When the next round of Asian summitry kicks off later this month in Bangkok, one of the key areas that will be in the spotlight within U.S. policy will be the Washington’s approach to the Mekong subregion – a shorthand for the area in mainland Southeast Asia through which the Mekong River, one of the world’s longest and largest rivers, runs. While U.S. interest in the Mekong has been longstanding, the subregion’s role will be important to watch within the context of broader developments in U.S. policy, including heightened U.S.-China competition and the Trump administration’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.
The Mekong’s significance has long been recognized in U.S. policy. The Mekong River, which runs through China (where it’s known as the Lancang) and into mainland Southeast Asian countries Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, is a critical resource that provides more than 60 million people in the region with food, water, and transportation. And at various points of history, the Mekong has served as a point of either connectivity or conflict between mainland Southeast Asian countries and among major powers engaged there, including the United States during the height of the Vietnam War. The Mekong’s importance in U.S. Asia policy has only been increasing in recent years, with Mekong countries strengthening their economies but grappling with governance challenges and growing Chinese assertiveness. Meanwhile, the Mekong River itself is in peril due to a range of development, demographic, and climate change-related pressures, including the proliferation of hydropower dams.
The Mekong remains central to U.S. Asia strategy today. Indeed, within the free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy as articulated by the Trump administration, the Mekong subregion is where the principles of freedom and openness are arguably under the greatest challenge. The subregion also best typifies the interconnection between the three FOIP pillars of security, economics, and governance which U.S. officials have outlined because of the diverse, cross-border challenges that exist. The future of the Mekong region touches on other broader U.S. goals as well, including advancing alliances and partnerships, promoting greater ASEAN unity, strengthening U.S. economic engagement, and managing China’s rise.
U.S. policy has already gone some way in recognizing this and beginning to articulate a more robust response. Indeed, 2019 marks the decade anniversary of the Obama administration’s signature Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), an effort to foster subregional cooperation and capacity-building in mainland Southeast Asia. While the focus on the LMI has gotten relatively less headlines under the Trump administration thus far and it is far from realizing its full potential, the initiative has nonetheless continued on, along with other related efforts within its FOIP strategy, including new infrastructure efforts and leveraging the ongoing work done by key U.S. allies and partners such as Japan and Singapore.
But challenges remain. Some of these have to do with how region itself has changed over the past decade since LMI first got off the ground, whether it be right issues that limit U.S. engagement prospects, or China’s inroads through its own Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) mechanism as well as the broader Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which appear appealing to Southeast Asian states but come with hidden strings attached. Other challenges have to do with U.S. policy itself, be it the difficulty in cobbling together resources to address a wide range of issues – including the environment, energy, health, water, agriculture, governance, climate change, connectivity, and women’s empowerment – with attendant messaging to clarify Washington’s own approach to the region independent of that from Beijing and other players.
To be sure, these challenges are not insurmountable. Southeast Asian states are themselves wary of China’s rising influence in the Mekong subregion to varying degrees, and they remain open to alternatives. And if the United States uses all the arrows in its quiver, including fully leveraging the power of nongovernmental institutions such as universities and companies, the United States would bring to bear virtually unparalleled capabilities in both helping these countries as well as advancing Washington’s own interests in mainland Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific more broadly.