Last week, China conducted another iteration of its joint patrols with three riparian countries in the Mekong River. The development spotlighted one aspect of Beijing’s continued effort to advance collaboration in the Mekong subregion and Southeast Asia more generally.
As I have noted before, as China has been looking for ways to boost its influence in Southeast Asia over the past few years, among of the areas of focus has been on the Mekong within mainland Southeast Asia, one of the world’s longest and resource-rich rivers. And one of the manifestations of this has been the so-called Mekong joint patrols, where, following deadly attacks on Chinese cargo ships in October 2011, Beijing has been looking to improve law enforcement and security cooperation with Mekong countries.
The patrols have continued to be regularly held since, with stated objectives being to boost the security for shipping along the river, increase familiarity with the geography of the area and the risks therein, and to begin improving cooperation between the countries involved in areas like intelligence sharing and coordination. And though the actual progress of the patrols has been rather patchy, Beijing has continued to highlight this as part of its ongoing security cooperation with key mainland Southeast Asian states in recent years.
Last week, we saw another iteration of the patrols take place. The 91st Mekong River joint patrol took place from March 24 to March 28 featuring China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand in unspecified areas of surrounding waters in the Mekong subregion.
According to Chinese state media outlet Xinhua, the patrols took place featuring a total of 111 law enforcement officers from the four countries participating in the mission in five vessels and covered 605 kilometers in four days, according to the Yunnan public security department. Per those numbers, during the patrols, joint visits, inspections and an anti-drug publicity campaign were launched in key waters, with a Myanmar merchant ship rescued and 19 vehicles, 35 people and 21.7 tons of cargo inspected during the mission.
While much of the activity in the patrols reflected continuity with usual ones, there were some notable features this time around as well. For instance, law enforcement authorities of the four countries made changes in order to adjust to the global coronavirus pandemic, including jointly directing the operations by remote video command system ahead of the engagements to share information – a first for the patrols. In addition, interestingly, one of the three Chinese law enforcement vessels involved in the patrols remained after the patrols and “continued to conduct a one-week combat drill in Laos,” reflecting China’s continuing use of a mix of minilateral and bilateral engagements in its security interactions with Southeast Asian states.
To be sure, this was just another iteration of the Mekong joint patrols China has been conducting with select Southeast Asian states for nearly a decade now. Nonetheless, the evolution of these patrols will continue to be critical to watch in the coming years, along with their implications for China, the Mekong, and Southeast Asia more generally.