Scrutinizing US, China Mekong cooperation: The new regional battlefield

How do the China Lancang-Mekong cooperation and the Mekong-US Partnership operate – the two international cooperation frameworks that are expanding political influence over Thailand and its neighbours? How much money has Thailand received? And what has been missing in this battle?

In August 2020, the depth of the Mekong at the Mekong School in Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, was 3 metres, lower than its usual average, observed Niwat Roikaew, or Khru Tee, the founder of the Community Network for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong.

Niwat Roikaew

While the water depth during the rainy season should have been 6 meters, the construction of a series of dams on the Mekong in China and other countries has caused increasing variability. Chiang Khong District of Thailand is close to the Pak Beng dam in Lao PDR, a project developed by China Datang Overseas Investment Co. Ltd.

Dams on the Mekong routinely become topics of hot debate since irregularities in this international river have been observed by the media and the public, including unpredictable water levels due to uncoordinated opening and closing of dam gates, the blocking of sediment flows, turning clear the once muddy waters of the Mekong, erosion problems in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and difficulties with land used to make a living in Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, impacting international relations within the sub-region.

Niwat explains that the changing river has caused serious riverbank erosion in both Thailand and Laos. Both states have responded to the disappearing land by building gravel barriers to erosion. Thailand has had to build over 800 km of these at a cost of tens of billions of baht. 

A part of gravel barriers built on Thailand side.

The dams and their impacts on this 4,800-kilometre-long river passing through 6 countries are a clear reflection of the role of international relations over water bodies. A number of infrastructure projects and financial and diplomatic assistance have been pouring into this subregion with different motives since the 1990s. Today, China and the United States have become the key actors expanding their political role over the region, encompassing areas such as finance, infrastructure, and influence over the Mekong countries. 

Why are the superpowers interested in the Mekong?

Already in the 1960s, the United States conceived the idea of building dams on the Mekong. This was scrapped due to the Indochina Wars and the Cold War. The first concrete idea of establishing an international cooperation framework led by an external power took shape in the 1990s, as Japan took the lead in setting up the Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation Programme (GMS) with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), whose primary stakeholders were Japan and the United States acting as the core donor.

Having been defeated in WWII, Japan was steadily recovering economically thanks to US foreign policy, which allowed Japan to sell goods and arms to the United States during the Korean War and help post-war Korea to recover. Furthermore, post-war Japan also put efforts into development assistance to Southeast Asian nations, especially those it had invaded in the war, in order to regain trust in Japanese products.

Japan initiated official relations with ASEAN in 1979, when an ASEAN-Japan Foreign Ministers’ Meeting took place. The relaxation of Cold War tensions, communist Vietnam’s membership in ASEAN, and Japan’s pursuit of cheaper production bases and a decent image in the international community led to the creation of the GMS with a focus on the development of agriculture, energy, the environment, human resources, investment, telecommunications, tourism, trade, and transportation.

China was showing interest in the Mekong region at around the same time as the GMS was formed, as seen from its request to have Yunnan and Guangxi join the GMS in 1992 and 2005 respectively (it should be noted that the first Chinese dam on the main stem of Mekong river, the Manwan Dam, began operations in 1995). In 2000, China rolled out a strategy to develop its western region focusing on the inland areas of the country, which mentioned the country’s incorporation into the GMS to expand its logistic routes from Yunnan province to ports in Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand. In addition, it also planned to build land transportation networks including road, rail and water transportation.

The fruits of the GMS were a boom in infrastructure projects, such as the North-South and East-West Economic Corridors, construction of bridges and highways connecting the Mekong countries through loans and grants, a Cross Border Transport Agreement to facilitate the transport of goods both by land and river navigation, and other cooperation frameworks.

Meanwhile, the Mekong River Committee (MRC) was launched in 1995 as a collective regional attempt among Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia to manage resources and maximize the benefits of the Mekong river in all aspects, but its role remained limited. As the US and China have emerged as the 2 global superpowers, Mekong politics has also become another arena of competition between them.

A Quick Glance at the Mekong Treaties

  • The Mekong River Commission (MRC), earlier known from 1975 as the Mekong Committee, was founded in 1995, consisting of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, with the aims of developing the Mekong region to maximize its benefits in all aspects, and to determine regulations for a fair and reasonable use of the river.
  • The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), launched in 2016 and consisting of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and China, is a research-based river management cooperation programme to identify effective mechanisms to manage floods and droughts, exchange real-time hydrological data, and administer the LMC Special Fund to provide support for the six countries to implement projects under the LMC framework. Thailand’s receipt of funding has taken place in form of MOUs signed between China and the responsible Thai government agency.
  • The Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) was proposed by the United States in 2009 and includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the United States and has partnerships with Friends of the Lower Mekong (Japan, South Korean, Australia, New Zealand, the EU, the ADB and the World Bank) and other governments, academic institutions and civil society organizations. It cooperates in the areas of food, energy, water, the environment and human development and connectivity. The LMI became the Mekong-U.S. Partnership in 2020, with a focus on transborder water management, new security, economic connectivity, energy, and infrastructure.
  • The Mekong–Ganga Cooperation (MGC), established in 2000, consists of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and India, and supports cooperation to develop tourism, education, and culture.
  • The Joint Committee on Coordination of Commercial Navigation on the Lancang-Mekong River was set up in 2001 and includes Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and China, and aims to improve commercial navigation and share water data, on droughts in particular, for more convenient and safer navigation.
  • The Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), launched in 2003, consists of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam with other key stakeholders including the US, China, India, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. It has plans related to water management and environmental cooperation. It has also set up the ACMECS Fund to support the implementation of a 5-year master plan.
  • The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) was launched in 1992 by the Asian Development Bank and prioritizes issues of transportation, energy, communication, telecommunications, human resources, tourism, the environment and economic zone development.
  • The Mekong-Australia Program on Transnational Crime (MAP-TNC) was set up by the Australian government in 2019 to help Southeast Asian countries to combat and suppress transnational crime and strengthen regional security. With an 8-year timeline and a budget of around 30 million Australian dollars (or around 640 million Baht), it intends to help foster transnational cooperation among the Southeast Asian Mekong countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam) and improve efforts in combatting other serious crimes, such as narcotics, child prostitution, and financial crimes.

LMC vs US-Mekong Partnership: a Mekong Cooperation Framework Beyond the Mekong River 

The LMC, headed by China, is a framework covering three issues: political and security issues, economics and sustainable development, and social, cultural, and people-to-people exchanges. These are further divided into five sub-themes, which are connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources, and agriculture and poverty reduction. This is called the “3+5 Cooperation Framework”.

According to the 5-year LMC plan, China plans to inject a total of 300 million US dollars over 5 years to sponsor various projects in the member states. The LMC grants are channelled through the responsible government agencies, who will then re-distribute them to the project owners, be they government, private sector, or civil society. Data for 2020 shows that China has already sponsored more than 410 projects. News monitoring of examples of China’s foreign contributions shows:

  • 21 Dec 2017: 7.3 million USD for Cambodia in a variety of areas including agriculture, tourism, ICT, public health, education and research, water resources, rural development, air connectivity, and cultural and religious exchanges.
  • 14 Feb 2019: 7.66 million USD for 19 projects in Cambodia in agriculture, tourism, ICT, education and research, water resources, rural development, air connectivity, cultural and religious exchanges.
  • 30 Mar 2020: 6.7 million USD for the Myanmar government in 22 project areas related to agriculture, education, ICT, etc.
  • 24 June 2020: 498,740 USD for the National Institute of Diplomacy and International Relations (NIDIR) in Cambodia to implement a Cyber Diplomacy Capacity-Building Project.

Thailand’s experience with the special funds has taken the form of MoUs between the Chinese Embassy and the government agencies in charge of the projects. Thailand received its first grant in June 2018, when it signed an MoU in Bangkok receiving funds to conduct research on climate change and hydropower development. Since then, an array of MoUs have materialized. The following data are compiled from cabinet resolutions and news articles.

  • 9 Jan 2018: The Ministry of Commerce announced guidelines for budget management of projects approved by China in order to optimize the use of the LMC Special Funds. 
  • 15 Jan 2018: The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment allocated a budget of 389,500 USD to the Department of Water Resources for the implementation of LMC projects on transnational cooperation on climate change and the development of hydropower.
  • 12 Jan 2019: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed an MoU to build capacity for national LMC coordinators and relevant officers from other agencies.
  • 24 Sep 2019: The Ministry of Education received funding of 220,000 renminbi (around 948,200 Baht) to execute a project to organize meetings to develop vocational education in Thailand-Laos-China and training to develop a curriculum on rail transportation.
  • 22 Oct 2019: The Ministry of Industry signed an agreement for a 450,000 renminbi Training on Enhancement of Industrial Policy Development for Lancang-Mekong Countries 
  • 6 Nov 2019: The Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation signed an MoU on 2 projects implemented by Khon Kaen University, the Mekong Liver Fluke Control Initiative, and Early Detection of Unsafe Feed, with a total budget of 4.16 million renminbi. 
  • 17 Dec 2019: The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment signed an agreement on a Demonstration Project on Forest Poverty Alleviation implemented by the Royal Forest Department with a budget of 2,430,000 renminbi.
  • 11 Dec 2019: An MoU with the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives was approved to implement cooperation to support a rice production forum and technological and capacity development of relevant organizations and personnel in the Mekong Subregion.
  • 11 Dec 2019: The Cabinet approved an MoU with the Office of the National Water Resources on a joint research project on transnational water management for floods and droughts in the Sai-Ruak river basin between Thailand and Myanmar with a budget of 2,450,000 renminbi.
  • 29 Oct 2020: The Cabinet approved a draft MoU on five projects under the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives and the Ministry of Commerce with a total budget of 1.4 million USD.
  • 17 Nov 2020: The LMC Special Funds allocated 2.2 million USD to the Thai government to implement a project on food safety, pest and disease control, soil management, and the promotion of sustainable agriculture.

Meanwhile, on the US side, details on the US-Mekong Partnership are still lacking because it is in a formative stage. The US Embassy in Thailand website explains that the Partnership is an expansion of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), active from 2009-2020, in order to enhance cooperation in several areas, such as economic connectivity, energy security, human capital development, transboundary water and natural resources management, and non-traditional security, a sector which includes health security capacity building and pandemic response, transnational crimes, cyber security, and trafficking in persons, drugs, and wildlife.

Apart from financial support through the Partnership, is the US Embassy in Cambodia announced at the end of 2020 the establishment of the Mekong Dam Monitor, which relies on remote sensing and satellite image technology to track the operation of dams on the Mekong in China and elsewhere and their consequences. Funded by the US-Mekong Partnership, the project is a collaboration between the Southeast Asia Program at the Stimson Center and Eyes on Earth Inc. The Stimson Center’s webpage notes: ‘The monitor’s Lancang cascade visualization shows how these dams are now coordinated and operated in a way to maximize the production of hydropower for sale to China’s eastern provinces with insufficient consideration given to downstream impacts.’

China has consistently denied impacts from the dams, while the US has persistently attempted to prove that China’s operation of the dams directly correlates with irregularities observed on this international river.

The Lower Mekong Initiative provided 3,417 million USD in financial assistance to Mekong partner countries in the areas of public health, economic growth, peace and security, human rights and governance, education and social services, and humanitarian aid.

Stronger competition, same river

Assoc Prof Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS), believes that superpower competition in the Mekong region has intensified due to US-China rivalry. China’s movements in any region in the world are watched by the US. At the same time, the cascade of numerous dams constructed on the upstream Mekong, coupled with the impacts of climate change and China’s inconsiderate use of the river, have added to the feeling of frustration and inferiority among the downstream countries.

In the past 30 years, China has never joined any existing cooperation frameworks with the Mekong countries, like the MRC, GMS, or ACMECS. It was, at most, an observer. Instead, China established its own cooperation frameworks enforcing its own rules, like the LMC, and has assumed a stronger leading role than Japan, whose influence was once prevalent in the lower Mekong countries in the 1990s. At the same time, the Mekong countries have been trying to counterbalance China’s position. For instance, Vietnam, as the ASEAN chair in 2020, succeeded in making the previously overlooked Mekong and Mekong Delta issues a key agenda item. Similarly, the ASEAN countries should agree on ways to deal with superpowers on other issues, such as the South China Sea.

In spite of these factors and policy challenges posed by China, the US comeback this time is considered both fitting and not too late. Thitinan predicts that US policies during the presidency of Joe Biden, who took office on 20 Jan 2021, will see a continuation in terms of the country’s strategy, because the US interest in the Mekong during the Trump administration was a continuation of the Obama administration.

“China is facing many challenges at the moment. If its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of loans and infrastructure in many countries had gone farther, China would have been more accepted. As the downstream countries entered the LMC framework, the US arrival may have already been too late. But now China has many concerns with the BRI. Many countries are suspicious and uncertain about the BRI because it leads to debt. Moreover, the downstream countries need to counterbalance the power of China, as China has set up a framework like a straitjacket while beginning to show its power,  by holding back water for example, which they would only release if there is a summit.”

Mekong river at Chiang Saen district bordering Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.

Pianporn Deetes, Thailand and Myanmar Campaigns Director, International Rivers, who has worked on environmental issues and impacts of Mekong development projects for a long time, said that time has already proven that the MRC has no real decision-making power in transnational matters and has become an international organization dam builders go-to for a stamp of approval before beginning construction. On the other hand, a new player like China’s LMC is focused on signing bilateral agreements directly with each country, instead of everyone discussing the same topic. The Mekong River is an attractive area that many countries would like to have a piece of. What is lacking, however, is a process or mechanism that allows the river resources to be used fairly and responsibly by both the states and the peoples.

It does not matter where the money comes from. Then, what does?

Apisom Intralawan, lecturer at Mae Fah Luang University, has received LMC funding from the Office of the National Water Resources to study baseline data related to the impact of the construction of ‘mueang fai’ (traditional weirs) on the Ruak and Sai rivers, two tributaries of the Mekong. It is a cooperative study between Thailand and Myanmar, through which both rivers flow.

Apisom said that the construction of weirs in both countries have caused impacts along the border due to uncoordinated water management. This has led to conflicts in local areas, i.e. water rivalry. The research was jointly conducted with a team from Myanmar in order to identify four basic themes: hydrology, soil utilization, socio-economic impacts from water quality, and policy recommendations. Unfortunately, the project has been postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Mae Fah Luang University lecturer further explained that, when compared to Cambodia and Laos, Thailand has received relatively little support from the LMC Special Funds. The grant that Apisom has received is for research meant to answer certain questions. Besides this kind of grant, there are also grants for feasibility studies for projects with already fixed objectives, which he did not accept. As a scholar, he believes that it is important to advance one’s own areas of work.

“My objectives are to raise water issues within the international community. I have received grants from the US, Japan, South Korea, and China. That is not the point. What matters is that we have to be honest to ourselves, we have to be honest to the society in which we live. There is no distortion in the project results. I think that is the role of academics. We must be honest and stay honest and be faithful to the facts,” said Apisom.

Mekong river and its unique small islands. (Source: Thai People Network from Eight Mekong Provinces)

Niwat has also been offered Chinese grants through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. However, since they did not meet his needs and timing at that time, he did not take them.

“This kind of thing is inevitable. The Mekong has always been about politics. … Civil society must understand river politics, where we should take a stand, and how we can gain leverage from international politics. If you don’t know, you will just keep following the government. What can we do to get the power to counter them so that they block each other and pull the balance back towards conservation. As of today, we have not yet been able to do it,” said Niwat.

He further said that he dreamed of having a council of ASEAN Mekong people in parallel with the international cooperation frameworks in the region. The first step has already been taken. On 2 Dec 2020, groups of people from eight Mekong provinces established the Mekong People’s Council to share information about the impacts and data from previous research. The Council will further promote a conservation agenda and produce policy recommendations for the government. 

A Dream for the River of Rivalry

Thitinan told us that he wished to see China adhere to the existing rules in the Mekong region. The LMC framework that has been established does not need to be abolished. Instead, the downstream countries should be empowered in their voice and role. China could also attach more importance to the preceding frameworks like the LMC, MRC, or ACMECS, as the Lower Mekong countries increasingly have.

“If you observe, the downstream countries are giving importance to ACMECS, which Thailand set up during Thaksin’s government. Vietnam is interested. Cambodia is interested. It is a secondary body that can counterbalance the LMC. What I want to see is that China plays by the rules that the Mekong countries have jointly agreed on, and not set up its own rules and force others to follow.

“What I want is the use of the Mekong for collective prosperity and security. If it is done well, the Mekong could become a tourist attraction. With coordination, with a rail connection from China to Laos, and eventually from Laos to Thailand, if we can develop a fair form of cooperation, the Mekong could become the rice pot for all the six mainland Southeast Asian countries.”

Premrudee Daoroung, coordinator of the SEVANA South-East Asia project, who has more than two decades of experience in working with civil society and on environmental issues in the Lower Mekong area, thinks that in the past the Lower Mekong countries have been trying to make China alter its trouble-causing behaviour. However, their efforts have yielded limited results because they have failed to act in harmony when it comes to negotiating with China on serious issues. What has been lacking is the people’s participation in economic development and development policies. More often than not, the public are unable to access the information that can lead to questioning and understanding.

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