The U.S. government aims to take another bite out of Chinese influence in Southeast Asia with a partnership to aid five countries that traditionally tap Beijing for help, experts in the region say.
The Mekong-U.S. Partnership, formed September 11, will give Washington more clout in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam by offering aid for various projects ranging from COVID-19 relief to anti-drought measures.
U.S. officials hope the Southeast Asian partners will favor their largesse over China’s, analysts say. China aggressively builds infrastructure in Southeast Asia but threatens their water supplies with upstream dams and leaves some countries under the threat of debt, the experts say.
China and the United States, rival superpowers, compete in much of the world for the support of smaller countries, as the government in Beijing expands offshore economically as well as militarily. In Southeast Asia, the United States backs Vietnam in resisting Chinese expansion in the South China Sea where the two Asian countries have overlapping claims.
“The U.S.-Mekong partnership was I think high on the agenda for the United States because the U.S. has recognized the importance of the Mekong subregion, where China has been making some vital gains,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
“The more the competition between the U.S. and China increases, the more important the Mekong subregion is,” Vuving said.
Washington’s partnership effectively replaces an 11-year-old Lower Mekong Initiative also backed by the United States. The countries involved signed a joint statement four days after forming their partnership to pledge stronger “transparency” along with “respect for sovereignty, non-intervention, rule of law [and] respect for international law.”
Specifically, the partnership will bring U.S. pandemic relief to the five Southeast Asian countries – building on $52 million in U.S. support already offered this year – and extend another $6 million for work that will include steps to help the Mekong countries make informed decisions involving water flows. Data would help governments decide on allotments to farmers and flood control measures.
Expect “high-quality energy infrastructure” along with steps to help prevent the illegal trade in wildlife, and measures to control both floods and droughts, the joint statement says of the region that spans the 4,350-kilometer Mekong River.
The five Mekong nations hope to avoid becoming overly dependent on Chinese aid, especially because dams on the river’s upper reaches in China can dry up the lower segments in Southeast Asia, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. China uses releases of water from the dams as “bargaining power” in Southeast Asia, Thitinan said.
“What the U.S. provides is a counterbalancing, countervailing force,” he said. “No one around here among the CLMTV wants to be dominated by China,” he said using an acronym for Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, where 60 million people rely on the river for a living.
Laos faces a growing debt to China, the world’s biggest lender, following hydroelectric and other infrastructure projects in the small, landlocked country. The Lao debt comes to 45% of its GDP, according to the Lowy Institute research group in Australia. Myanmar’s auditor general cautioned his government in June about overreliance on high-interest loans from China, news reports around Asia said at that time.
Chinese investment projects in other parts of Southeast Asia have fanned resentment over use of Chinese workers instead of local labor.
“The thing is, China doesn’t ask difficult questions as to what the conditions would be if it invested, and they are very flexible,” said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
In Cambodia, for example, the information minister called Chinese projects “crucial to boosting economic growth and making communication easier and faster,” China’s Xinhua News Agency reported last year. Xinhua cited 31 Chinese-built highways and eight bridges in addition to hydropower stations.