China’s Effectiveness in Mekong Diplomacy a Lesson for South China Sea
The first Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting under the theme “Shared River-Shared Future” kicked off yesterday in Sanya, Hainan province, amid increasing tensions in the South China Sea and the controversy over the management of Mekong River water resources.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang chaired the meeting, which was attended by Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, Vice President of Myanmar Sai Mauk Kham, and Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh.
The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) mechanism signifies “a natural result of our existing cooperation, and will take full advantage of our close geographic proximity, traditional friendship and complementary economies,” Premier Li said during the meeting.
China initiated the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) framework in November 2014 at the 17th China-ASEAN Summit. LMC was officially launched a year after, focusing on five areas of cooperation including connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources management, and social, cultural and people-to-people exchanges.
The LMC is generally regarded as an important sub-regional mechanism to reinforce ASEAN-China strategic partnership and well complement China’s Belt and Road initiative.
Cambodia believes that the LMC helps foster its economic and social development through infrastructure development and connectivity, production capacity, cross-border trade and investment, and sustainable management of the trans-boundary water resources.
Cambodia welcomes China’s decision to discharge water from Jinghong Hydropower station in Yunan province to downstream countries for emergency use from March 15 to April 10. The act is seen as a goodwill gesture from China to help downstream countries to deal with drought.
“The discharge of water into [the] Mekong River proves again the good cooperation on water resource management between the Mekong countries and China, which is an important part of the Mekong-Lancang River cooperation mechanism,” said a press release from Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs last week.
Although there are positive developments between China and other Mekong countries, China needs to do much more to build its global image as “peaceful development.” China needs to share more information and data about the Mekong River in the dry season with the downstream countries. China should consider joining the Mekong River Commission and strengthen the institutional capacity and enforcement of this organization.
China needs to work much harder to build strategic trust with other Southeast Asian countries that are claimants of territory in the South China Sea, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines.
The final decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, expected in a few months, with regards to the case submitted by the Philippines on its maritime dispute with China in the South China Sea will spark a new round of tensions between China and the Philippines.
Furthermore, the ongoing diplomatic spat between China and Indonesia deriving from the confrontation between a Chinese coastguard ship and an Indonesian vessel in the South China Sea last weekend stirs a new wave of uneasy relationships between the two countries, adding on to the already complex regional security environment and risks.
Enjoying strong economic and political ties with China, Indonesia has rarely criticized China over its activities in the South China Sea. Indonesia is not a party to the South China Sea dispute. But the recent incident has sparked a strong reaction from Indonesia – calling it a violation of the sovereignty of Indonesia’s waters.
China, on the other hand, claims that the incident took place in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the Chinese vessel was “attacked and harassed” by an armed Indonesian vessel.
China may need to readjust its foreign policy approach towards Southeast Asia, particularly in regard to the South China Sea disputes. Clearly, China’s approach towards to the Mekong countries is more effective than its approach towards the South China Sea. (Mr. Vannarith is a lecturer of Asia Pacific studies at the University of Leeds and co-founder of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies.)
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