Can the US Forge a Stronger Mekong Partnership?

While Washington is trying expand the US role in the Mekong, realizing that goal will require significant efforts.

Last week, as expected, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rolled out a series of ongoing measures designed to strengthen U.S. involvement in 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 these steps do reinforce the notion that Washington is attempting to expand its role in the Mekong in 2019, realizing that goal will also require significant inroads in recognition of the challenges confronting U.S. policymakers and the realities in the subregion.

As I have noted before in these pages, the importance of the Mekong has long been recognized in U.S. policy, both in terms of the importance of the river to the countries themselves; its role as a point of either connectivity or conflict between mainland Southeast Asian countries and major powers engaged there, including the United States; and, in recent years, China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia. The Mekong is central to the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy today: as I have argued previously, it is where the principles of freedom and openness are arguably under the greatest challenge, and it 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.

Last week, U.S. Mekong policy was in the headlines again with remarks given by Pompeo at the Lower Mekong Initiative Ministerial, which was held amid the recent round of regional summitry in Bangkok. While the headlines were focused on Pompeo’s criticism of China’s actions in the Mekong, the greater policy significance came in the fact that he highlighted a series of initiatives designed to strengthen U.S. involvement in the Mekong tied to the 10th anniversary of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) initially launched under the Obama administration.

Pompeo focused on some newer initiatives in the works, including a U.S.-Japan initiative to develop regional electricity grids; a project with South Korea to use satellite imagery to assess Mekong flood and drought patterns; and assistance in collaboration with Congress to address transnational crime and trafficking. He also previewed upcoming developments where new initiatives would be announced, including an Indo-Pacific conference on strengthening governance of transboundary rivers, a second Indo-Pacific Business Forum in Bangkok in November, and, looking ahead to 2020, Vietnam’s chairmanship of ASEAN given the significance of its role in the subregion.

While these initiatives constitute only part of the ongoing work by the United States and specifics are still lacking, they are not without significance in terms of helping build a stronger role for the United States in the Mekong subregion. Beyond funding amounts, the true value is their focus and nature: they are tied to areas that can have real impacts on people’s livelihoods; they are connected to what U.S. allies and partners are already doing in the Mekong subregion and to what Mekong countries themselves prioritize; and they go some way in tying the Mekong to U.S. Asia strategy more generally, including the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision.

But the quest for a strengthened U.S.-Mekong partnership is also not without its challenges. For one, there are broader developments that have already shown signs of outpacing innovations in U.S. policy, including the “troubling trends” Pompeo referred to in his remarks such as the building of dams and China’s growing influence in the Mekong subregion, which has already been extending way past just the economic domain. For another, there are enduring difficulties in U.S. economic policy that will continue to be evident in building a stronger U.S.-Mekong partnership. To take just one example, while specifying dollar amounts for U.S. government assistance as Pompeo did may be a good way to illustrate that resourcing is following strategy, it also plays into a tendency by observers to compare U.S. government assistance with those of other countries like China and Japan, in spite of the differences in how U.S. economic policy works.

To be sure, these issues are far from insurmountable, and future U.S. efforts on various aspects of Mekong policy, including strategy, messaging, and resourcing, can gradually help address them. Nonetheless, given the extent of challenges for U.S. policy in the Mekong, as well as the realities at play in the region, there remains much work to do in the quest for a strengthened partnership between the United States and the Mekong countries for the rest of 2019 and beyond.