the US Lower Mekong Initiative.
In November 2014, at the 17th China-ASEAN Summit in Myanmar, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang proposed setting a mechanism to deepen ties between China and other Mekong countries. A year later, last month, the first foreign ministers meeting took place to announce the establishment of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) group. A China-Mekong Leaders Meeting is set to take place next year.
The LMC is part of China’s efforts to deepen and widen its comprehensive partnership with the Mekong countries. The LMC has five prioritized areas of cooperation, including water resources management, agricultural cooperation, and poverty alleviation.
China is interested in linking its “One Belt, One Road” initiative – essentially a grand plan to revive the ancient Silk Road linking China with Europe – with the LMC. Therefore, infrastructure connectivity will be the core area of regional cooperation.
“Its best advantage is that it can help countries in the Indochina Peninsula develop fast, which will also be good for ASEAN’s development. Actually, the area is included in the “One Belt and One Road” and this mechanism is one part of the combination of “One Belt and One Road” and local development strategies,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as quoted in Chinese media.
India, Japan, the US, and South Korea have their own Mekong initiative. Their main objectives are to promote regional economic development and poverty reduction and protect the environment, particularly water resources management. The US and Japan are also interested in keeping China in check.
India became more active in the Mekong region in 2000 under the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) initiative, which covers tourism, culture, education, transport and communication.
Due to resource constraints, India has not substantially invested in connecting the region through the improvement of either hard or soft infrastructure. The most visible project is the Transnational Highway connecting India with Myanmar and on to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
Japan reached out to the Mekong countries in 2007 through the Japan-Mekong Regional Partnership Program. In 2008, the first meeting of foreign ministers was convened and in 2009, the first Mekong-Japan Summit was held.
At this year’s summit, the leaders from Japan and the Mekong countries adopted the “New Tokyo Strategy 2015” to further cement their strategic and economic ties.
Japan has committed $110 billion to support Mekong countries over the next five years. The strategy focuses on the industrial infrastructure development, industrial human resource development, and the “Green Mekong” program.
The US initiated its Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) in 2009, prioritizing agriculture food security, connectivity, education, energy security, water security, environmental issues, and public health.
The US approach is to strengthen public institutions, empower civil society, promote social justice and human rights and support sustainable and inclusive development.
South Korea started engaging with the Mekong region in 2011. The foreign ministers from South Korea and the Mekong countries adopted the Mekong-Korea Comprehensive Partnership for Mutual Prosperity with an emphasis on connectivity, sustainable development, and people-oriented development.
The Mekong-Korea Plan of Action (2014-2017) prioritizes six areas: infrastructure, information technology, green growth, water resources development, agriculture and rural development, and human resources development.
Clearly, the Mekong region is becoming the new center of regional economic and strategic gravity. Being part of such dynamic region, Cambodia will benefit from the projects initiated and supported by major powers. However, Cambodia needs to be pragmatic and realistic in balancing its external relations with major powers.
Image: Open Development Mekong