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The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation: Challenges, Opportunities and Ways Forward

 The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation:
Challenges, Opportunities and Ways Forward

Thursday, 28th April 2016

Anantara Siam Hotel, Bangkok

 

Opening Remarks

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana
Dean, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

H.E. Mr. Hu Zhengyao
Vice Chair, China Public Diplomacy Association (PDA)

Speakers:

Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn
Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand

Ambassador Pou Sothirak
Executive Director, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP)

Prof. Dao Trong Tu
Director, Center for Sustainable Development of Water,
Resources and Adaptation to Climate Change (CEWAREC),
Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam (DAV)

Mr. Yang Yi
Secretary General, China Institute of International Studies (CIIS)

Moderator:

Assos. Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak
Director, ISIS Thailand
Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

 

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Video: The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation: Challenges, Opportunities and Ways Forward

The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation: Challenges, Opportunities and Ways Forward Part 1/1: goo.gl/Ajp6Xp

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Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana: The Lancang-Mekong region is important Southeast Asia, but has long been neglected.

ASEAN and China recently concluded the inaugural Lancang-Mekong Summit in Sanya/Hainan which will promote political and economic cooperation on the Mekong River. There have been water tensions between upstream and downstream countries but hopefully there is enough spirit of goodwill to overcome problems and come up with solutions. The Mekong waterways are important to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand. Beijing’s new Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism is aimed at allaying the tensions and fears about how the Mekong River is utilized.

More attention is being paid to the Mekong River and mainland Southeast Asia. It is a dynamic region full of potential and promise. It is also a region that is coming into its own in a concentric fashion within the frames of CLMT – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand – and of the GMS, or the Greater Mekong Subregion. This is a rising region that is the mainland part of ASEAN but also a region with its own internal drivers and logic.

But there is a flipside to the growth potential of the Mekong Mainland. Rapid economic development requires energy utilization and the protection of the environment. The Mekong Mainland countries must find a balance between environmental concerns and energy needs, particularly the hydropower development in upstream areas that adversely affect downstream countries. Satisfying energy demands with environmental sustainability is a pressing and paramount challenge. To do so, we must find ways to cooperate between the Mekong riparian countries.

 

H.E. Mr. Hu Zhengyao:

The first Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting was successfully held in China in March 2016, which will lay down a solid foundation for future growth. The Lancang-Mekong River is nearly 5000kms long, and covers an area of nearly 800,000 square kilometers. There are five ASEAN countries on the Mekong River, and China has established a strong strategic partnership with all of them. In 2015, the trade between China and the Mekong Countries reached nearly 200 million USD with nearly 15 million people-to-people exchanges.

The goal of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation is to promote the knowledge and social development of all countries though practical cooperation, and to encourage regional integration with the goal of creating stability and meeting the common aspirations of all peoples in the region.

 

Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn:

The Mekong is an old issue, but now it has taken on new dynamics because of the severe drought, and contestation over upstream and downstream water rights and construction. The way that China approaches ASEAN and the Lancang-Mekong will have a great impact on the prospects for peace and prosperity in the region. If China approaches the Lancang-Mekong as its ‘front-yard,’ the countries of ASEAN will be treated as welcome guests and will get the respect and attention that they deserve, but if China treats it as its own ‘back-yard’ then there will be tensions.

Some key questions that China still needs to address are how the LMC could produce the same kind of levels of governance and transparency as the AIIB, and how it will be integrated with existing mechanisms such as the Belt and Road Initiative.

The LMC also joins an increasingly long list of initiatives aimed at improving the conditions along the Lancang-Mekong River. The question of whether it will complement, compete with or replace existing mechanisms like the ABD’s GMS or the Mekong River Commission, will be a bellwether for how well China can display its domestic finesse more broadly. The true success of the LMC will be measured by how well it impacts people-to-people links and whether it can make improvements at the environmental and local levels.

China wants to use the LMC as a way to draw attention away from the maritime realm and the South China Sea dispute, and give more emphasis to its Belt and Road Initiative and programs to increase physical connectivity in East Asia. The Mekong gives China an opportunity to really exercise its charm and leadership without much interference from extra-regional powers or opposition from ASEAN. 

 

Ambassador Pou Sothirak:

The inappropriate exploitation of the Mekong River exposes a complex challenge among the riparian states in the region, and unless alternative and creative solutions to mitigate the negative side-effects of dam-building can be found, unsustainable aggravation of the Mekong River will exacerbate the growing environmental and social problems on its banks.

There is no international treaty covering the use of transboundary rivers, leaving some countries in the Mekong region in a position of power to control the river as they see fit, without having to consult their vulnerable neighbours nor having to seek their approval when it comes to building more dams.

One practical way to minimise the potential for growing tensions, and social and environmental damage is to call upon a multilateral approach to outline the responsibilities, rights and risks of each proposed hydro project. A balance needs to be struck between who benefits from the dam and who has to deal with its consequences downstream.

The role and responsibility of the Mekong River Commission must be strengthened. Its decisions and findings must also be upheld by all countries. Any major dam project must take into account and mitigate its impact on fisheries, the environment, environmental management, navigation of the river, flood control, agriculture and tourism.

Unless the Mekong region governments can carefully balance the needs for dam construction with sustainable and environmentally sound practises, tension and competition on the river will only be exacerbated.

When it comes to cross-border cooperation on water management, China is considered the upstream and most powerful country. China has been extremely reluctant to sign a water-sharing treaty. The LMC is a step in the right direct and is a welcome sign that could encourage transparency and shared water management. It fits well within China’s commitment towards good neighbourliness, and could be in line with ASEAN’s existing multilateral approaches.

 

Prof. Dao Trong Tu:

As the most downstream country, the health of the Mekong River has a huge impact on Vietnam. Water cooperation, environmental protection and cooperation between the upstream and downstream countries of the Mekong River will have a significant impact on the countries of the region, its economic development and prosperity, and the lives of the people living on its shores.

The LMC should be based on multilateral cooperation and consultation, transparency and should be in accordance with the UN Charter and international law. The LMC must also take into account the economic potential and the strong population growth in the Mekong area, as well as the growing threat from climate change. Cooperation on integrated water management, capacity building, technology transfers and information sharing should also be facilitated through the LMC. 

The LMC should also take into account the need to listen to the voices of the people. When we talk about sustainability and development, it is the people living on the Mekong River who are most affected.

 

Mr. Yang Yi

The first LMC meeting was held in Sanya in March 2016. It is aimed at promoting a close relationship between the six countries along the Mekong River, namely China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The aim of the LMC is to enhance cooperation and to build a shared future of prosperity in the Mekong region for the common interests, aspirations and kinship of the people.

The pillars of the LMC deliberately mirror the pillars of the ASEAN Community – economic, social and environment, and political – in order to compliment ASEAN’s ongoing integration process. These lay a solid cooperation for deep cooperation in line with existing mechanisms and institutions in the region. The LMC can also help respond to political and social challenges while allowing all member states along the Mekong to narrow the development gap and to build production capacity.

China is a strong supporter to ASEAN integration efforts. Schemes like the LMC, AIIB and Belt and Road initiative are examples of this. China gives priority to deepening its good neighbourliness and enhancing cooperation with Southeast Asia, because there is a common interest in upholding peace and prosperity in the region.

In the new reality of downward pressure on economic growth, the LMS is an example of South-South economic cooperation and is in line with the United Nations post-2015 development agenda. Concrete projects and deeper cooperation, including information and technology sharing, should be a foundation for ongoing peace and security.

 

Question and Answer

Public Question: There is no water sharing treaty on the Mekong River. Could a legally binding treaty like the Indus River Treaty between Pakistan and India a desirable objective in the GMS?

 

Public Question: The LMC could be an excellent tool to solve some of the shared challenges in the Mekong region. Could the LMC be a platform in which ensuring certain water levels are consistently sustained to keep regular flows in the river?

 

Yang Yi: According to the consensus of the LMC leaders meeting, centres for water resource research and environmental protection will be established.

Whether it is for upstream or downstream countries, water on the Mekong needs to be shared. Often the focus is on impact to downstream countries, but it must not be forgotten upstream countries can also be affected by downstream activities. If we want to make full use of the river, there needs to be acknowledgement of the shared interests and concerns, both upstream and downstream.

Most of the world’s 15 international rivers are underdeveloped, mostly because of a lack of cooperation between upstream and downstream countries. There is no template for us to follow which would be applicable to the Mekong region, however we can look to South Asia or even North America for some inspiration.

The kind of subregional cooperation envisioned by the LMC includes finding new ways to share and manage water on the Mekong river.

Kavi: The recent release of water in China’s upstream dams was very well received by ASEAN countries, but is there any way that it can be done in a more regularised way so that we can collaborate and prepare ourselves? 

 

Moderator: Would China be will or receptive to a binding agreement or rules within the LMC framework?

Yang Yi: The 6 countries can be important for building an Asian community of common destiny – Mekong cooperation and make this a reality. With regards to the LMC, I do not see any contradiction with other existing mechanisms, such as the ASEAN Community, the GMS and also the ASEAN Mekong Basin Development Cooperation. LMC can play a beneficial role in helping meet the vison of these mechanisms.

The LMC is the first kind of mechanism that we have established to try to build some cooperation between all 6 countries on the Mekong.

Kavi: The hope is that the LMC will be complimentary, not competitive with existing mechanisms.

Pou Sothirak: The MRC has a limited capacity to deal with the deeper and more disturbing issues, particularly with dam building, which has follow-on impacts to fisheries, agriculture, social development and water management. It doesn’t include Myanmar and China. How can the LMC compliment the MRC? With China’s willingness, the LMC can be much more effective. Hopefully they will see through their commitment to a share future of prosperity.

 

 

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