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US Initiative To Support Lower Mekong States Underway

A fishing boat floats on the Mekong river at Sambor in Cambodia's Kratie Provice, another site in the country that has been chosen for a proposed 18-kilometer hydro-dam.
A fishing boat floats on the Mekong river at Sambor in Cambodia's Kratie Provice, another site in the country that has been chosen for a proposed 18-kilometer hydro-dam.

The LMI 2020 plan, the United States' most recent investment in the Lower Mekong Initiative, will push for cohesion, but with a limited budget.

WASHINGTON, DC –– The US continues to push forward an initiative to help protect the Mekong River against degradation, a regional issue affecting millions of Southeast Asia that has seen a rise in disputes in recent years.
[Clinton] did come to the table with some real, substantive proposals last week... now we need to see how they're actually implemented.
Gregory Poling, Center for Strategic and International Studies
The initiative is US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s multilateral, multifaceted attempt at ensuring developmental stability in the region. Analysts say it is another US strategy to counter China’s growing influence in the region but that it lacks concrete steps for success.

The initiative groups the foreign ministries of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand and relies on American foreign aid funneled towards the establishment of cooperation with regard to common interests. These interests are addressed as four deliberately distinct “pillars”: health, infrastructure, education, and environment.

Across Southeast Asia, there are myriad names for the Mekong River. It makes sense: at nearly five thousand kilometers, the river snakes sleepily through the expansive region, transgressing boundaries, cultures, and pockets of ideologies that, linked by the common denominator of the watercourse, at times converge.

It is hardly a tranquil dynamic. As Mekong countries develop, disputes over sovereignty, authority, and development on the Mekong have escalated in recent years, prompting United States involvement via the creation of the Lower Mekong Initiative in 2009.

Last Friday, at the fifth ministerial meeting of the Lower Mekong Initiative, Clinton announced the United States’ latest investment in the relationship with a new plan.

The LMI 2020 plan is a broad-reaching agenda drafted to “build a prosperous region through each of the LMI pillars,” Clinton said.

However, some analysts say they are skeptical that significant development in the region will take place by the end of the decade.

“The LMI is still a young initiative, and the complaint is that it has been a halfhearted US effort to get involved in the region, mostly to block Chinese influence in things like the Mekong River Commission,” Gregory Poling, a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, told VOA Khmer. “[Clinton] did come to the table with real substantive proposals last week, but now we need to see how they’re actually implemented… it’s very easy to go out and say that we’re going to worry about education, children’s rights, environmental concerns, women’s rights, but there has been no concrete roadmap for how these funds will adequately attack these issues.”

Via LMI 2020, the United States will set forth $50 million for the next three years. But Poling says that won’t be enough. “They can’t do it with $50 million,” he said. “It would be hard to do with $50 billion dollars.”

Still, the financial aid acts primarily as an act of good faith, according to Prashanth Parameswaran, a researcher at CSIS.

“What [the United States] is trying to do is show that they’re interested in [the region] in the long damrun,” Parameswaran said.

Both stressed that in spite of its clout in the initiative, the United States is not the standard-bearer in plans for development along the Mekong. The countries in the region have stressed a desire for autonomy in determining how priorities are allocated. Vietnam, for example, aspires for a focus on water issues.
Foreign officials meet in Phnom Penh on July 13 for the Lower Mekong Ministerial Meeting.
Foreign officials meet in Phnom Penh on July 13 for the Lower Mekong Ministerial Meeting.

Geography plays a core role in determining the sentiments of an individual country. The river keeps the countries of the region closely linked. Actions on the water in one can have negative impacts downstream.

The proposed construction of the Xayaburi Dam in Laos, 200 kilometers north of the Laos-Thailand border, for example, would provide hydropower to the northern section of the region. But it could have disastrous consequences to the south, depleting the fishery resources of Vietnam and Cambodia.

In cases like this, the United States has no license to assert authority directly, said Poling, who described the construction of the dam in Laos as inevitable.

“[The United States] can’t come in three decades into the game and tell Laos and Cambodia that they’re not allowed to build dams, because Thailand and China upstream have already blocked so much of the flow of the Mekong,” he said.

It can, however, make its voice heard.

Through its operative role in the LMI, the United States can often steer the discussion, as it showed in 2010, when the initiative negotiated a 10-year moratorium on the construction of dams in the region. Clinton cited the United States’ experience in waterway management as a positive contribution to discourse.

“I’ll be very honest with you,” Clinton said at the Friends of the Lower Mekong Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh last week. “We made a lot of mistakes. I’ll be very blunt about it. We started more than a hundred years ago, so we’ve learned some hard lessons about what happens when you make certain infrastructure decisions. I think we can help the Mekong region avoid making the same mistakes.”

In 2010, the initiative put the Mekong River Commission together with the Mississippi River Commission, established in 1879 to foster improvement along the longest river in North America. The “Memorandum of Understanding,” as the partnership goes by, operates on system of shared resources, research, and experience-based knowledge to ensure mutual benefit. Visible outcomes of the alliance are thus far unclear, but the premise of the coalition appears to ensure a lasting American interest in the Mekong subregion.

The region, however, has a history of acting contrary to its word on paper, and it is unclear whether the moratorium on dam construction is legitimate or simply an empty doctrine.

The immediate future of the Xayaburi Dam has fallen under speculation this past week due to an inconsistency in official word. At meetings in Phnom Penh on July 13, Laos claimed to postpone its construction, citing the need for further studies. Three days later, Laotian Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong told visiting foreign leaders at the proposed dam site that construction was on schedule. The issue poses a risk of creating a chasm within the region. The project is a joint endeavor between Laos and Thailand, but its ramifications will greatly uproot economic and environmental stability in the countries downstream, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Despite criticisms and problems, many environmental experts laud American involvement in the region as a necessary benefit.

“The pressure from the United States on the Lao government to suspend the construction of the Xayaburi Dam is crucial for sustainable Mekong River management,” said Chheang Vannarith, the executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, wrote in an e-mail to VOA Khmer. “Asean has a limited role in supporting the Mekong region due to its limited resources and capacity, so it needs the support from its dialogue partners, such as Japan and the United States.”

He said the scope of the initiative is not too broad, nor American aid spread to thin, because the issues of Mekong countries are intertwined.

“The issues are all interconnected, so it is necessary to address them comprehensively with coordinated efforts and mechanisms,” he said. “It needs to go together.”

Still, much remains undecided. Decision-makers have been unable to draft plans on several core issues, such as the construction of hydropower dams, without considering thorough evaluations of their effects.

A regional economic impact assessment that would cross boundaries has hit a wall, however, due to disagreements among separate governments and, critics argue, politicians acting in their own short-term interest.

“Corruption is common when it comes to megaprojects,” Chheang Vannarith said. “Transparency and good governance are necessary.”

Meanwhile, $1 million of the United States’ aid will go to “support studies on these unanswered questions,” Clinton said.

With the proper environmental appraisals, it is possible to engage in projects of magnitude and minimize their adverse effects downstream. To do so, Chheang Vannarith said, “serious scientific studies, technology, and innovation” are imperative, ideally facilitated by the presence of American assistance.