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(November 27, 2020) China-US rivalry on Mekong mainland

Unlike other key foreign policy areas where President-elect Joe Biden will likely change the course left behind by outgoing President Donald Trump, the Mekong River region in mainland Southeast Asia represents a low-hanging fruit where continuity from Washington carries consensus. As China has dominated the Mekong space by operating a string of upstream dams and controlling downstream river resources, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam as adversely affected riparian countries have looked for ways and means to mitigate and counterbalance Beijing's aggressive freshwater offensive. All the incoming Biden administration has to do is to keep its eye on the Mekong and work with like-minded partners to keep mainland Southeast Asian countries from becoming Beijing's uncontested front yard.


Until recently, the Mekong mainland comprising the CLMTV -- Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam -- was considered a subregion. Three decades ago when China's development trajectory started, the Mekong region was cultivated by Japan through the Asian Development Bank, conceptualised and manifested under the Greater Mekong Subregion. But over the years, China has effectively stolen Japan's thunder as its 11 dams (among several dozens more in the works) started hogging water upstream. To stamp its authority and make its Mekong supremacy a fait accompli, Beijing has marginalised the first-generation Mekong River governance framework by coming up with the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) in 2016, overshadowing the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and Mekong agreement from two decades earlier.