Lancang-Mekong Cooperation

Reaching solutions

China plays an increasing role to boost cooperation among countries that depend on the Lancang-Mekong River

P1 reaching

January 22-28, 2018
By DAVID HO
in Hong Kong
For China Daily Asia Weekly

The mighty Mekong, known as the Lancang in China, is Southeast Asia’s longest waterway, with around 60 million people depending on the river and its tributaries for food, water and transport.

Stretching from Southwest China’s Tibet autonomous region all the way to the mouth of the river in Vietnam, the development of the Mekong region is a key strategic issue for the countries it runs through.

And the second Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Leaders’ Meeting, held on Jan 10 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, has given the region a much-needed boost.

Co-chaired by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, it was also attended by leaders of the other countries in the region, including Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Myanmar Vice-President U Myint Swe.

Established in 2015, the LMC is a sub-regional cooperation mechanism jointly established by the six countries along the Lancang-Mekong River.

From left: Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and Myanmar Vice-President U Myint Swe link arms during the second Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Leaders’ Meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Jan 10. (AFP)

After their meeting, the leaders announced that the Phnom Penh Declaration had been signed and a Five-Year Plan of Action (2018-22) adopted. The declaration made promises of peace, stability, connectivity, development and, notably, noninterference. It marks the commitment for the partnership between China and the Mekong states in developing the region.

Though the details remain undisclosed, the broad areas of cooperation under the Five-Year Plan were released. The first would be on strengthening cooperation surrounding water resources along the 4,350-kilometer-long river.

Li encouraged members to work for water resource cooperation while focusing on the sustainable utilization of water resources. He also called for enhanced emergency management of droughts and floods, and joint research on water resources and the influence of climate change.

Raphael Mok, senior Asia analyst at BMI Research, said he expects to see China becoming increasingly involved in cross-border cooperation on hydropower and water management over the coming years on the back of the LMC.

“The new agreement’s scope is much broader than other initiatives such as the Greater Mekong Sub-region, which has the same members and includes cooperation on water resources,” he said.

The Mekong River Delta is one of the world’s three deltas most vulnerable to climate change. In 2016, it sustained its most serious drought and saline intrusion of the past 100 years. It resulted in damage to 160,000 hectares of paddy fields and a lack of water for 250,000 households.

The wide usage of chemicals in manufacturing has also made much of the area’s water unsuitable for consumption. There have been reports of locals suffering from skin irritations after being in contact with the water.

China has built several dams on the river and is planning for more in the future.

Survey results from the Vietnamese National Institute of Hygiene and Public Health show the Mekong River Delta provinces exhibit alarming levels of arsenic in groundwater wells.

Mekong states have been trying to get the infrastructure in place for safe water supply and quality monitoring.

Led by Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn, Cambodia signed a new cooperation agreement with China in December. The country is to receive more than $7 million funding from China for various projects, including those for monitoring water quality.

Cambodia’s prime minister has mentioned plans to create centers for improving water supply and environmental cooperation. In addition, Thailand will host an LMC working group on water resources later this year.

China also indicated it is willing to reinforce production capacity cooperation, the second area of cooperation agreed upon at the LMC meeting. This would encompass infrastructure like water conservancy facilities and power generation plants.

The Mekong represents an important power source to all around it. The estimated hydropower potential of the Lower Mekong Basin is 30,000 megawatts, while that of the Upper Mekong Basin is 28,930 MW.

According to the Mekong River Commission, power demands are expected to rise 7 percent per year between 2010 and 2030. Given that hydropower is the favored energy option for those surrounding the river, a fair bit of investment has gone into developing dams around the Mekong.

China has built several dams on the river and is planning for more in the future. Other countries are also building. Laos, for example, is constructing two dams and currently planning a third.

The LMC is working on sustaining both food supplies and the environment since the third area of cooperation agreed upon in the meeting involves agricultural cooperation.

“Chinese companies have also been building and financing the bulk of Cambodia’s and Laos’ new hydropower generation capacity on the Mekong River as part of China’s diplomatic efforts,” said Mok.

“For Cambodia, hydropower is the technology of choice for it to reduce its dependence on energy imports by capitalizing on its proximity to the Mekong River, while for Laos, it is aimed at transforming the landlocked country into the ‘battery of Southeast Asia’,” he added.

In 2016, water levels in the Mekong Delta area were extremely low. With Vietnam’s rice crops under threat, China agreed to increase the flow of water from dams in its territory, leading water levels to rise.

“This reflects the growing importance that Beijing attaches to hydro politics and its reputation in the region,” said Mok.

The LMC is working on sustaining both food supplies and the environment since the third area of cooperation agreed upon in the meeting involves agricultural cooperation.

“We hold a sanguine view for agricultural production, trade, and consumption in the Mekong River region, with China likely to play an increasingly bigger role,” said Mok.

“Agricultural trade within the region is growing and will remain on an ascent in the coming years, helped by the development of regional transport infrastructure and banking, as well as the export of Chinese agricultural technology and commercial farming practices.”

The phrase ‘green and sustainable development’ was also mentioned by the LMC leaders, signifying a greener approach.

Premier Li said: “China encourages its companies to, in line with the concept of sustainable development, participate in the construction of hydropower stations, reservoirs, irrigation and drinking-water projects in the countries along the Mekong River so as to achieve win-win cooperation.”

Aware of the gap in developing human capital, China is offering short-term training and in-service education for 2,000 people in countries along the Mekong River this year.

The fourth area of cooperation for the LMC members is in human resources.

According to the United States Agency for International Development, about 70 percent of employers in the Lower Mekong subregion are looking to hire, but only 16 percent found that recent graduates have the skills they require.

Aware of the gap in developing human capital, China is offering short-term training and in-service education for 2,000 people in countries along the Mekong River and 100 four-year scholarships for undergraduates this year. It is also encouraging joint training programs among universities and promoting cooperation among vocational schools.

“China has valuable hands-on experience to share with its neighbors. Chinese officials and scholars have a good appreciation for what’s achievable when faced with similar issues,” said Ben Simpfendorfer, founder of consultancy firm Silk Road Associates.

“Training and scholarships will also help all parties to develop awareness of the other. Fostering trust is a win-win (scenario).”

The final area of cooperation for the LMC would be in healthcare. This is to effectively safeguard health security in this region, which is particularly vulnerable to mosquito-transmitted diseases.

Besides being a source for water, livelihood and energy, the Mekong ultimately represents a test of cross-border relations.

China has communicated that it is willing to set up joint prevention and control mechanisms for infectious diseases with relevant countries and build a Lancang-Mekong network for malaria elimination.

China will assist relevant countries in building a medical health system. It already has offered to fund a hospital, among other infrastructure projects, in Phnom Penh.

At the LMC meeting, Li also floated the idea of the 3+5+X cooperation framework. This would be an extension of the existing 3+5 framework, built on the three pillars of political and security issues, economic and sustainable development, and cultural and people-to-people exchanges, and the five key priority areas of connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources, and agriculture and poverty reduction.

Li suggested expanding the cooperation to broader areas, such as the digital economy, environmental protection, customs and youth. This marks the ongoing evolution in the collaboration between China and the Mekong states.

Operating under the cooperation concepts of “development first, equal consultation, practicality and high efficiency, and openness and inclusiveness”, the LMC mechanism has produced “better-than-expected progress” according to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

At the LMC meeting, the leaders of the Southeast Asian countries noted that most of the 45 Early Harvest Projects identified at the first LMC Leaders’ Meeting and the 13 initiatives put forward by China at the second LMC Foreign Ministers’ Meeting have either been completed or made substantial progress.

Besides being a source for water, livelihood and energy, the Mekong ultimately represents a test of cross-border relations.

“We want to properly address the relationship between up- and downstream countries and accommodate the interests of all countries along the river,” Li said. “China needs a stable environment in its neighborhood.”

read more:

Be the first to leave a comment!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *