The second Mekong-US Partnership (MUSP) Ministerial Meeting was held on August 3, 2021 in virtual format and was co-chaired by Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The ASEAN Secretary-General was also in attendance. There was acknowledgement among the MUSP Member States (Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the US) on the future of sustainable and socio-economic development in the Mekong sub-region through the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) cooperation. The MUSP agenda is focused on development issues in the lower Mekong region and aims to “encourage equitable, sustainable, and inclusive growth” through capacity building projects and programmes involving the governments in the region.
Perhaps the most important commonality among the MUSP’s Southeast Asia members is the Mekong River which is not only critical for agriculture but is the lifeline of the livelihoods of their people and communities. In this context, the MUSP Ministerial Meeting also announced the 2021-23 action plan involving a number of river related issues that have now been accorded priority for cooperation through “targeted programming and key data sharing tools” and capacity building initiatives such as the Mekong Water Data Initiative (MWDI) (Natural Resources) to “strengthen the capacity of Mekong sub-region countries to collect, analyze, and manage water and related information to reduce water-related risks, improve responses to environmental emergencies, and promote sustainable economic development across the water, food, energy, and environment nexus”. The Mekong Dam Monitor (MDM) under which water flow data is shared in real-time, is operational since December 2020.
The Mekong region is facing unprecedented impacts of climate change and there is now evidence of shorter monsoon season and longer dry season in the region. This results in lack of adequate water in the Mekong River particularly during dry seasons. For instance, climate change affects 30% of the land and agricultural production in Vietnam and the current state of the Mekong River delta illustrates how climate change threatens economic and food security in the country. During the Ministerial Meeting, the Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son underlined the critical necessity to enhance the response and adaption capacity of the Mekong River basin region to climate change impacts, and foster collaboration in management and sustainable use of trans-boundary water resources.
The Mekong River is also mired in contestation between the upper riparian state (China) and the lower riparian states (Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar) due to river related issues such as non-sharing of water data, releasing water during monsoons causing flooding in the Lower Mekong region and impacts on agriculture, food production and livelihoods.
In October 2020, Mekong River Commission (MRC) Member States (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam) were successful in extracting a commitment from China for providing “year-round hydrological data (to be shared twice daily and include rainfall and river level data” through the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Information Sharing Platform (LMWRC) which would help in river monitoring and flood, and drought forecasting. Yet, there remains ‘trust deficit’ and there are now calls asking China to “regain trust” in the Lancang-Mekong cooperation by “depoliticizing” river water issues.
The Biden administration has “pledged continued U.S. support for a free and open Mekong region” under the MUSP. It is exploring investment opportunities with the private sector to solve development challenges relating to energy and climate through the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) under which it has so far invested over $1 billion dollars in projects in ASEAN countries.
China is naturally concerned about the US government’s enhanced focus on the Mekong through the MUSP and a Global Times commentary has accused the Washington of “targeting” and “attempting to encircle China”, and “sparing no efforts to ramp up its ties with Southeast Asian countries in a bid to reduce China’s influence in the region”. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent five consecutive meetings with leaders of the ASEAN in which two meetings discussed issues related to the Mekong River have further added to Chinese discomfort. The US-China contestation in the Mekong River basin is a very tricky issue for the MUSP Member States. They would have to tread a very fine line given that the source of the Mekong River is in the Tibetan plateau and any further Chinese upstream activities can have immense impacts on the socio-economic wellbeing of lower riparian populations. They must also deal with the choice of Chinese largesse for infrastructure development under the BRI or explore opportunities under the G7’s “Build Back Better World” (B3W) which aims to mobilize private-sector capital for development.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.