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Shi Yongming
The Fountain for Development
China and neighboring countries start new cooperation pattern in the Lancang-Mekong River region
By Shi Yongming | NO. 19 MAY 12, 2016

China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand conduct joint patrol on the upstream of Lancang-Mekong River in Yunnan Province on March 17, 2015 (XINHUA)

The strongest El Niño weather cycle on record has exacerbated drought in the Mekong River area since the end of last year, and the Mekong River's water level has fallen to a 90-year low. Due to the river's vastly reduced water flow, tens of thousands of hectares of farmland downstream in Viet Nam are likely to be flooded by seawater.

The Mekong River runs through five countries, namely Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam, in the Indo-China Peninsula. It is the downstream of southwest China's Lancang River.

At the request of the Vietnamese Government, China took action on March 15 to pour water into the Mekong River to alleviate the drought downstream even though China itself faces the same threat. In the face of natural disasters, the six countries along the Lancang-Mekong River exhibited the spirit of generosity and mutual assistance.

Against such a backdrop, the First Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Leaders' Meeting was held in Sanya, south China's Hainan Province, on March 23.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang together with top government leaders from the other five countries attended the meeting, which marked the beginning of the new pattern of Lancang-Mekong subregional cooperation. Discussions on common development issues centered on the meeting's theme: Shared River, Shared Future.

New framework

The LMC is set to be a new framework for promoting Lancang-Mekong sub-regional economic expansion.

Because of difficult geographical conditions and outdated transport infrastructure, economic development along the Mekong River remained slow and backward for a long time.

Since the 1990s, however, regional cooperation along the Mekong River has captured the attention of both the countries directly concerned and the international community.

Apart from the LMC, three major regional cooperation mechanisms now exist in the Mekong River area. In order of establishment, the first is the Great Mekong Subregion Cooperation (GMS), which was initiated by the six riparian countries in 1992 under a proposal of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The second is the Mekong River Commission, which was established by Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam in 1995, but could be dated back to a joint downstream survey coordination commission set up by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific back in 1957. The third is the ASEAN Mekong Basin Development Cooperation, which is an intergovernmental cooperation framework between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

These three mechanisms have their own characteristics and focus. But, none of them is purely a cooperation organization for the Great Mekong River riparian countries.

The Mekong River Commission, for example, serves as a dialogue platform between four downstream countries. The one which involves ASEAN aims at promoting economic development in Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam and integration within the ASEAN Economic Community. It also serves as a platform to enhance economic cooperation between ASEAN and China. With the participation of Japan and South Korea, the mechanism has become a part of the "10 plus 3" cooperation between ASEAN and China, Japan and South Korea.

GMS, comprised of six riparian countries, has held summits since 2002. China once regarded it as a major channel to promote Mekong River subregional cooperation. But, the GMS centers on the construction of individual projects, and the ADB must work as a major participant and sponsor. Moreover, it has been difficult for the GMS to work efficiently on facilitating infrastructure construction in the region because Japan, the dominant country of the ADB, focuses on competing with China in many aspects.

Therefore, the First LMC Leaders' Meeting marks a new pattern of multilateral cooperation in the subregion. First of all, the LMC has been established by the six riparian countries along the Lancang-Mekong River on the basis of equality and mutual benefit. Secondly, it is designed to build a community of common destiny and to seek broader and deeper international cooperation. The LMC can therefore better meet the common needs of the riparian countries.

Affected by the El Niño phenomenon, the whole Lancang-Mekong River area suffered a severe drought in 2010. Upstream, in southwest China's Yunnan Province, the river almost dried up. At that time, some Western media tried to flare up the tensions between China and the other riparian countries by criticizing China's dam construction upstream. In April of that year, the Mekong River Commission convened the first leaders' meeting where the then Prime Minister of Thailand, Abhisit Vejjajiva, thanked China for working together with downstream countries to cope with extreme weather conditions. He also expressed hopes to continue such coordination in the future. From then on, finding a way to tap into the potential of cooperation along the Lancang-Mekong River became a priority for the region's leaders.

In November 2014, at the 17th China-ASEAN Leaders' Meeting, held in Myanmar's capital, Naypyidaw, Premier Li called for the creation of the Lancang-Mekong cooperation mechanism in an echo to Thailand's proposal on promoting sustainable development in the region.

Through consultations and talks, the first foreign ministers' meeting of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation was held in Jinghong of Yunnan Province in November 2015. The ministerial meeting released a cooperation document and a joint communiqué, initiating the process of Lancang-Mekong cooperation.

Common goal

The core value of China's foreign policy centers on equality, mutual benefit and common development.

In recent years, China has proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative, which aims at interlinking the development plans of participating countries.

The LMC framework is established on the basis of building a community of common destiny. The shared river brings together six countries that are deeply aware of this objective. For this reason, the LMC framework goes far beyond the realm of economics.

At the first LMC ministerial meeting, the six countries pledged to work together in three major fields—political security, sustainable economic development and cultural and social undertakings. Furthermore, the six countries agreed to prioritize cooperation on connectivity, industrial capacity, cross-border trade, water resources, agriculture and poverty reduction, all of which the development of the region strongly requires.

The first LMC leaders' meeting pushed the subregional cooperation in the Lancang-Mekong area to new heights. In the Sanya Declaration issued at the meeting, leaders agreed to take concrete measures on a total of 26 items. China pledged to provide strong support for cooperation. The declaration mentions, for example, "China's commitment to establishing an LMC fund, providing concessional loans and special loans, and providing 18,000 scholarships every year and 5,000 training opportunities to candidates from Mekong countries in the next three years to support closer cooperation among Lancang-Mekong countries."

Though it has a promising future, the LMC framework will face plenty of challenges without question.

The world is undergoing unprecedented and profound changes both economically and politically. Developing countries have been striving to find their rightful place in the world, while power politics has not vanished from the current international order.

The United States is increasingly involved in regional affairs under its Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy. Also, Japan has begun to adopt a more aggressive foreign policy under right-wing political leaders in a bid to take a leading position in Asian affairs. Both countries asserted that China's effort to strengthen cooperation with Mekong River riparian countries is a measure to expand its regional influence. For this reason, they tend to countervail China's influence by offering competing options or by placing obstacles in the way of the China-proposed way of cooperation.

China's release of more water upstream to mediate drought affecting Vietnamese farmland this spring demonstrates the case in point. Some scholars from U.S. think tanks claimed that China wanted to control other riparian countries with water resources. Rather than paying attention to such statements, countries along the Lancang-Mekong River should make efforts to enhance political trust and coordination on the use of water resources through dialogue and consultation.

Countries should seek mutual benefit rather than confront each other in zero-sum games. As long as they work together as a community, their cooperation will bring a promising future.

The author is an associate researcher of the Asia-Pacific region at the China Institute of International Studies

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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