Open regionalism remains on track in the Mekong region although there is an anti-globalisation wave and rising protectionism in other parts of the world. Regional integration has been and will be one of the main foreign policy objectives of the Mekong countries.
The 8th ACMECS (Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy) Summit and the 9th CLMV (Cambodia-Laos-Myanmar-Vietnam) Summit will be held in Bangkok this weekend. The Bangkok Declaration and a Master Plan 2019-2023 are expected to be adopted during the ACMES Summit. Cambodia will chair the CLMV Summit.
These two mechanisms remain relevant but they have some overlapping areas that need be integrated into one mechanism in order to improve its effectiveness and efficiency, consolidate its regional position, and generate greater regional impacts.
Vietnam has proposed building a synergy between the two institutions by integrating them into one mechanism “the Mekong Sub-regional Development Cooperation for CLMV-ACMECS”. However, there is no consensus among the member countries yet.
One of the possible scenarios is to integrate the two mechanisms into a “CLMVT Development Cooperation”, which represents the interest of the five member countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand). If it is realised, CLMVT countries can further deepen regional integration.
Thailand is interested in strengthening unity and building consensus among the five countries first before talking with major powers so that they can enhance their negotiation and bargaining power. Thailand wants to revive its leadership role in the Mekong region and to some extent to check the rising influence of China in the region.
Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are supportive of any initiative that can promote regional cooperation and narrow the development gaps. These three less developed economies are economically pragmatic and Cambodia and Laos are strategically close to China. The lack of financial resources and commitment from the more advanced economies have stymied regional capacity to significantly reduce the development gaps.
Cambodia’s key interest is to see real, concrete results of regional cooperation. This is crucial, otherwise it will focus more on bilateral partnerships with major economic powers, especially China, and spend more time and effort in realising China-led multilateral cooperation frameworks which will deliver more development outputs.
The main challenges that CLMVT countries face include the lack of leadership and financial resources, unresolved sovereignty disputes, certain degree of political trust deficit, historical memory and nationalism, and relatively weak hard and soft infrastructures.
Domestic politics have much preoccupied these countries from spending time and effort in finding common solutions to bilateral and regional issues.
The five member states must double their efforts in promoting national dialogue and consultation on emerging regional issues, further liberalising and facilitating cross-border trade and investment flows, people movement, and infrastructure development.
Political will and trust must be strengthened through frequent consultation and dialogue among the five countries, as well as through the promotion of results-oriented cooperation.
Thailand and Vietnam should take a co-leadership role in these endeavours due to their economic size and strength. But the two countries are also competing for regional influence. Cambodia can also play an important leadership role if it has larger substantive ideas and relevant initiatives.
Cambodia might take a lead in proposing institutional reforms of AMECS and CLMV and integrating these two mechanisms into one single platform, which can be called “CLMVT Development Cooperation”.
Development partners such as the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) should be invited to attend the CLMVT Summit. Such a dialogue mechanism can promote project matching and implementation.
Other policy suggestions include the creation of a regional pool of funding to support capacity building and soft infrastructure projects such as institutional reforms and border governance. A CLMVT network of think tanks should be formed to carry out studies and propose policy interventions on cross-border issues, and to provide training programmes for government officials.
A CLMVT Business Summit should also be created in order to promote business networks and expand business opportunities in the region. Market-driven regionalism works best when the state can play a facilitating role and build necessary infrastructure for the market forces to grow.
Chheang Vannarith is a visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.