There are several Mekong cooperation mechanisms between the lower Mekong countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam) with China, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, and the US. The leading mechanisms in terms of sizeable project funding are Mekong-Lancang Cooperation and the Mekong-Japan Cooperation. Sometimes the size of their funding can be confusing because both Japan and China combine all their bilateral funding schemes into their financial contributions pledge in their regional initiatives.
For countries in the Mekong region, various regional mechanisms are perceived as the catalyst for the much-needed development to catch up with older members of Asean. Except for Thailand that has strong economic and industrial base, most of the Mekong countries are post-conflict nations with relatively weak state institutions and underdeveloped social and economic infrastructures. Vietnam is a frontrunner in terms of economic development and international integration success. The other countries namely Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are always at the bottom list of any development index.
It always sounds awkward when Asean, with Singapore as a rotating chairman this year, is advocating for “innovation” and “smart cities” while the income of the majority of the population in the Mekong countries is still below $3 per day.
Putting such development gap into a wider regional cooperation perspective, these Mekong cooperation platforms fit well into the Mekong region’s economic development interest and they are complimentary to the Asean regional integration efforts.
Nevertheless, these Mekong cooperation mechanisms are increasingly perceived by some older members of Asean as a threat to further geopolitically divide mainland Southeast Asia and maritime Southeast Asia. Such concerns can become real if Asean does not effectively implement its own initiative to narrow the development, especially under the Initiative for Asean Integration (IAI).
Moreover, Asean will become less relevant if it cannot meet both security and economic needs of the less developed members. Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar have their own right and choice to choose their development path. The more developed Asean members have the duty to assist other less developed members to catch up if they really believe in Asean integration.
All Asean member states stand to benefit from the narrowing of the development gap. Infrastructure projects being developed by development partners of the Mekong region are critical to realising the Asean master plan of connectivity, facilitating intra-regional trade and investment, and promoting human mobility.
Such development in the Mekong region makes Asean more inclusively integrated. With more economic and capital resources, older Asean member states stand to gain even more than the Mekong countries in tapping investment benefits when soft and hard infrastructure are enhanced.
Maritime Asean member states should be more supportive in developing the Mekong region for the sake of common regional interests. Asean should develop a strategy to build synergies between Mekong cooperation mechanisms and Asean community building. As it is, Asean has not paid sufficient attention to the development of the Mekong region – particularly poverty reduction and water-food-energy security nexus.
Another challenge facing the Mekong region and Asean is the heightening geopolitical and economic competition between China and Japan. For Mekong countries, the competition is a healthy one and this constructively contributes to regional development. However, realities on the ground can be different.
From the Chinese point of view, Mekong-Japan cooperation mechanism is a means for Japan to challenge or check the rising influence of China in the region. Japan has been vocal in addressing the South China Sea issue. Japan is not a claimant state of the South China Sea dispute but it has raised this issue at the Mekong-Japan platform.
From a broader geopolitical perspective, Mekong-Japan cooperation is a means for Japan and the US to push forward the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) that is generally viewed as counter-measure to the China’s grand-strategy Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India has yet to raise the FOIP within its cooperation with the Mekong countries. Maybe sooner or later, it will follow suit.
Beyond the Mekong countries’ original intention to increase the chance of their development, the involvement and power competitions between regional powers have complicated the Mekong cooperation dynamism beyond the control of Mekong countries.
Mekong countries do not have ownership over the funding and sometimes not even on the operation of the infrastructure development projects. Such form of cooperation puts the Mekong countries at the mercy of their development partners – which in turn makes them voiceless and powerless in asserting their own regional and national interest vis-à-vis the geopolitical agenda of their development partners.
While Mekong cooperation mechanisms are considered as complimentary to regional economic development and integration, Mekong countries seem to lack ownership over how they are run – with development partners having the upper hand.
Sad to say, these countries will be the victims of their own weakness as maritime Asean member states have less interest to care about narrowing the development gap. “Innovation” and “smart cities” are policy directions of some older Asean member states but for some Mekong countries, it is a different reality. They are still struggling with poverty and rural development and this clearly reflects a two-tiered Asean.
Doung Bosba is a Cambodian analyst based in Phnom Penh.