The Mekong region is a new growth centre as well as a strategic frontier of Asia because all global and regional powers are engaged in this region at different levels on a wide range of issues – from social and environmental issues to economic and security cooperation.
In 1992, right after the end of the Cold War, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) introduced Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) to reduce poverty and strengthen economic relations among the Mekong countries.
The GMS Hanoi Action Plan 2018-2022 focuses on transport, urban development, energy, agriculture, environment, tourism, trade facilitation, human resource development and information and communication technology.
One of the key challenges of regional integration in Southeast Asia is the development gap between the old and new members. The support from the dialogue and development partners to the Mekong countries is therefore essential to reduce regional inequality.
Since the turn the century, China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States have developed their own initiatives to support the Mekong countries to enhance their socio-economy, narrow regional development gap and deepen their regional integration and connectivity. However, there is a lack of synergies between these initiatives.
The China-led Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) and the US-driven Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) are seen as competing mechanisms reflecting the dynamics of a complex US-China geopolitical rivalry in the region. To some extent, China and Japan are also competing in the region.
South Korea (ROK) under the leadership of President Moon Jae-in has introduced the New Southern Policy to deepen and expand ties with Southeast Asian countries and to upgrade ties with Asean to the same level shared with the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
Engaging the Mekong region constitutes part of the ROK’s regional diplomacy.
This week the leaders from the five Mekong countries and the ROK convened their inaugural meeting in Busan to further deepen their partnership. They adopted the Mekong-Han River Declaration for Establishing Partnership for People, Prosperity and Peace and agreed to strengthen their cooperation based on three pillars: people, prosperity and peace.
The new seven priority areas of cooperation include: culture and tourism, human resources development, agriculture and rural development, infrastructure, information and communication technology (ICT), environment and non-traditional security challenges.
Two key concepts “co-prosperity” and “sustainable prosperity” were emphasised at the summit. These reflect the commitment by the ROK to promote a fair, inclusive, sustainable and people-centred regional community building.
Complex interdependence between the ROK and Southeast Asia has increased over the years. The Asian financial crisis in 1997 – started in Thailand and spread across the region – was a case in point, illustrating deep interdependence between Asean and Northeast Asian countries (China, Japan, Korea).
The ROK was seriously affected by the crisis.
In the era of digitalisation and digital connectivity, the ROK and the Mekong countries are compelled to redouble their efforts to prepare their human capital and develop their critical infrastructures to reap the benefits from this Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Technology can be used to solve many regional issues such as climate change, diseases, energy, water and food security.
Mr Moon stressed, “we will collectively respond to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and launch ICT-based projects in the areas of education, new growth industries and forestry conservation, while jointly fostering innovative personnel for the future”. ICT stands for information and communications technology.
The South Korea-Mekong water resources research centre will be created under Seoul’s state-run K-water to promote safe and efficient use of the rich resources of the mighty Mekong River, which is facing mounting ecological stress mainly because of climate change and hydropower dams. The water in the Mekong River has fallen to a critical level and the livelihoods of the local people are seriously affected.
“The 2019 drought has brought the Mekong water levels to their lowest points in at least 60 years. Most parts of the basin have been experiencing an exceptionally regionally low flow since June,” reads the statement of the Mekong River Commission.
Knowledge and technology transfer, especially the experiences from managing the Han River, are valuable for the Mekong countries to manage the Mekong river in a transparent, sustainable and inclusive manner. Connecting knowledge, connecting stakeholders and connecting action are critical to better governance of the river.
The ROK does not have the ambition to compete with other global or regional powers. Hence, it can play a bridging role via promoting complementarity and increase synergy between and among various multilateral mechanisms in the Mekong region.
Chheang Vannarith is president of the Asian Vision Institute (AVI)