Asean needs to act on Mekong River
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Asean needs to act on Mekong River

Two events happened last month that went largely unnoticed by most of the mainstream media in Southeast Asia. One was the third Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Leaders' Meeting between China and the five Mekong members of Asean -- Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The other was the inaugural Mekong-US Partnership Ministerial Meeting between America and the same Asean countries.

At the LMC Leaders' Meeting, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged to share water management data from its portion of the Mekong River -- also known as the Lancang River -- for the whole year with the rest of the Mekong countries. This is a welcome change for the downstream Asean countries, particularly after a historic drought crisis in 2019 where the water levels in the Mekong River fell to their lowest in more than 100 years. While this is partly driven by the impacts of climate change, experts believed that China's 11 hydro dams in the upper stream of the Mekong River had something to do with it and other drought disasters in the last two years.

In the past China has only shared its water data during the wet season from June to October. Beijing's shift in its position reflects greater sensitivity to the needs of its Mekong counterparts with Premier Li saying that China will respect the "legitimate rights and interests of Lancang-Mekong countries to rationally develop and utilise water resources". It also follows in the heels of heavy criticisms by US officials and a damning report on China's manipulation of the Mekong River by US-based research company Eyes on Earth.

Meanwhile, at the Mekong-US Partnership Ministerial Meeting, US State Secretary Mike Pompeo launched the Mekong-US Partnership and pledged to provide at least US$153 million (about 4.8 billion baht) for joint projects. The partnership expands on cooperation begun in 2009 under the Lower Mekong Initiative which is aimed at strengthening the autonomy, economic independence, and sustainable development of the Mekong partner countries. US renewed commitment and fresh funding to the Mekong subregion has been welcomed by the Asean Mekong countries but whether that translates into viable alternatives for them as they recalibrate their positions vis-á-vis China remains to be seen.

The Mekong subregion is quickly turning into a new battleground for US-China rivalry. This year saw a string of barbs exchanged between the US and China. A senior US diplomat, David Stilwell, said in an online webinar that China was "manipulating" the Mekong River "for its own profit [and] at great cost to downstream nations". China has outrightly rejected claims that it is holding back water from the millions of people living downstream who depend on the ebb and flow of the Mekong for their livelihoods.

Yet compared to Asean's troubles in the South China Sea, the Mekong issues have not attained a "regional" status that allows for them to be discussed among all Asean member states. As the Asean chair for 2020, Vietnam has tried to put the Mekong issues on the regional agenda but the Covid-19 pandemic crisis has shifted the region's attention to focus on public health and economic recovery, thereby narrowing Vietnam's window of opportunity to do so this year. As Vietnam prepares to hand over the chairmanship to Brunei for 2021, there is a risk that the Mekong issues will continue to remain under the radar of Asean, as they have so far, with potentially disastrous consequences for the region as a whole.

The troubles over the Mekong River have been largely viewed through an environmental and socio-economic lens affecting only the mainland countries of Asean. Its linkages with the region's broader security and geopolitical considerations have been given less attention.

The Mekong River basin is home to the largest inland fishery in the world and more than 60 million people depend on it for their livelihoods. In the last two decades, there has been a rush of hydro dam construction on the river, with the hope of generating renewable energy for the region. China has built 11 dams on the Lancang River with another 11 mainstream dams in the lower Mekong and 120 dams in the tributaries in the pipeline. The impact on fisheries and rice crops in the downstream countries have been devastating and are well-documented. Following the 2019 drought crisis, experts have also sounded the alarm on the eventual collapse of the ecosystem in the Mekong basin.

Sadly, the costs of the damming of the Mekong have been largely borne by the local communities. The loss of livelihoods and increased food insecurity have driven many to migrate as a result. Forced displacement brings with it other human security problems such as human trafficking, drug trafficking and other forms of organised crime, which undermines regional stability and economic development. A recent assessment by the Asean-ISIS Network of think tanks highlights the risk of looming dual crises as the interconnectedness of security threats increases e.g. pandemic-hunger, pandemic-natural disasters, pandemic-humanitarian crises, etc. The current situation in the Mekong basin may well be the background for the unfolding of these crises.

There are geopolitical considerations too. A report by Fitch Solutions says that heavy losses in fishing and farming – long regarded as primary subsistence for many local communities -- as a result of dam building will force Asean countries to rely on increased food imports from China. At the same time, China's plans to create a water superhighway for commercial cargo through the Mekong "rapids blasting" project has been controversial. While the project has been implemented in stretches of the Mekong in China, Myanmar and along the Lao border, it has met with strong resistance from Thai Mekong communities and environmental groups in the last two decades, culminating in the termination of the project by the Thai cabinet early this year.

It remains to be seen how long Thailand can put a pause button on China's long-term plan to deepen the Mekong River for trade. There are significant corporate and geopolitical interests in transforming the Mekong River into an industrial water corridor between China and the Mekong countries of Asean. On top of that, China's massive trade with and investments into the Mekong region and its pledge of US$300 million to the LMC Special Fund makes it hard for Asean countries to turn away from China.

The strategic importance of the Mekong River to Southeast Asia calls for an urgent and new approach from Asean. Beyond Vietnam, future chairs of Asean should support the inclusion of the Mekong issues into the grouping's regional agenda. In addition, the idea of reviving the Asean troika mechanism should be considered as way to address pressing issues such as the Mekong issues in a timely and focused manner. The current Asean country coordinator of Asean-China Dialogue Relations, ie the Philippines, should proactively include the Mekong issues into future discussions with China. It is also in the interests of Asean to promote greater coordination and collaboration between the LMC and other intergovernmental mechanisms such the Mekong River Commission.

More fundamentally, Asean needs to focus on narrowing the development gaps between the more developed economies of Asean and countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. This is to avoid any country being trapped in Beijing's orbit with repercussions on Asean's ability to act cohesively on key regional issues.

In the words of Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan, Asean needs to "discard a narrow transactional approach towards Mekong issues and think about Southeast Asia holistically as one strategic theatre". The importance of the Mekong to Southeast Asia demands a timely and decisive response from Asean. In the absence of this, Asean's centrality will be further impaired and the region's stability and growth in the long-term will be challenged.

Chen Chen Lee is a Senior Fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), a founding member of the Asean Institutes of Strategic and International Studies (Asean-ISIS), a regional alliance of think tanks.

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