Posted in

Mekong: riding dragon or hugging panda?

Kavi Chongkittavorn

Like heroes in a kungfu movie who swear to fight and die together because they drink wine from the same cup, will all six countries who share the Mekong River share the same spirit of camaraderie? There will be an ominous sign during the Second Summit of Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) on January 10-11 in Phnom Penh.

At the summit, the leaders of China, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia will attempt to transform Mekong into the river of peace and sustainable development.

It is a tall order. Although the Beijing-led LMC started just 888 days ago, all six riparian countries have already committed to work together. That explains why the LMC process is moving forward so fast, in comparison to 10 other Mekong-related projects proposed by regional and international arrangements over the past several decades.

During the recent LMC meeting of foreign ministers in Dali, Yunnan province, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi aptly described its progress as being driven by a bulldozer. For China, there are a few good reasons for this.

First, China wants to use the LMC as a new model for South-South cooperation, especially to win the hearts and minds of the other riparian states.

As an upper riparian state of the 4350-kilometre river, China wants to show its “win-win” approach to mitigating heavy criticism of the country’s past behaviour related to water management of the Mekong. In recent years, Beijing has become more open with information and data about the Mekong, which it calls the Lancang. During a drought in lower riparian countries, China released water to alleviate the shortage.

At the Dali meeting, China promised to continue working with the other LMC members to manage water resources and the environment.

Second, China, which has vast experience in handling technical matters related to cross-border rivers, has at least 15 international rivers in its territory, but no model exists that Beijing and downstream riparian countries can emulate. So, they have to come up with their own formula, relying on existing frameworks and regulations, especially those of the Mekong River Commission. For the time being, China has put all its efforts and resources into the Mekong, because it is the only area where Beijing can display the leadership of President Xi Jinping without so-called “Western meddling”. The Mekong subregion provides an ideal platform for China to initiate regional rules of law and governance.

At the first LMC summit in Sanya, Hainan, China pledged US$300 million (K407.3 billion) to support small and medium enterprise projects. In the past year, 132 of the 250 projects submitted were approved, comprising of 83 from China and the rest from other riparian countries.

Thailand has five projects dealing with environmental protection and conservation. At this week’s summit in Phnom Penh, LMC leaders will add new cooperative categories depending on project proposals from member countries.

Third, the Mekong subregion has been on the drawing board of ASEAN dialogue partners and international organisations for decades but forceful implementation remains elusive.

China initiated the LMC following numerous murders, drug smuggling and human trafficking involving citizens and ethnic groups in southern China and the Golden Triangle.

The idea was simple—China needs to have some control over security along the southern stretch of the Mekong river as trade and people-to-people contacts increase. Indeed, political and security cooperation is an important component of the LMC, which includes exchanges of senior official visits, greater law enforcement, humanitarian and disaster assistance, and others. The purpose is to “safeguard subregional peace and stability.”

Fourth, the , which will be approved and released on Thursday, stresses the importance of synergising the various Mekong frameworks under ASEAN with the LMC, especially those related to infrastructure and connectivity.

Apart from a verbal commitment, cooperation between the LMC members and ASEAN is still missing. Political pundits have already pointed out the possibility of future discord among ASEAN members between the riparian and non-riparian countries akin to the split over the South China Sea between claimants and non-claimants.

Fifth, China wants to maximise the support of LMC members. Thailand has been one of the biggest supporters and is considered a game changer in the Mekong subregion as it has a strong civil society and people-centered organisations. It is an open secret that the LMC scheme was first conceived by Thailand in 2012 but China, with its abundant resources, picked it up and made it work.

Thailand’s stake in the Mekong is high because it envisions itself as a hub of connectivity and wants to implement the link between the LMC and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As the country pursues the “Thailand 4.0” economic plan, it wants to push the Mekong as the next base for high-quality production to link with the global value chain.

The Phnom Penh Declaration will serve as a barometer of Xi’s new foreign policy approach to China’s neighbours in Southeast Asia that share the same natural resources. The merits and pitfalls resulting from the LMC process will be closely scrutinised because they will provide a better understanding of China’s broader views associated with the BRI.