The U.S.’s second “Lower Mekong Initiative” (LMI) ministerial meeting with the Mekong states, including Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, took place in Bangkok during the 52nd ASEAN Foreign Minister’ Meeting. The continued meetings indicate the U.S.’s increasing engagement with the Mekong countries.
The LMI was originally proposed by the U.S. to enhance cooperation in infrastructure, education, health and environment. By initiating such a program, the U.S. seems to be attempting to balance China’s dominant influence in the Mekong region.
Soon before the second LMI ministerial meeting, a U.S. State Department official claimed that Chinese dams in the upper Mekong adversely affect other Mekong states. The U.S. then encouraged the states to “properly settle” the issue of water. Disputes over water resources have become a way for the U.S. to drive a wedge between China and the Mekong countries, thus weakening China’s outsize influence in the region. The U.S. can also potentially mobilize its media, and the popular international and local NGOs funded by some American agencies, in order to draw attention to this sensitive issue.
The Mekong states in general, and Vietnam in particular, might reasonably pursue America’s assistance, since they have long been concerned about China’s control over the water in the region. By bringing in the U.S., they could gain a significant bargaining chip.
But it will be difficult for the U.S. to realize its goals. First, the U.S. has had difficulty developing a relationship with the Mekong states, especially Cambodia and Myanmar, which could block a close network of partners against China. The U.S. has taken a very hostile policy towards the Hun Sen regime in Cambodia for many years, and its harsh stance cannot be reversed unless opposition parties seize power in Cambodia. U.S.-Myanmar relations have had their own troubles over the rapproachment between Myanmar and China and the Rohingya refugee crisis. Since the Rohingya issue is unlikely to be resolved in the near future, the U.S. will probably not be able to revive relations with Myanmar.
In the past decade, both China and the Mekong countries have deepened their cooperation on water resources management, bilaterally and multilaterally. Thanks to these mechanisms, the water disputes have not snowballed. At present, China and the Mekong states have reached a consensus on jointly managing the water resources in the Mekong river under the framework of Lancang-Mekong cooperation mechanism (LMC). Given this, the water disputes can be effectively managed by China and the Mekong states.
U.S. diplomats and officers have also criticized China for interfering in Vietnam’s oil and gas exploitation in the South China Sea (SCS). The U.S. has enhanced defense cooperation with Vietnam by exporting a large number of advanced weapons to the country in recent years, intending to strengthen the military power of Vietnam against China. U.S. senior officials, including President Trump, have overtly supported Vietnam in the SCS. Given Vietnam’s tough stance in the SCS, the U.S. would likely continue to involve itself in the maritime territory disputes between China and Vietnam.
However, Vietnam risks provoking China by bringing the U.S. into the SCS, since China has repeatedly reaffirmed its rejection of the involvement of a third party in the maritime territory dispute. Vietnam would also be pressured by its ASEAN neighbors who are increasingly aware of the serious consequences of U.S. involvement in the SCS.
To conclude, China’s interests and influence in the Mekong region would be adversely affected by the U.S.’s increasing engagement with the Mekong states, but the negative effects are limited. Both China and the Mekong states should be fully aware of the consequence of U.S. involvement and should jointly manage the disputes and promote pragmatic cooperation.
Peng Nian is an assistant research fellow at National Institute for South China Sea Studies, as well as non-resident fellow at Institute for China-America Studies, U.S.