On July 4, the leaders of Japan and the five countries in the Mekong subregion – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam – convened for the Seventh Mekong-Japan Summit in Tokyo.
True to form, much of the media focus was on the dollar amount that Japan pledged to the so-called ‘Mekong Five’. In fact, the real significance of the meeting was the adoption of a new, comprehensive strategy for Mekong-Japan cooperation for the next three years and the growing importance of regional and global issues in the relationship.
The headline plastered across most newspapers was that Japan had pledged 750 billion yen ($6.1 billion) in aid to the Mekong over the next three years as part of a bid for influence amid the rise of China’s Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). As I have stressed in the past, framing foreign policy initiatives in such crude terms does them a great disservice (See: “Is This Japan’s New Challenge to China’s Infrastructure Bank?”). Japan has been pledging official development assistance (ODA) to Mekong states long before China even thought of setting up a new infrastructure bank. It has also been further boosting its relationships with Southeast Asian states over the past few years (See: “Japan’s ASEAN Charm Offensive”).
Furthermore, even if Tokyo’s current Mekong pledge is a 25 percent increase from what it offered over the last three years, Japanese officials – including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself – have gone out of their way recently to stress that their infrastructure efforts in Asia are based on quality rather than just quantity. Indeed, this is arguably the real value proposition of Japan’s new strategy for the Mekong.
The joint statement on the “New Tokyo Strategy 2015 for Mekong-Japan Cooperation,” seen by The Diplomat, begins early on with both sides directly committing to the idea of “quality infrastructure” articulated by Abe in May. Further specifics on what exactly “quality” means are detailed in four main pillars: industrial infrastructure development; soft infrastructure; sustainable development; and the coordination of frameworks. While the strategy is the product of consultation by both sides, a few aspects nonetheless appear to distinguish Japan’s “quality” approach relative to others in the region. First, Tokyo is prioritizing both hard and soft infrastructure. That is, Japan’s focus will not just be on building railways or roads, but advancing industrial structures and human resource development in these five countries.
Second, sustainable development is clearly a focus. It not only gets its own pillar, with priorities placed on disaster risk reduction, climate change, conservation and water resource management. It also runs across other pillars as well like hard infrastructure, with a commitment to addressing environmental and social impacts and ensuring life-cycle cost, safety and resilience to natural disasters. This is an important priority, particularly in light of such concerns with respect to hydropower development in the Mekong sub-region.
Third and finally, integration and coordination are at the heart of Japan’s new Mekong strategy. An entire pillar is devoted to coordination with various stakeholders, including countries, international organizations, NGOs, and the private sector. This priority is essential not only to synergize the efforts of a dizzying array of actors in the Mekong sub-region and to acknowledge the importance of the private funding. It is also an important signal by both parties that they ought to strive for greater complementarity between various economic initiatives in the Asia-Pacific given the region’s massive infrastructure needs, rather than adopting a more zero-sum approach. U.S.-Japan coordination is mentioned as a concrete example of complementarity, with overlapping areas in disaster prevention and women’s empowerment. But the statement also specifically notes that the Mekong countries welcome communication by Japan and China on the sub-region, including through the 5th Japan-China Policy Dialogue on the Mekong Region held in Beijing in December 2014 for the first time in three years. As the global reaction to AIIB has shown and as I emphasized earlier, there is very little appetite in the region for major power rivalry getting in the way of meeting basic economic needs (See: “The Truth About China’s ‘Big Bad’ Infrastructure Bank”).
Aside from a further articulation of Japan’s ‘quality approach,’ the recent meeting also saw much greater attention devoted to regional and global issues. Some of this was Mekong countries reiterating their support for Japan’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council and the need for peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula. But there was also mention of the South China Sea, including a specific call for an “early conclusion” of a code of conduct. Both sides also went further, noting “concerns expressed over the recent development in the South China Sea, which will further complicate the situation and erode trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability.” Though China was not mentioned by name, the statement is still quite significant considering the Southeast Asian states present, especially Cambodia (See: “Does ASEAN Have a South China Sea Position?”). More generally, the fact that the South China Sea issue is even being discussed in forums that do not usually deal with such flashpoints is testament to how serious the situation has become.
So, while Japan’s increased ODA to Mekong states in the coming years is by no means an insignificant development, honing in on that aspect alone misses how this fits in with Tokyo’s new infrastructure approach for the region as well as how Japan-Mekong cooperation may be broadening beyond just individual projects or dollar amounts. That vastly understates the true importance of Japan’s new strategy for the sub-region.