Mekong countries eye bold new future
When lead characters in a Chinese kung fu movie drink wine from the same cup, they are considered sworn brothers. They will fight and die together. Will all six riparian countries of the Lancang, or Mekong (Lan-Mei), share the same spirit of camaraderie as they all live on this magnificent river? There may be ominous signs during the Second Summit of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) on Jan 10-11 in Phnom Penh.
At the two-day event, the leaders of China, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia will attempt to transform the Mekong into the river of peace and sustainable development. Although the Beijing-led LMC venture started just 888 days ago, all six countries have committed to work together and move forward both in “speed” and “efficiency”.
That explains why the LMC process is moving forward so fast, in comparison with 10 other Mekong-related projects proposed by regional and international arrangement at various times and halfheartedly implemented over the past few decades. Some of these projects were described by a senior Chinese official as museum pieces — referring to their slow implementation.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.
During the recent LMC foreign ministers meeting in Dali, Yunnan, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi aptly described the LMC process as preparing the ground for the “bulldozer”, or tui tu ji, to denote the mechanism that will promote smooth and uninterrupted cooperation among the LMC members. Among Asean diplomats, the word has already generated some negative feeling regarding China’s assertiveness in the Lan Mei cooperation. At the Dali meeting, the Chinese official insisted on using the term in the joint press statement.
For China, there are a few good reasons to do so now. First of all, China wants to use the LMC as a flagship for South-South cooperation, especially to win the hearts and minds of riparian Asean states. As an upper country along the 4,350-kilometre river, China wants to offer a “win-win” approach to mitigate heavy criticism levied on its record of water management in the Mekong. In recent years Beijing has become more open with information and data about the river. During the drought in the lower countries recently, China released water to alleviate the shortage. At the Dali meeting, China promised to continue working with the LMC members to manage water resources and protect their environment.
Second, China has 15 international rivers flowing through its territory. With such vast experience, Beijing wants to use its technical know-how related to cross-border rivers to come up with a good model for the LMC countries. In the past two years, there has been much progress. A five-year action plan will be approved at the Phnom Penh summit.
At this juncture, the Lan-Mei cooperation is considered the cornerstone of President Xi Jinping’s new era of diplomacy without so-called “Western meddling”. The Mekong region provides an ideal platform for China to initiate regional rules of law and governance.
At the first LMC summit meeting in Sanya, Hainan Island, China pledged US$300 million to support small and medium-sized enterprise projects. Of course, this amount is a pittance in comparison with the mammoth Belt and Road Initiative.
In the past year, a total of 132 of 250 “early harvest” projects submitted were approved and implemented both in part or in full with 83 projects coming from China and the rest from the other member countries.
Thailand has five projects dealing with capacity-building, logistics and environmental protection. More proposals will be considered at the upcoming summit in Phnom Penh. Recently, Bangkok submitted 19 additional projects for future funding to promote trade and logistics.
Third, plans for the Mekong sub-region have been on the drawing board of Asean dialogue and international organisations for decades but implementation remains sluggish. China took up a Thai idea with some modifications following numerous incidents of murder, drugs and human trafficking involving citizens and ethnic groups from China and the Golden Triangle region. The idea was simple — China needed to assume more control over security along the southward stretch of the Mekong river as trade and person-to-person contact became more frequent.
Indeed, political and security cooperation is an important component of the LMC five-year action plan (2018-2022), which encompasses exchanges of official visits; deepened law enforcement; and humanitarian and disaster assistance. The purpose is to “safeguard sub-region peace and stability”. Senior officials from Asean members managed to tone down China’s extensive offers of security cooperation.
Fourth, the upcoming Phnom Penh Declaration, which will be approved and released on Thursday, stresses the importance of synergising the various Mekong frameworks under the Asean-led mechanism with the LMC, especially those related to infrastructure and connectivity. Apart from a verbal commitment, tangible cooperation between the LMC members and the rest of Asean is still a work in progress.
Political pundits have quickly pointed out possible discord among the riparian and non-riparian countries akin to the South China Sea quagmire with splits between the claimant and non-claimant members. Unlike the South China Sea, the Mekong-related issues have not yet become an Asean agenda.
Fifth, China wants to maximise the support of LMC members, which comprise half of Asean countries. Thailand has been one of the biggest supporters and is considered a game changer in the Mekong sub-region. Bangkok has urged Beijing to include these new Asean members into its overall development schemes. The Asean riparian states support a model of cooperation based on equality, mutual assistance and consensus. Thailand-based environmental civil society organisations will play an important role in providing input on the preservation and protection of the Mekong.
Thailand’s stake in the Mekong is high as it envisions itself as a hub of connectivity in mainland Southeast Asia. Busadee Santipitaks, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, said that Thailand wishes to implement linkage between the LMC and Belt and Road Initiative as well as other economic corridors. As the country moves forward to pursue a 4.0 industrial path, Thailand is pushing the Mekong sub-region as the next base for high-quality production to link with the global value chain.
The forthcoming five-year action plans and the Phnom Penh Declaration will serve as a barometer of President Xi’s commitment to China’s smaller neighbours in Southeast Asia who share many of the same natural resources. The merits and pitfalls of the Lan Mei cooperation will be closely monitored. Failure is not an option. It is bound to provide a better understanding of China’s broader strategic view of the world.