No Mainstream: The Mekong’s Competing Definitions

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No Mainstream: The Mekong’s Competing Definitions

Both within and between nations, Southeast Asia’s largest river gives rise to competing, and in some cases conflicting, notions.

No Mainstream: The Mekong’s Competing Definitions

In this Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, photo, fishing boats are moored in Mekong River, which has turned blue instead of its usual muddy color, in Nakhon Phanom province, northeastern Thailand.

Credit: AP Photo/Chessadaporn Buasai

Last September, during a Thailand-Australia Policy Dialogue organized by the Asia Foundation and the Australian National University in Canberra, I was reminded of the ice-breaking exercise in which people are asked to note the first thing they think of upon hearing a word or phrase – in this case, the “Mekong” – and then explain to others why.

To one diplomat working on water resources, the Mekong clearly meant the river of the same name. To another, working on narrowing the infrastructure gap among the five countries that host the river – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam – the Mekong was an “economic subregion.” And for the third, who referenced competing external initiatives in and around the river and subregion, the Mekong was a dynamic theater of clashing geopolitical interests and influence.

Multiply those differences by two (Thailand and Australia). Do so again to include the four other lower Mekong states, again to account for China (which hosts the river’s headwaters), and once more to include the countries outside the region that engage the “Mekong” through policies, programs, or partnerships of various kinds. The result, at least potentially, is more than diplomats merely talking past each other. They may be talking at cross-purposes as well. For the interests at stake for a government focused on any one of the Mekong’s three meanings – river, subregion, theater – are not only different from its interests per the other two, but are often at odds with them.

Three Meanings

Begin with the river. To most people outside of policy circles, the Mekong is the most biodiverse (and tenth longest) river in the world, hosting at least 1,100 species of fish. These include the iconic freshwater dolphin and the giant catfish and stingray. Yet all three species are endangered, a symptom of far larger changes that are reducing the once “Mighty Mekong” to an ailing biophysical body. Partly due to climate change, floods and droughts are occurring more frequently and unseasonably, including three consecutive years of record-low water levels even during the wet seasons and the ninth driest season on record in 2021.

To some of the people for whom the Mekong is simply a river, it also signifies a way of life – linked to history, culture, and spirituality – and a livelihood. Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake, a phenomenon of the Mekong’s natural flood pulse, accounts for a quarter of the world’s yearly freshwater catch and 70 percent of the country’s annual protein intake. Vietnam hosts the river’s delta, home to 17 million people (nearly 17 percent of its population), all of whom rely on seasonal floods and irrigation to justify the area’s “rice bowl” appellation.

The obvious interests to be protected or advanced by any government engaging the Mekong River concern the environment, ecology, climate change, water resources, and the food and economic security of those living in its basin.

Shift to the Mekong as an “economic subregion,” as policymakers did during the 1990s, when Thailand’s economy became the fastest growing in the world before going into free-fall and the other four Mekong countries wound down long-running conflicts and joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Over the quarter-century since, the subregion’s collective economy has grown considerably but inequality between and within its five countries has also continued unabated. Thailand’s economy is the world’s 25th largest and more than double the size of Vietnam’s. In stark contrast, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar remain three of the world’s 46 least developed countries (LDCs). Internally, four of five rank in the bottom half of Global Finance’s 2022 World Inequality Ranking, released in February.

The subregion’s post-World War II history largely explains these stratifications through the end of the century, when the shift to economic growth occurred. But it fails to do so in the 21st century, given that the shift has almost entirely displaced the erstwhile focus on the Mekong as a river. Trade, investment, tourism, infrastructure, digital connectivity, consumer spending, supply chains – all are key terms of the new regional lingua franca. To be sure, millions have been lifted out of poverty and many millionaires created, but the differences among and within national economies have been reinforced by millions of others who have been forced to move. Migrant workers have crossed borders from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar into their thriving neighbors, whose own labor has steadily moved from farms to factories, from countryside to capital cities.

At the same time, all except Laos are among the fastest-aging societies in the world or approaching a demographic tipping point, making them in dire need of young labor. This is particularly true of Myanmar and Cambodia, whose working-age people have continually departed for the much larger Thai and Vietnamese economies, effectively subsidizing those labor pools at their own countries’ expense. Remittances have only partially offset the labor shortages back home. Laos is uniquely youthful but, similarly, its population of just 7 million has yielded too few migrant workers to correct the imbalance. And within the five countries, too, the same dynamic has played out, whereby urban centers have pulled in and profited from provincial hands to a far greater degree than city wages have uplifted the villages from which they came.

The key interests informing any government engaging the Mekong as an economic subregion include tariffs, border crossings, supply chains, FDI regulations, interest rates, labor costs, and market share.

Finally, there is the Mekong’s latest iteration as a theater of geopolitical competition between, first and foremost, the United States and China; but by way of allies, influence, and shifting interests, among scores of other countries as well. Increasingly prominent for a decade, the notion of the Mekong as a microcosm of global great power rivalry has joined the economic subregion as the lens through which governments – some more willingly than others – engage the Mekong. This accounts for the Mekong’s replacement of the descriptive phrase “mainland Southeast Asia” among many policymakers and pundits, and acknowledges that what was once a mere statement of geography has become a pregnant allusion to geopolitics.

In broad strokes, the competition is between the security blanket that has been provided by the United States since the 1990s and the economic safety net that has been offered by China since the turn of the century; American power versus Chinese proximity. Unpacked, however, the chessboard is more complex, with the longstanding Thai-U.S. alliance offset by the kingdom’s rebalance toward China; Beijing’s lifeline to Laos dulled by its control over half the country’s external debt; and Cambodia’s China-leaning foreign policy challenged by its citizens’ affinity for the United States. Vietnam has manifest historical reasons to welcome – and despise – both powers.

Nor, as intimated during the aforementioned Thailand-Australia Policy Dialogue, are Washington and Beijing the only participants in this game. Canberra, Tokyo, Seoul, New Delhi, and Brussels are just the next five up – to say nothing of the five lower Mekong states themselves, whose claims to individual and collective agency have been equally shaken and stirred by the increasingly competitive environment. These Mekong states’ geopolitical calculations have increased in scope and scale, but are otherwise informed by long pre-existing (and ongoing) estimations concerning one another. Relations between Thailand and Vietnam, and between each of them and Cambodia, still suffer from deficits of trust, while Laos’ recent preference for describing itself as “land-linked” rather than “land-locked” puts a brave face on the fact that it shares a border with (and only with) every other Mekong country, including China.

For these governments and others, the Mekong as a theater of geopolitical competition implicates the grandest of interests: sovereignty, national security, economic posture, governance, even cultural identity.

A river barge carries sand on the Tonle Sap river, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Two Tributaries

Contributing to the definitional ambiguity has been the inconsistent inclusion (or exclusion) of Myanmar and China in references to the Mekong. It is not difficult to see why.

Geographically, Myanmar is clearly among the five “lower” states through which the south-flowing Mekong River runs, but it hosts only three percent of its basin. Doubling as Myanmar’s entire border with Laos, the tiny section of river is easy to miss on a map. Moreover, Myanmar is not a member of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the oldest of some 13 multilateral frameworks through which the “Mekong” is managed and engaged, but holds only observer status. Myanmar’s economic challenges have accounted for its greater involvement in the Mekong as an economic subregion but have also placed limits on it. It is in the geopolitical sphere that Myanmar has featured most prominently for the past 15 years, altered but not abrogated by the coup d’etat of 2021.

China’s case for inclusion in the Mekong subregion is stronger but also muddied by geography. While the 21 percent of the river’s basin located in China compares favorably with three of the four remaining countries (which host 20, 23, and 25 percent, respectively), China’s status as the only entirely upstream country has acted as a heavier counterweight. It is manifestly not a “lower” Mekong country.

This critical distinction is even clearer when considering Vietnam, which hosts a similarly small 8 percent of the basin and is the only entirely downstream country. The Mekong’s storied delta, south of Ho Chi Minh City, mirrors its source in the iconic Tibetan Plateau and represents, in its increased salinization, the end-effect of the plateau’s melting ice caps. Yet these parallels between the two countries hardly register: as the “lowest” of the lower five countries, Vietnam is at the core (rather than the uncertain edge) of the “Mekong.” Moreover, southern China has almost never been considered part of mainland Southeast Asia – a separation reinforced by the different name given by China to the portion of the river it hosts, the Lancang. The Lancang River is a means of a ubiquitous “connectivity,” not of incorporation. Add the fact that, like Myanmar, China holds only observer status in the MRC, and its exclusion from the Mekong as a river would seem settled.

To wit, Beijing’s Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) framework was established in 2015 to deepen Chinese links to the Mekong as an economic subregion. Its bifurcated name and singular focus also continued to minimize China’s interest and inclusion in the river. While China had accounted for the “greater” in the Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) since its founding in 1992, the LMC was commensurate with its own meteoric economic growth during the 19 intervening years. It also spoke to the fact that the population of China’s Yunnan province, through which the Lancang flows, is precisely one-sixth the total population of all six greater Mekong countries – that is, on par with any one of those countries.

Still, geography is subject to reinterpretation and policies can change: In mid-2017 the LMC expanded with the establishment of a Water Center, which in turn signed an MOU with the MRC. Still rooted in economics, these moves have also signaled new interest, in both Beijing and lower Mekong capitals, in blurring the borders between the Lancang and Mekong Rivers.

Consistent with this, China has become synonymous with the Mekong as a theater of geopolitical competition, for such competition began as the result of – and the U.S. reaction to – China’s economic rise and attendant influence in the subregion. This was illustrated in the founding of the LMC and, more so, in its placement by Beijing under the rubric of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Ostensibly a purely economic plan, the BRI has been widely critiqued as being as much about geopolitical expansion as about connectivity for its own sake. The United States’ transparent response in 2020 was to resurrect, repackage, and repurpose a moribund Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) that had predated the LMC (and BRI) into a Mekong-U.S. Partnership (MUSP).

A River Ran Through It

The differences between and among the conceptions of the Mekong account for the necessary specialization I encountered in the three diplomats in Canberra. Only toward the top of the triangular pyramid can it be expected that the interests being promoted on each of its sides are being rightly prioritized and reconciled. But what if the interests defy reconciliation, either because they oppose one another outright or simply refuse in an ever-changing world to abide by the rhythms and cycles of policy planning? Or, less neatly, by being addressed differently within individual governments’ vast policymaking apparatus or among several governments working together? An examination of each of the Mekong’s three meanings in relation to the other two, reveals that the key interests at stake range from almost entirely mutually exclusive to generally mutually reinforcing.

The Mekong River and the Mekong economic subregion are fundamentally at odds with one other. If by the slightest nuance of principle, the interests represented by each do not inherently conflict, a quarter-century has proven that they do so in practice. The imperative of relentless, rapid, and maximal economic growth almost always clashes with the environment’s contrary need for preservation, conservation, and restraint. Indeed, encapsulating in miniature the same dichotomy globally, the intersection of the river and its economic subregion has come to present a near zero-sum scenario.

In addition to the troubling fundamentals, however, the current scenario is the result of policy choices made repeatedly by Mekong countries and too often supported externally, to grow their economies directly at the river’s expense. Dredging and blasting to accommodate larger cargo vessels, mining sand for the cement of infrastructure, overfishing to increase market share, and polluting the river for the expansion of industry – all have belied reflexive claims to “win-win” outcomes. They have also adversely affected the millions of people living in the river’s basin.

Seldom are policies spelled out as such, but are the cause and effect of resource allocation within governments. Rarely is a ministry focused on the environment, water, or agriculture as politically prominent and well-funded as ministries of commerce, energy, transportation, industry, or foreign affairs. Sometimes those interests do not even rise to ministry level or are out-ranked and out-gunned by boards of investment, import-export banks, and advisory bodies. This situation is exacerbated by its parallel outside of government, whereby environmental NGOs, climate advocates, local civil society organizations, and even heavily credentialed scientists are no match for a well-heeled private sector of multinationals, conglomerates, trade federations, chambers of commerce, and private banks.

It is little different among the 13 multilateral frameworks through which the “Mekong” is managed and engaged. Until the creation of Washington’s LMI in 2011, the MRC was the only framework devoted even partly to water resource management – a 16-year drought during which nine more frameworks were erected, none focused on the river. Today the MRC remains the only one of the 13 dedicated entirely to the Mekong River as such, joined by the partial focus of China’s LMC and the United States’ MUSP.

In tacit admission of their expediency, and to their credit, governments have begun to take steps to redress this imbalance, both domestically and cooperatively. These include the “retail” incorporation of environmental and social safeguards into economic projects that directly implicate the river, such as research, impact assessments, guidelines, and the application of best practices. Others have been “wholesale” in the form policies and projects, even new political economies, designed to resuscitate the river’s vitality or to simply leave it alone. Where potentially profitable, the private sector has alternately led and followed on this path; voices from the basin have achieved a higher volume.

However, even leaving aside the comparatively modest sums of money in these steps and the temptation toward greenwashing – some actions are plainly not “sustainable” – the hard fact is that, for the Mekong River, the race is all but over. After eclipsing the river some 25 years ago, the notion of the “Mekong” as an economic subregion has only gained increasing prominence. The river’s recent reentry into the race still sees it moving too slowly and too far behind to catch up before the finish line. Unless their respective speeds swiftly reverse, the Mekong’s original and eponymous meaning will be relevant only in the past tense.

A view of the Mekong River in Pakbeng, Laos. Photo by Sebastian Strangio.


The Mekong as an economic subregion in relation to it as a theater of geopolitical competition is a simpler analysis. This is because the facilitation of economic growth has been the main measure of how countries fare geopolitically against one another in the subregion. That is, insofar as the lower Mekong states have been interested in growing their economies above all else, and insofar as that growth has come more on account of one (Mekong or external) government than on account of others, that government has chalked up a win. Thus, these two meanings of the Mekong generally reinforce one another.

This is reflected in the distribution of policy and financial capital described above. Domestically, the geopolitical basis and backdrop accounts for the prominence of ministries of foreign affairs in negotiations, as well as for the inclusion of ministries of defense, national security councils, and intelligence and border agencies. Private sector influence has been primarily exercised by and through the media.

Multilaterally, economic growth (often characterized as development and defined broadly) has been either the chief priority or first among equals of every Mekong framework except the MRC. This is most tellingly the case in all five of the frameworks founded by non-Mekong states: China, the U.S., India, Japan, and South Korea. More subtly, it applies as well to the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), founded by Thailand and whose “E” is more heavily endowed than the “ACM” of the three rivers; and to the only frameworks to not include Thailand: the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam) and the CLV (Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam Development Triangle).

Two scenarios have sometimes hindered this symbiotic “geoeconomic” relationship. One is when a government – most often the U.S. or China, but not always – explains or promotes its economic initiatives in the subregion in overtly geopolitical terms, usually by referencing a rival country. Mekong countries seldom welcome such messaging being attached to the money on offer and have delayed or even denied initiatives because of it.

The other scenario acts as a segue into the final dynamic between two meanings of the “Mekong,” the Mekong River in relation to the Mekong as a theater of geopolitical competition, which follows logically from the others. Namely, if the interests of the river and economic subregion are (mostly) mutually exclusive, but the economic and geopolitical interests are (mostly) mutually reinforcing, then whether the river and theater clash or coexist turns on whether the geoeconomic activity is occurring at the river’s expense. So long as that activity steers clear of the river and its basin, the river’s interests and the interests of geopolitics do not conflict; they may be literally and figuratively miles apart. But where such activity damages the river, its resources, and/or the people who depend on them, the Mekong River and the Mekong as a theater of geopolitical competition are likewise mutually exclusive.

Notably, although Mekong and external governments have both been complicit in the river’s demise for geoeconomic gain, the recent remedial steps have yielded the occasional win, as when in 2020 Thailand reversed its decision to allow China to blast a section of the river to make way for larger vessels. China acquiesced. While geopolitics also played a role in both the proposed blasting and its cancellation, the two countries publicly cited local voices as the key consideration behind the move.

Damming the Definitions

By way of conclusion, nowhere do the Mekong’s three meanings converge more consequentially than in the many dams being constructed on the river. Hydropower was once (and rightly) touted as a clean alternative to coal, and dams as a way of creating irrigation-friendly reservoirs. Through both the public and private sectors, China has constructed or financed the most dams, followed by Thailand and Vietnam, and consumes the greatest share of their power. Laos still aspires to be the “battery of Southeast Asia,” and the MRC’s remit only covers the river’s mainstream. Yet, dams’ service to the Mekong as an economic subregion has long come at the expense of the Mekong River and the people of its basin in the form of mass displacement from productive and culturally sensitive land, as well as interruptions to the river’s flow and sediment, the movement and reproduction of fish, and people’s ability to travel and transport goods.

Because of this (the United States) and in spite of it (China), dams have recently taken on geopolitical significance. The U.S. has accused Beijing of selfishly manipulating the Mekong River’s volume and flow; China has countered that storing water during the wet season and releasing it during the dry has benefited downstream agriculture. Mekong countries have been more circumspect in their criticism of the global powers and each other. Whether the U.S. assesses its rhetoric, and China its actions, as constituting a geopolitical advance or retreat is presumably a moving target.

The three Thai and Australian diplomats I spoke with in Canberra are challenged by the choices they face and their frequently opposing consequences. But choose they must, for the Mekong’s meanings do not permit a balance of competing interests in the future, but only a different form of imbalance. They allow not for equal treatment, but for triage.