Mekong Region: A New Growth Center of Asia

The Khmer Times, 2 April 2018

Geographically located between the two Asian giants, China and India, the Mekong region is one of the most dynamic regions in Asia in terms of the speed of economic growth and regional connectivity.

Economic opportunities are fast expanding. To reap benefits, investors need to understand the economic, political and social landscapes of the region. The economic landscape is vibrant, political risks are relatively high but remain under control, and social dynamics are increasingly positive.

Inclusive and open regionalism has been the driving force for growth in the region. The Mekong countries are open to regional initiatives as long as they benefit the whole region.

There are multi-layered, multi-sectoral cooperation mechanisms in the Mekong region, including the Mekong River Commission (MRC), Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), Asean-Mekong Cooperation, Cambodia-Laos-Myanmar-Vietnam (CLMV), Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), and Cambodia-Lao PDR-Vietnam Development Triangle (CLV).

The development partners have also developed their own initiative to engage the Mekong region such as the Mekong-Japan Cooperation, China’s Mekong-Lancang Cooperation (MLC), Mekong-Republic of Korea (ROK) Cooperation, the United States’ Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), India’s Mekong-Ganga Cooperation, and Australia’s Asean and Mekong Programme.

Quite clearly, harnessing the synergy and complementarity of these mechanisms will generate greater impacts. However, currently, there is no clear political will and leadership in promoting policy coordination between these mechanisms.

In 1992, the Asian Development Bank introduced the GMS as a subregion – comprising Cambodia, two provinces of China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam – to promote regional economic cooperation and integration.

Over the past 25 years, ADB has supported projects worth of $21 billion in sectors such as transport, tourism, health, urban development, environment, human resources development, agriculture and energy.

China is interested in linking the GMS with the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation and Belt and Road Initiative.

“The GMS, once an important area along the ancient Maritime Silk Road, is now where the Silk Road Economic Belt connects with the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. This puts the GMS countries in a solid and unique position in the Belt and Road cooperation,” said Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Under the theme “Leveraging on 25 Years of Cooperation, and Building a Sustainable, Integrated, and Prosperous GMS”, the sixth GMS Summit that concluded in Hanoi last weekend was another milestone in strengthening regional connectivity and community building.

At the summit, GMS leaders adopted the Hanoi Action Plan 2018-2022 and the Regional Investment Framework 2022 aiming at maximizing the effectiveness of the regional cooperation programme. There are 227 projects in the implementation pipeline with a total capital of $66 billion.

“Today, GMS countries are among the fastest growing economies in Asia and the world. They recognise the benefits of being regionally integrated and globally connected,” said ADB President Takehiko Nakao.

Realising the GMS’s 3Cs, referring to connectivity, competitiveness and community – the ADB president called for the transformation of transport networks into transnational economic corridors, with key cooperation in the areas of production, trade and infrastructure.

Within the context of digital revolution, the regional leaders have adopted innovation, new technologies and digital transformation as critical new sources of growth. The creation of a Cross-border e-Commerce Cooperation Platform will facilitate e-commerce in the region.

The main challenges for the Mekong countries are the lack of institutional capacity and overcoming socio-economic inequality. Development planning in one country can adversely affect the development of other countries if cross-border impact assessments of development projects are not carried out in a transparent and inclusive manner.

There are four proposals to be considered by the GMS in order for it to be regionally integrated and globally connected.

Firstly, knowledge connectivity should be promoted among all the six GMS countries. The stakeholders at regional, national and local levels need to have comprehensive, scientific knowledge in order to develop a public policy based on an integrated body of evidence with an effective implementation plan.

Knowledge connectivity refers to the process of exchanging and connecting knowledge among policy makers, development partners, service providers, and researchers.

Second, multi-stakeholder dialogue and partnership must be strengthened. The multi-stakeholder partnership approach is a process of trust building and collaboration between the actors. The process needs to ensure that the views of the actors are heard and integrated solutions that arise are beneficial to everyone.

The multi-stakeholder partnership approach is a human-centered approach in which everyone involved takes responsibility and ownership of the decisions made. A greater sense of ownership leads to greater responsibility and compliance.

Thirdly, developing preventive diplomacy for the management of the Mekong River that flows through all the GMS countries. Quite clearly, the mismanagement of the Mekong River could lead to regional tensions and conflicts. A rules-based trans-boundary water resource management is pivotal to conflict prevention. Transparency, trust building, and early warning systems are the key components of preventive diplomacy.

Fourthly, promoting the responsibility to implement. Regional countries and development partners alike should further promote the sense of ownership and responsibility in implementing regional projects. Corruption and lack of accountability remain the key constraints in promoting regional connectivity, particularly in the area of cross-border customs cooperation. Real, effective customs reforms will facilitate cross-border trade.

Therefore, good governance, multi-stakeholdership, and innovation must be the guiding principles and values for regional cooperation and project implementation.

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