Mapping Mekong Cooperation Complementarities and Policy Implications

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Cambodia’s ultimate goal is peace and prosperity. The best way to achieve this goal is to craft a foreign policy that places sustainable economic development at its core. In such spirit, Cambodia aligns our development strategies to take advantage of various flagship initiatives. At the sub-regional level, various Mekong cooperation mechanisms are complementary to Cambodia’s economic diplomacy as well as efforts to bridge development gap, and pursue an inclusive and fully integrated ASEAN Economic Community.

There are 8 Mekong cooperation frameworks. Cambodia always seeks to capitalize from all the Mekong sub-regional cooperation mechanisms, namely 1) Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (India), 2) Mekong-Japan Cooperation, 3) Mekong-Republic of Korea Cooperation, 4) Lower Mekong Initiatives-LMI (the United States), 5) Mekong-Lancang Cooperation (People’s Republic of China), 6) Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), 7) Mekong River Commission (MRC) and 8) the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS).

Cambodia regards all Mekong partners as the key strategic and economic partners in our diversification strategy. More than being a participant, Cambodia is also playing a leading role in contributing to agenda-setting of various Mekong platforms as host and chair of the high-level meetings. For instance, in January 2018, Cambodia chaired the 2nd MLC Leaders’ Meeting in Phnom Penh and in April of the same year, Cambodia hosted the 3rd Mekong River Commission (MRC) Summit in Siem Reap. Cambodia and Thailand successfully co-chaired with the United States at the First LMI Policy Dialogue in April this year in Bangkok, and Cambodia led the discussion with the US on the strengthening of STEM education in the region. Coming in the pipeline, Cambodia will chair the 9th ACMECS Summit and 7th GMS Summit in 2020.

Thus, from such robust activities and engagements, what implications can be drawn?

First and foremost, we can all agree that the multilateralism is still alive. Countries still deem opportunities to interact and cooperate as fundamental to promote dialogue for peace and cooperation for sustainable development. Sustainable peace and development remains the core collective interest for all of us, especially for post-war zone like the Mekong region.

Now that the Mekong sub-region is an integral part of the ASEAN Community and even a center of the global growth engine, it is worthy to note that we did not come thus far by succumbing to the “zero-sum game mindset”, but instead we have consistently adhered to win-win cooperation and multilateralism approach anchored by a strong spirit of mutual trust, respect and equality.

Secondly, except for unique functioning of the MRC, it would be a misunderstanding that the Mekong cooperation is confined to water resources cooperation. In fact, most of the Mekong cooperation mechanisms are sort of common diplomatic platform for engagement between the Mekong nations and regional powers on a wide range of priority areas. It is possible to say that the Mekong mechanism is a “clustering factor” of development efforts of all the Mekong countries across many fields.

Thirdly, as many Mekong frameworks continue to evolve, uniqueness of each mechanism starts to emerge and they have complimented one another from their own individual specialty and values added. For instance, no mechanism is going to replace the technical expertise on water data that has been excelled by the MRC and no other mechanism is going to best capitalize on the strength of the economic corridors that have been developed under the GMS either. This is also true for specific development partners as they seek to carve their own niche in their interaction with the Mekong countries.

Fourthly, the fact that there are many Mekong cooperation frameworks means that there are many external partners, who are interested in the region. This is a good point for good reasons. With an annual growth rate of up to 7%, the Mekong countries shines brightly and the region has been considered as one of the main driving forces behind regional and global economic growth. Economies now constitute a consumer and labor market of over 300 million people, with rising incomes and a combined GDP that could exceed $1 trillion by 2020.

On the other hand, having many Mekong frameworks also means that tangible and concrete funding for cooperation is not something that is always readily available. Therefore, countries in the region need to find alternatives for diversified sources. Moreover, when it comes to the issues of ownership and stake holdership, it is fair to say that Mekong countries don’t want to be inactive and passive by listening to reports of completed projects without any involvement in any process of project formulation and delivery.

As the development challenges are too huge, it is the role of the Mekong countries to encourage healthy competition among development partners mindful that cooperation and complementarity should be the core spirit instead of the “zero-sum mindset” or strategic division and confrontation. The Mekong countries are mindful that Mekong platforms should not be politicized or become an arena to push for anti-China, anti-US, anti-Japan, anti-Korea, anti-India polarization or fall prey to geopolitical consequences that are the remembrances of the recent past.

Finally, as various Mekong frameworks continue to evolve robustly, Cambodia is proud that we could play a role in setting the agenda for the development of the Mekong region by actively engaging as a host and co-chair of various platforms. For future to come, Cambodia is highly and consistently committed to push further the above endeavors for the best interest of sustainable peace, sustainable development and shared prosperity for peoples in the region.

Mr Sim Vireak is Strategic Advisor to the Asian Vision Institute

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