Mapping Mekong Cooperation Complementarities and Policy Implications
I. Mapping Mekong Cooperation Complementarities
“There is no development without peace and there is no durable peace without development either.”
Cambodia’s ultimate goal is peace and prosperity. The best way to achieve this goal is to craft a foreign policy that places sustainable economic development at its core. In such spirit, Cambodia aligns its development strategies to take advantage of various flagship initiatives. At the sub-regional level, various Mekong cooperation mechanisms are complementary to Cambodia’s economic diplomacy as well as efforts to bridge development gaps and pursue an inclusive and fully integrated ASEAN Economic Community.
There are eight Mekong cooperation frameworks. Cambodia seeks to capitalise from all of these Mekong sub-regional cooperation mechanisms, namely 1) Mekong-Ganga Cooperation [with India], 2) Mekong-Japan Cooperation, 3) Mekong-Republic of Korea Cooperation, 4) Lower Mekong Initiatives (LMI) [with the United States], 5) Mekong-Lancang Cooperation [with the People’s Republic of China], 6) Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), 7) Mekong River Commission (MRC) and 8) the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS).
Cambodia regards all Mekong partners as key strategic and economic partners in its diversification strategy. Cambodia’s economic development cannot be dissociated from the contribution of partners such as the US, China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, India and other friendly nations in building a sound and strong economy for its people’s livelihoods.
More than being a participant, Cambodia is also playing a leading role in contributing to agenda-setting in various Mekong platforms as host and chair of high-level meetings.
Mekong-Lancang Cooperation (MLC)
In January 2018, Cambodia chaired the 2nd MLC Leaders’ Meeting in Phnom Penh, which produced the Phnom Penh Declaration and the Five-Year Plan of Action on the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (2018-2022). Cambodia co-chaired this landmark meeting successfully with China under the theme “Our River of Peace and Sustainable Development” at the important juncture where this new mechanism is moving from the ‘foundation-laying stage’ to an ‘expansion stage’ marked by an ambitious agenda of partnership and cooperation.
As the host and co-chair, Samdech Techo Prime Minister Hun Sen praised the significant achievement of the Mekong region in achieving peaceful co-existence through mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. The latest 4th MLC Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, held in Luang Prabang in December 2018, agreed to concretise the joint building of an MLC Economic Development Belt to enhance production capacity cooperation through multi-nation, multi-industrial park cooperation, among others. Cambodia also suggested conducting a study on the possibility to establish an international secretariat in order to ensure effectiveness and efficiency of coordination as well as to create a repository institutional memory keeper.
Since the launch of the LMC Special Fund in 2016, under which China has pledged USD 300 million for the region over five years, Cambodia has received a total of 35 projects (approximately USD 14 million) covering a broad scope of cooperation activities in the fields of agriculture, tourism, ICT, education and research, water resources, rural development, air connectivity and cultural and religious exchanges.
It is worth noting that the MLC mechanism provides the highest level of project ownership for Mekong countries as they can involve themselves directly from the project formulation process until final delivery. These projects are small by design, with a maximum of half a million dollars budget each, because they are not massive infrastructure projects. However, their impact on the Mekong sub-region is significant. They work as soft infrastructure to complement hard infrastructure implemented under other bilateral and multilateral schemes. There are also projects that provide scholarships for students from rural areas, making tangible impacts that touch the lives of the people and contribute to the improvement of their wellbeing.
Mekong River Commission (MRC)
In April 2018, Cambodia hosted the 3rd Mekong River Commission (MRC) Summit in Siem Reap. Under the theme “Enhancing Joint Efforts and Partnerships towards the Achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in the Mekong River Basin”, the summit reaffirmed the significance of the 1995 Mekong Agreement and the mandate of MRC as a unique treaty-based inter-governmental river basin organisation for Mekong cooperation.
In the planning and strategic framework, the leaders adopted the Basin Development Strategy based on the Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) Principle 2016-2020 and MRC Strategic Plan 2016-2020. Many other sectoral strategies were also approved such as the Mekong Adaptation Strategy and the Action Plan for Climate Change and Basin-wide Fisheries Management and Development Strategy.
Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI)
The Lower Mekong Initiative, which is a cooperation framework between Mekong countries and the United States, also witnessed a turning point as it recalibrated itself into a platform for policy dialogue to ensure informed management of resources and sustainable development with good governance. Two inclusive pillars have been developed: 1) the Water, Energy, Food, and Environment Nexus and 2) Human Development and Connectivity.
Cambodia has been proactive in supporting this mechanism. Cambodia and Thailand successfully co- chaired with the United States on each respective pillar at the First LMI Policy Dialogue in April this year in Bangkok, and Cambodia led the discussion with the US on the strengthening of STEM education in the region.
Cambodia has benefited from many activities under this initiative. LMI has made tangible impacts in terms of strengthening capacity in managing sustainable infrastructures. Capacity building programmes ranging from boosting people’s resilience in countering negative effects from extreme weather topromoting water data sharing and enhancing data collection capacity to reduce the risks of floods and droughts are crucial for improving agriculture-led economic growth and food security. Educating and empowering women in entrepreneurship and strengthening regional educational institutions and student networks focusing on STEM are also positive contributions that the LMI can rightfully claim, among others.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of LMI. The LMI mechanism has matured to become an important tool for the region in addressing many transnational and cross-cutting issues that require collective endeavours to mitigate risks, boost resilience and ensure that the region is on the right path for sustainable development.
It should be underlined that LMI’s joint efforts has led to the “Joint Statement To Strengthen Water Data Management and Information Sharing in The Lower Mekong” in August 2018. This is an important milestone for LMI and the Friends of the Lower Mekong in galvanising efforts to strengthen the capacity of Lower Mekong countries and the Mekong River Commission in collecting, analysing and managing water, land and weather data to mitigate climate-related risks.
At this important juncture of the revitalised LMI, Cambodia also welcomes the US’s intention to establish the LMI Public Impact Program. It is anticipated that this programme will be strongly supported by concrete funding with enhanced stakeholdership from countries in the region within the project formulation and implementation process.
Mekong Japan Cooperation
In October 2018, Japan hosted the 10th Mekong-Japan Summit Meeting in Tokyo, unleashing the “Tokyo Strategy 2018 for Mekong-Japan Cooperation” focusing on three pillars, namely vibrant and effective connectivity, people-centred society and the realisation of a Green Mekong.
Unlike the “New Tokyo Strategy 2015” in which Japan committed around 750 billion Yen (about USD 6,821 million) in ODA to the Mekong region for three years (2016-2018), the “Tokyo Strategy 2018” did not provide a specific financial pledge. It is worth noting that financial pledges for Mekong-Japan Cooperation are not an exclusive or standalone package but rather a combination of all Japanese assistance to the region. In the list of projects, there is no clear distinction between bilateral projects, Mekong sub-regional projects or other multilateral projects.
On top of hard and soft connectivity, Cambodia has drawn attention to the importance of ‘industry connectivity,’ which was laid out in the Tokyo Strategy 2018. Cambodia strongly encouraged greater private sector utilisation of enhanced hard and soft connectivity by considering the whole Mekong region as an integrated supply and production chain through modalities such as “Thailand+1” or “Vietnam+1”, in which Japan’s major factories in Thailand or Vietnam outsource downstream production chains to Cambodia to maximise the utilisation of different comparative advantages and incentives that each Mekong country can offer.
Mekong-Republic of Korea (ROK) Cooperation
For the Mekong-Republic of Korea Cooperation, the New Southern Policy has served as a major boost to this cooperation framework. Samdech Techo Prime Minister Hun Sen has been the most vocal advocate for the elevation of the Mekong-ROK Cooperation to the summit level. Therefore, Cambodia is pleased that such bold determination was announced at the 8th Mekong-ROK Foreign Ministers’ Meeting last year in Singapore.
Work is underway to gather inputs for tangible goals and directions that leaders could announce at the upcoming inaugural Mekong-ROK Summit to be held back-to-back with the 30th ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit in November 2019 in Busan.
As part of the New Southern Policy, Cambodia also highly appreciated the state visit of President Moon Jae-in to Cambodia in March this year, which testified to the ROK’s strong interest and commitment to the deepening of friendship and enhancement of multi-pronged cooperation both in bilateral and multilateral frameworks under the three pillars of “People, Prosperity and Peace”.
Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC)
Cultural and religious connectivity, agriculture, ICT and education cooperation are important sectors within the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation, which is the platform for cooperation between Mekong countries and India.
It is worth recalling that India was the first official development partner to operate within a Mekong sub-regional cooperation framework. In MGC, the first Plan of Action to Implement Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (2016-2018) was adopted, marking a concrete step toward the implementation of various cooperation projects in priority areas, namely tourism, cultural cooperation, education, people-to- people contact, transport and connectivity, ICT, health and agriculture.
Over the past years, the MGC framework has succeeded in establishing Entrepreneur Development Centres (EDCs), Centres for English Language Trainings (CELTs) and Vocational Training Centres (VTCs) in various Mekong countries including Cambodia.
As host country of the Traditional Asian Textiles Museum, which was inaugurated in 2014 in Siem Reap, Cambodia has made efforts to ensure the sustainability of operations by involving the private sector and seeking ways to ensure the museum’s profitability with the increasing flow of tourists in Siem Reap. The
Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS)
For ACMECS, the consolidation of the ACMECS Master Plan was an important milestone. Starting from the Bagan Declaration in 2003 and the Economic Cooperation Strategy Plan of Action, and after various revolving Plans of Action, it has come to the point where all member countries have decided to formulate the ACMECS Master Plan (2019-2023), which wasinitiated by Thailand. From specific Plans of Action, member countries have made a bolder move to put forward a vision that is regionallydesigned and ‘home-grown’ based on common achievements as well as trial-and-error from more than a decade of sub-regional cooperation.
This home-grown vision results from the sub–region’s strong spirit of self-reliance and ownership as well as from interactions among various Mekong sub-regional frameworks that have offered, on the one hand, complementarities benefiting the region’s development. On the other hand, these frameworks have also presented inevitable pressures from influence competition.
The adoption of the Bangkok Declaration and ACMECS Master Plan last year sent a clear message to the world that sustainable economic development supported by peace, good neighbourliness and friendship is what the region wants the most.
Cambodia agreed in principle to Thailand’s initiative on the establishment of the ACMECS Fund and the ACMECS Infrastructure Fund and Trust. The immediate tasks are to deliberate on and study the mechanism, structure, feasibility and Terms of References of these funds. So far, together with the List of Prioritized Projects, the List of First Batch of Development Partners has been finalised and efforts to engage with potential development partners are ongoing. Cambodia will chair the 9th ACMECS Summit in 2020.
Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS)
Vietnam hosted the 6th Greater Mekong Subregion Summit in April 2018. The Ha Noi Action Plan (HAP) 2018–2022 was developed to provide necessary adjustments and sharpen the focus to ensure maximum effectiveness of the GMS Economic Cooperation Program. To support the HAP, the Regional Investment Framework 2022 was formulated, identifying a pipeline of 227 projects with an indicative cost of USD 66 billion.
The GMS Summit highlighted the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the mechanism and showcased project results arising from strong partnerships among countries, the Asian Development Bank and other development partners through, among others, the Regional Investment Framework (RIF). Cambodia will be the next chairman of the 7th GMS Summit in 2020.
II. Policy Implications
Thus, from such robust activities and engagement, what implications can be drawn?
First and foremost, an overall statement can be made that multilateralism is still alive. Countries still deem opportunities to interact and cooperate as fundamental to the promotion of dialogue for peace and cooperation for sustainable development. Sustainable peace and development remain a core collective interest for all, especially for post-war zones like the Mekong sub-region.
Now that the Mekong sub-region is an integral part of the ASEAN Community, and even a centre of global growth, it is worth noting that the Mekong has not succumbed to a ‘zero-sum game mindset,’ but instead has consistently adhered to win-win cooperation and a multilateralism approach anchored by a strong spirit of mutual trust, respect and equality.
Mekong countries and their partners have combined forces to prove that engaging in cooperative multilateralism can serve the region well, and they should continue to do so for the future.
Secondly, except for the unique functioning of the MRC, it would be a misunderstanding to say that Mekong cooperation is confined to water resource cooperation. In fact, most Mekong cooperation mechanisms serve as common diplomatic platforms for engagement between Mekong nations and regional powers on a wide range of priority areas. It is possible to say that Mekong mechanisms are a ‘clustering factor’ of the development efforts of all Mekong countries across many fields.
Thirdly, as many Mekong frameworks continue to evolve, the uniqueness of each mechanism starts to emerge, as they have complemented one another through providing their own individual specialty and added value. For instance, no mechanism is going to replace the technical expertise on water data that is provided by the MRC, and no other mechanism is going to better capitalise on the strengths of the economic corridors that have been developed under the GMS either. This is also true for specific development partners as they seek to carve their own niche in their interactions with Mekong countries.
Fourthly, the fact that there are many Mekong cooperation frameworks means that there are many external partners who are interested in the region. This is a good point for good reason. With an annual growth rate of up to 7%, Mekong countries shine brightly and the region has been considered as one of the main driving forces behind regional and global economic growth. Mekong economies now constitute a consumer and labour market of over 300 million people, with rising incomes and a combined GDP that could exceed USD 1 trillion by 2020.
On the other hand, having many Mekong frameworks also means that tangible and concrete funding for cooperation is not something that is always readily available. Countries in the region need to find alternatives to ensure diversified sources. Moreover, when it comes to the issues of ownership and stakeholdership, it is fair to say that Mekong countries don’t want to be inactive and passive by listening to reports of completed projects without any involvement in the project formulation and delivery processes.
As development challenges are huge, it is the role of Mekong countries to encourage healthy competition among development partners, mindful that cooperation and complementarity should be the core spirit instead of a ‘zero-sum mindset’ or strategic division and confrontation. Mekong countries are mindful that Mekong platforms should not be politicised or become an arena to push for anti-China, anti-US, anti-Japan, anti-Korea or anti-India polarisation, as the region will fall prey to geopolitical consequences that are remembrances of the recent past.
The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.