China’s Charm Offensive in the Mekong

The Khmer Times, 30 May 2016

The Mekong region is the new growth center of Asia as it is located at the junction of two Asian economic powers, China and India. The region is also an emerging strategic frontier in Southeast Asia.
There are five competitive initiatives: Mekong-Ganga in 2000 by India, the Japan-Mekong Regional Partnership in 2007 by Japan, the Lower Mekong Initiative in 2009 by the US, Mekong-Korea Comprehensive Partnership for Mutual Prosperity in 2011 by South Korea, and Lancang-Mekong Cooperation by China in 2015.
The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) focuses on three pillars and five areas of cooperation. The three pillars are the same as the Asean community blueprints, which consists of political security, economic and social-cultural blueprints.
The five areas of cooperation are connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources management and agriculture and poverty reduction.
LMC principally adheres to the spirit of “openness and inclusiveness” – complementing the existing regional and sub-regional cooperation mechanisms such as the Greater Mekong Sub-region, Asean-Mekong Basin Development Cooperation and the Mekong River Commission.
LMC complements China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, especially in infrastructure development and connectivity, and narrows the development gaps within Asean. The Mekong countries are expected to benefit from the early harvest projects, which include water resources management, poverty alleviation, public health, infrastructure, science and technology and personnel exchanges.
LMC orients towards pragmatic cooperation, multi-participation, and project-based partnerships. It aims to mobilize resources from the public and private sectors to implement the projects.
LMC promotes cross-border economies, strengthens production capacity cooperation, maximizes comparative advantages and builds cross-border industrial clusters and chains through the construction of industrial parks. Industrial zones are vital to regional production capacity cooperation.
China has supported four industrial zones in the region – the Long Jiang Industrial Park in Vietnam, the Saysettha Comprehensive Development Zone in Laos, the Cambodia Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone and the Thai-Chinese Rayong Industrial Zone.
Production capacity is one the core areas of the LMC. It lays out specific areas of cooperation such as electric power, power grids, cars, metallurgy, production of building materials, supporting industries, light industry, textiles, medical equipment, information, communications, rail transport, water transport, air transport, equipment manufacturing, renewable energy, agriculture and agricultural and aqua-cultural processing.
The main challenge for the LMC is sustainable water resources management. The differences and conflicts of interest between the upstream and downstream countries over the construction of controversial hydropower dams along the mainstream of the Mekong River have restrained regional cooperation.
To reduce mutual suspicion and tension, China is willing to share more data relating to quantity and quality of water, particularly in the dry season. To show its responsibility as an upstream country, China decided to discharge water from the Jinghong hydro power station to the Mekong River to assist downstream countries to mitigate severe droughts.
The LMC is China’s strategic attempt to strengthen its presence and influence in the Mekong region. China arguably aims to keep the US out of the region, which is believed to be China’s traditional sphere of influence and core strategic backyard.
China’s charm offensive aims to neutralize the non-claimant states in the South China Sea sovereignty disputes, which in turn prevent Asean from taking a united position against China’s core interests in the region.
The Mekong countries generally perceive China as an opportunity and a driving force for economic development and poverty reduction.

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