Can ASEAN Play a Greater Role in the Mekong Subregion?
Image Credit: AP Photo/Heng Sinith

Can ASEAN Play a Greater Role in the Mekong Subregion?


Southeast Asia is often thought of as comprising of two wings, maritime Southeast Asia and mainland Southeast Asia. The five mainland Southeast Asian states of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam make up the Mekong subregion.

The Mekong River, which is Southeast Asia’s longest river, flows through all of these five mainland Southeast Asian states and it provides for the livelihood of tens of millions of people in the subregion. The Mekong provides fish for food, water for irrigation of crops, and a transport route for goods and people.

The source of the river is in China’s Qinghai province. The river is called the Lancang in China and when it crosses into the Mekong subregion, it is called the Mekong. After travelling about 4,900 kilometers from China across the subregion, the Mekong river empties out into the sea from Vietnam.

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At present, there are now 12 cooperation mechanisms related to the Mekong subregion. Some of these cooperation mechanisms are within the Mekong subregional, involving some or all of the Mekong countries, whereas other cooperation mechanisms involve countries that are not located in Southeast Asia. Countries in the latter category include China, Japan, the United States, South Korea, India, and Switzerland. The most recent cooperation mechanism is the China-led Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) set up in 2015, which involves China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. The alphabet soup of cooperation platforms indicates clearly that the Mekong subregion is of significant economic and geostrategic interest to many powers within and outside Asia.

Despite the Mekong subregion’s huge potential, ASEAN has given relatively less attention to the issues concerning this subregion. This is reflected by the slow progress of the ASEAN Mekong Basin Development Cooperation (AMBDC) platform, which was established in 1996. This grouping involves the 10 ASEAN member states and China and it is aimed at enhancing economic and social cooperation in the region.

The AMBDC has not made substantial progress. For instance, its flagship project, the Singapore-Kunming Rail Link, remains largely incomplete despite the idea having emerged more than two decades ago. It is somewhat ironic that ASEAN, as a regional organization for Southeast Asia, is not as interested in the Mekong subregion compared to external, non-Southeast Asian countries. For example, the LMC has arguably achieved more in a few years in terms of tangible progress compared to what ASEAN has managed to achieve over a few decades in the Mekong subregion via the AMBDC.

The slow progress of the AMBDC can be attributed not only to inadequate financial and other resources, but also due to little concrete and sustained interests by maritime Southeast Asian states. Therefore, greater collective effort is needed to move this framework forward.

Why should maritime Southeast Asian states and ASEAN pay more attention to the Mekong subregion? First, Mekong dynamics have the potential to affect the transnational production networks and flows of goods and services across the entire ASEAN region. To achieve greater connectivity within Southeast Asia, a significantly stronger effort and investment must be made by ASEAN into the Mekong subregion. Intra-ASEAN trade can be dramatically increased if the goods from maritime Southeast Asia can reach the inland parts of the Mekong subregion (and beyond) and vice versa thanks to greater land and sea connectivity and infrastructure in that subregion. Better connected transnational supply chains can help cushion the economies of ASEAN member states from the rise of protectionism and the U.S.-China trade war.

Second, ASEAN centrality in the regional architecture needs to be safeguarded amidst contestation by several external players in the Mekong subregion. ASEAN should aim to be “central” in the Mekong subregion too. If ASEAN does not do more to contribute to the development of the Mekong subregion, ASEAN will lose its relevance in this aspect to other countries such as China and Japan and therefore, the seemingly invisible but existing split between mainland and maritime Southeast Asia will be widened. It is in ASEAN’s longer term interests to have a Mekong subregion that sees the benefits and value of ASEAN as a regional organization rather than having the five countries in the subregion develop a view that ASEAN is irrelevant to their core interests.

Moreover, if the Mekong countries that do not have a territorial claim in the South China Sea become increasingly closer to China (due to Chinese financial assistance via the LMC and/or the Belt and Road Initiative), these countries will have less reason to support ASEAN’s position should it run counter to China’s position in the South China Sea or other matters. Such a scenario would represent a further weakening of ASEAN unity and further loss of ASEAN centrality in the regional architecture.

What Can ASEAN Do?

To increase ASEAN’s relevance and value-add to the Mekong subregion, ASEAN should conduct an in-depth study to identify “gaps” in the existing cooperation mechanisms involving the Mekong countries. ASEAN should then work to fill those gaps to make sure that the mainland Southeast Asian countries see the important role that ASEAN can play in the Mekong subregion. In addition, given these different cooperation frameworks in the Mekong subregion, ASEAN should find ways to boost synergies and ameliorate competition among these mechanisms.

It would also be wise to make the best use of existing mechanisms and rejuvenate the AMBDC rather than creating a new cooperation mechanism. China’s involvement in the AMBDC should also be viewed as a boon rather than a bane since it is important to engage and consult with China given that the source of the Mekong river is in China.

Thailand is the ASEAN chair for 2019. At the closing ceremony of the 33rd ASEAN Summit and Related Summits in Singapore in November 2018, Thailand unveiled its theme of “Advancing Partnership for Sustainability” for its chairmanship year. It remains to be seen whether and to what extent this theme will be turned into reality and how ASEAN centrality can be enhanced with respect to the issues of the Mekong subregion.

Shawn Ho is an Associate Research Fellow with the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Kaewkamol Pitakdumrongkit is Deputy Head and Assistant Professor at the Center for Multilateralism Studies (CMS), RSIS, NTU, Singapore.

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