Mekong-Japan Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Strategy

The Khmer Times, March 26, 2018

Japan has taken a proactive approach in promoting a “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy” aiming to connect two continents, Asia and Africa, and two oceans, Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean.

The Mekong region is a new growth center and strategic frontier of Asia, and geopolitically it stays at the heart of the Indo-Pacific.

Because of this, the Mekong-Japan cooperation is one of the key vehicles to realise the grand vision of the Indo-Pacific strategy.

Currently, there are multi-layered cooperation mechanisms including the Mekong-Japan Summit Meeting started in 2009, Mekong-Japan Foreign Ministers’ Meeting that began in 2008, the Green Mekong Forum that commenced in 2011, and other ad hoc working group dialogues.

In 2015, a New Tokyo Strategy for Mekong-Japan Cooperation was introduced with the aim to strengthen cooperation under four pillars.

The first pillar focuses on “hard” efforts, which refer to industrial and physical infrastructure developments. The second pillar focuses on “soft” efforts, which refer to industrial human resource development and soft connectivity. The third pillar is on sustainable development – including disaster risk reduction, climate change, water resource management, conservation and sustainable use of aquatic fishery resources. Finally, the fourth pillar concentrates on coordination among various stakeholders.

Speaking at the first track-two dialogue on Mekong-Japan cooperation organised by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace in Phnom Penh last Friday, Kentaro Sonoura, a special adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, highlighted the institutional connectivity between the Mekong-Japan cooperation and the Indo-Pacific strategy.

Mr Sonoura said Mekong-Japan cooperation is aimed to “realise quality growth of the region to promote the development of the Mekong region as well as Asean, and thereby assist the whole of Asia, including Japan, to enjoy prosperity and stability together.

“And this is what the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy is attempting to accomplish.”

He emphasised that the strategy does not aim to contain any country, referring to China, but to cooperate with any nation that supports the principles of the Indo-Pacific strategy.

He also stressed that Asean plays a key role in realising the strategy and added it is wrong to assume that the strategy undermines Asean’s unity and centrality.

“How can we realise this strategy without the cooperation of Asean that connects the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean,” he asked.

From the Japanese point of view, the Indo-Pacific strategy has three pillars. First, promoting and establishing a rules-based international order especially the freedom of navigation, rule of law, and free trade. Second, pursuing economic prosperity by enhancing connectivity through the development of “quality infrastructure” and a business environment. Third, securing peace and stability including building the capacity of maritime law enforcement authorities, strengthening cooperation in the field of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, anti-piracy, counter-terrorism, and non-proliferation.

Connecting the four pillars of the new Tokyo strategy and the three pillars of the Indo-Pacific strategy would help scale up the effectiveness and impacts of the two initiatives.

Cambodia, as it is, is well placed to do that. Geographically located at the heart of the Mekong region, the Kingdom plays an increasingly relevant role in connecting the region under the two frameworks – Mekong-Japan cooperation and the Indo-Pacific strategy.

Japan’s support has been essential in assisting Cambodia’s regional integration and connectivity. The construction of National Road 1 and 5, the Tsubasa Bridge across the Mekong River, and the Sihanoukville deep seaport illustrate Japan’s commitment to Cambodia.

Concerning infrastructure development projects, Japan takes into consideration some key aspects such as openness, transparency, economic impact, financial viability of recipient countries, safety, job creation and capacity building, and social and environmental impact assessment.

Cambodia has expressed its full support for Japan’s regional initiatives including the Japan-driven Indo-Pacific strategy with the hope that the initiatives will be open, inclusive, transparent, and beneficial to all countries involved.

Cambodia wishes to see more cooperation and coordination between Japan and China, the two main actors in the Mekong region, in order to promote regional development and resilience.

Looking forward, Japan should develop a concrete strategy to effectively connect the Mekong-Japan cooperation with a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’.

Good governance, innovation and institutional connectivity should be included as the key principles of the two initiatives.

In addition to trade and investment facilitation, Japan should also add tourism cooperation as part of its project for regional connectivity. As it is, tourism is one the key economic sectors of the Mekong countries.

Also, Japan should create a Japan-Mekong Fund in order to improve efficiency, and better facilitate project implementation and coordination.

On a bilateral basis, Japan should continue supporting Cambodia in building quality and resilient infrastructure and strengthening the capacity of Cambodian law enforcement officers especially in international maritime law.

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