On September 11, the United States and the five lower Mekong nations launched a new framework for multilateral cooperation amid rising concerns about China’s expanding influence in mainland Southeast Asia.
In announcing the new Mekong-U.S. Partnership at a meeting in Hanoi, the U.S. State Department pledged at least $153 million to Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos for a variety of collaborative projects. These include grants for hydrological data-sharing, disaster management, and efforts to fight the region’s endemic levels of crossborder crime.
Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said at the meeting that the initiative, which has built on and absorbed the preexisting U.S.-led Lower Mekong Initiative established in 2009, would “contribute to the sustainable development of the Mekong sub-region and help Mekong countries narrow the development gap, seize new opportunities and overcome challenges.”
Beginning high up in the Tibetan Plateau inside China, the 4,350-kilometer Mekong River winds its way through all five mainland Southeast Asian nations before spilling into the South China Sea. Some 60 million people in the region rely on the river and its resources.
According to its website, the Mekong-U.S. partnership aims to “improve transparency, good governance, connectivity, and sustainable development” in the region. It also intends to “strengthen regional connectivity” and “to identify and implement solutions for key regional challenges.”
As evidenced by recent comments by U.S. officials, all of these goals can be read as code for countering Chinese influence in a region that is fast emerging as a new front of superpower competition. The announcement comes amid particular concern about Beijing’s cascade of dams on the upper Mekong, known in China as the Lancang, which has been blamed for contributing to a record period of drought in the downstream countries.
In April, a report released by the U.S.-based research and consulting company Eyes on Earth, concluded that the dam cascade had prevented excess rainfall from flowing downstream, thus exacerbating drought conditions. While China has rejected the findings of the report (some aspects of which have also been questioned by independent researchers, as well as the Mekong River Commission), U.S. officials have used it to lash out at China for “hoarding” water on the upper reaches of the Mekong. Last month, Beijing agreed to share year-round hydrological data with downstream nations.
In a statement dated September 11, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the U.S. aims in mainland Southeast Asia more explicit: “We stand for transparency and respect in the Mekong region, where the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has abetted arms and narcotics trafficking and unilaterally manipulated upstream dams, exacerbating an historic drought,” he said in the statement.
The Mekong-U.S. Partnership represents a welcome and belated engagement with an important region, where China launched the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) mechanism in 2014 to guide its own engagements with the region.
The new American funding will be welcomed by the downstream Mekong nations as a way of increasing their ability to stand up to China. At the same time, it represents just a tiny drop compared to the resources that China has made available under the LMC. The Chinese framework extends far beyond river management to encompass infrastructure development, investment and trade. This reflects a familiar mismatch between means and ends in U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia. While Pompeo has called for the region’s nations to turn their backs on Chinese state firms, he has not offered Southeast Asian governments a viable alternative.
This, in turn, mirrors the differential importance with which the two powers view the Mekong region. Since the early years of the Cold War, mainland Southeast Asia has been vital to China’s security, something that has only become more marked as the two regions have become closely integrated by the construction of new transport networks and border trade zones. For the U.S., on the other hand, it is just one of many far-flung regions in which it is seeking to counter China’s rising power. The simple but permanent fact of proximity is something the new U.S. partnership can hope to moderate – but never to alleviate fully.