China-US rivalry on Mekong mainland
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China-US rivalry on Mekong mainland

Unlike other key foreign policy areas where President-elect Joe Biden will likely change the course left behind by outgoing President Donald Trump, the Mekong River region in mainland Southeast Asia represents a low-hanging fruit where continuity from Washington carries consensus. As China has dominated the Mekong space by operating a string of upstream dams and controlling downstream river resources, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam as adversely affected riparian countries have looked for ways and means to mitigate and counterbalance Beijing's aggressive freshwater offensive. All the incoming Biden administration has to do is to keep its eye on the Mekong and work with like-minded partners to keep mainland Southeast Asian countries from becoming Beijing's uncontested front yard.

Until recently, the Mekong mainland comprising the CLMTV -- Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam -- was considered a subregion. Three decades ago when China's development trajectory started, the Mekong region was cultivated by Japan through the Asian Development Bank, conceptualised and manifested under the Greater Mekong Subregion. But over the years, China has effectively stolen Japan's thunder as its 11 dams (among several dozens more in the works) started hogging water upstream. To stamp its authority and make its Mekong supremacy a fait accompli, Beijing has marginalised the first-generation Mekong River governance framework by coming up with the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) in 2016, overshadowing the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and Mekong agreement from two decades earlier.

Lest it is overlooked, the Mekong space is akin to the South China Sea. On land, China is trying to unilaterally control and manipulate water supplies to downstream countries through dam construction and operation, resulting in water volatility and periodic droughts in lower Mekong countries, which in turn are forced to rely on China's initiatives and goodwill. In the sea, China has unilaterally built and weaponised a slew of artificial islands. Whether by hogging water inland or building land in the sea, Beijing is playing by its own rules.

For the Mekong mainland, now a full-fledged and fast-growing region in its own right, with the CLMTV now accounting for a 250-million strong market and a combined GDP of nearly US$1 trillion (30.3 trillion baht), confronting and countering China's geographically advantaged dam diplomacy is a tough proposition. Vietnam, as outgoing Asean chair this year, has succeeded in prioritising the Mekong region into an Asean concern. In the past, all Asean member states had to pay attention to the South China Sea but not so for the maritime countries when it was about the Mekong. Now both the South China Sea and the Mekong mainland equal pegging on the Asean agenda, with China as the common denominator.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic this year, the Trump administration has pressed hard and upped its game in the Mekong mainland by upgrading the decade-old Lower Mekong Initiative from the government of former president Barack Obama into the Mekong-US Partnership last September. The continuity and expansion of LMI into the launch of the Mekong-US Partnership is a renewed commitment to mainland Southeast Asia, buffered by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's tough talk on China and his call for Asean to stand up to Beijing. In view of the new occupant at the White House, the CLMTV countries and their maritime Asean neighbours will be watching carefully whether Mr Biden will adopt the foreign policy outlook and orientation of Mr Obama in 2008-16 and whether he will retain some or reject most of the policy legacy under President Trump's one-term government.

Consolidating its Mekong programmes in a pandemic year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang China pledged vaccine-sharing in doses and in expertise to CLMTV at the third (LMC) summit in August. China's vaccine development has evidently been sharpened into geopolitical instruments with public health and geoeconomic benefits. Premised on its discovery, mass production and delivery, China's vaccine offensive follows its "mask diplomacy" earlier this year when Beijing offered face masks and medical equipment to the region after China brought the pandemic under control in March.

Although viewed with reservations, China's ongoing vaccine diplomacy is intended to shore up support for its pre-virus geostrategic position, especially its Belt and Road Initiative, and post-virus patronage and goodwill to support future geostrategic projection in both mainland and maritime regional domains. At the most recent LMC summit, China offered to share hydrological data with downstream Mekong countries, thereby circumventing the MRC's role. The MRC and the CLMTV have had to dance to China's tune in the absence of countervailing alternatives, thereby stamping and cementing China's position and upstream leverage.

The move also rendered the LMC as the only game in town when it comes to the Mekong region. Downstream countries have supported Thailand's revival of the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (Acmecs), a dormant Mekong area cooperation project from 2003. But Thai domestic polarisation and instability has impeded a fuller focus on pitching Acmecs as a competing frame of governance vis-à-vis the LMC.

For the Mekong region, Vietnam will likely be the most US-leaning, while Cambodia and Laos will be more pro-Beijing, with Myanmar and Thailand keeping proximity and distance vis-à-vis China at the same time. As a US treaty ally, Thailand stands out for its pivot to China under a military-backed regime since its military coup in 2014, but this trend could change directions if a genuinely democratic system comes into place as per the demands of the protesting youth movement. Similarly for Cambodia, if the younger generation and oppositional supporters can rise up, Prime Minister Hun Sen's "all-in" approach to China may go on a different path. But for the foreseeable future, the Mekong mainland is likely to gravitate further into China's orbit.

This is why the Mekong downstream riparian countries would welcome other major external partners to counter China's upstream monopoly. The region still has a bad aftertaste from the Obama years where the eloquently announced "pivot", later renamed "rebalance", strategy turned out weak without backed-up muscle. Despite his mercurial and top-down style, President Trump's trade and technology war and posture towards Beijing was followed through with deeds and action, yielding leverage to Asean states. The LMI and Mekong-US Partnership are two successive steps in the right direction for the Mekong region, not a hard act to follow in a win-win for Washington and CLMTV capitals.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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