Multiple Mekong forums risk igniting rivalry

ASEAN+ January 03, 2018 01:00

THE NATION 

LEADERS FROM six riparian states along the Mekong River will be busy this year as meetings on many cooperation schemes in the region are scheduled in a situaton that observers have said is overlapping.

 The youngest forum, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), will call its second summit meeting next Wednesday in Phnom Penh to endorse a five-year action plan (2018-2022) regarding its cooperation projects.

Its participants – six counties in the Mekong basin comprising China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam – have all been involved in many cooperation schemes over the past decades.

In 1992, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) sponsored the six countries to form the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) to jointly develop infrastructure to facilitate economic linkages in the basin. In that context, leaders of the six governments will have their sixth summit on March 6 in Hanoi to look at cooperation plans.

And on April 5, government leaders from the lower Mekong comprising Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam will gather for their third summit in Cambodia’s Siem Reap to consider working plans for river utilisation and water resource management.

Later on, Thailand will host the eighth summit of the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), which bring the leaders of five countries also including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam together to discuss cooperation plans and projects. The exact date for the ACMECS summit has not yet been fixed.

However, so many cooperation frameworks in the Mekong region raise questions among observers about overlaps in terms of membership, cooperation sectors and functions.

While China, which is very active in promoting cooperation schemes in the basin, has said the new LMC initiative will not replace other forums, a Chinese academic has expressed doubts if the summit meetings of so many schemes were necessary since they are overlapping.

The LMC as an umbrella scheme for region identifies three pillars of cooperation: Politics and security; economics and sustainable development; and society, culture and people-to-people exchanges.

The GMS covers all six countries but focuses on infrastructure development as well as sectoral economic cooperation. Many sectors overlap with other schemes.

In addition, the LMC also has five key priorities: Connectivity, productivity capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources, agriculture and poverty reduction.

While the ADB has sponsored the GMS since its beginning in 1992, China became a key player leading the GMS since its first summit in 2002. It was also Beijing that gave birth to the LMC in 2015 and pushed forward the cooperation scheme actively.

However, China gives more importance to the LMC since the scheme covers all dimensions of cooperation in the region including security.

Professor Su Hao, from China Foreign Affairs University, said Beijing could utilise the LMC to help neighbouring countries fix their internal security problems, such as Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis.

If all issues could be discussed in the LMC in the future, some overlapping functions in the GMS such as the leaders’ summit might not be necessary, he said in Beijing recently.

However, a Bangkok-based analyst, who wanted to remain anonymous, said countries in the other five Mekong countries should play more active roles in pushing agendas in cooperation schemes for their own interests, rather than playing along with China’s influence.

Downstream countries in the MRC framework should work harder to influence China and Myanmar to sign the 1995 Mekong Agreement, enabling the MRC to effectively regulate water utilisation and environmental concerns in the Mekong River, said the former diplomat.

China enjoys utilisation of the Mekong for hydropower and navigation projects but prefers the less binding status of dialogue partner in the MRC when comes to commitments to jointly take responsibility of environmental and social impacts.

Under the 1995 pact, the countries in the lower Mekong – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – need to go through a prior consultation process before projects to utilise water resources in the river begin.

China’s eight hydropower dams – and others in the pipeline – are not subject to the same process since Beijing is not a member of the MRC.

The 3rd MRC Summit in Siem Reap, one of the most significant political events, which takes place every four years, has the state theme of “joint efforts and partnerships towards achievement of the sustainable development goals in the Mekong”, according to an MRC statement.

This year, the MRC remained committed to continue building and strengthening new and existing partnerships, including with the LMC, Asean, and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, it said.

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