Analysis by Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK, Jan 31, 2012 (IPS) – Six countries that share the Mekong River are being drawn into a development turf war, exposing initiatives by the United States government and its Asian allies – Japan and South Korea – to contain China’s growing influence in the region.
Unquiet looms up as the Asian Development Bank (AsDB) celebrates the 20th anniversary of its flagship Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) development programme, which, since its launch in 1992 has attracted close to 14 billion dollars in investments.
The Manila-based international financial institution hopes that its new ‘Strategic Framework for 2012-2022’ will broaden the sub-regional benefits under the GMS for Burma (or Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, China’s Yunnan province and the Guangxi autonomous region.
“The Chinese government values the GMS programme. It is another way for the central government to strengthen its multilateral engagement in the region,” Yushu Feng, senior economist for regional cooperation at the AsDB, said at a recent media workshop for journalists from the region. “China will be hosting the GMS ministerial meeting this year.”
It is a sentiment shared in a commentary in the English language ‘China Daily’ newspaper to mark the “golden development” during the first 20 years of the GMS, where over 220 projects in the areas of transport, energy, telecommunication, environment, agriculture and tourism were launched on terrain once divided by wars,
“These initiatives have brought real benefits to the people in the area and contributed significantly to local economic growth and poverty reduction, paving the way for a prosperous, integrated and harmonious sub-region,” the paper remarked as the AsDB readies a new ten-year development blueprint.
Regional affinity through the Mekong has been pivotal for China’s deepening ties with the larger, more politically and economically significant regional bloc – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that includes Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, in addition to the GMS countries.
But, there are other international players on the block and they include the U.S. government’s Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), the Japan-Mekong Partnership Programme and the South Korea-Mekong development cooperation.
For development analysts monitoring progress in the Mekong region, these new initiatives do more than challenge the monopoly enjoyed by the AsDB through its GMS programme. They have geopolitical implications since China has been excluded from a seat at the table.
“Japan’s growing development role in the Mekong region since 2007 was an independent initiative of the Japanese foreign ministry,” says Toshiyuki Doi, senior advisor to Mekong Watch, a Japanese non-governmental organisation. “Their main focus was on China – to exclude China.”
“The foreign ministry was nervous about China becoming bigger and bigger in the region,” he explained to IPS. “They had to cook up something to get involved to check China’s increasing influence.”
While Japan pledged to put in close to 6.5 billion dollars in development assistance from 2009-2012 to strengthen trade and infrastructure from the eastern to the western end of the region, South Korea made an entry in October last year with a development blueprint aimed at reviving railway transport in the Mekong.
Warming ties with Washington have earned Burma entry into the U.S. government’s LMI. During her December visit to the Southeast Asian nation, U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton invited Burma to join the LMI, which has set its sights on environment, health, education and infrastructure development through annual assistance worth over 220 million dollars.
Such competition has raised concerns about an inevitable clash of interests. “We are witnessing power play and there is a danger of overlapping agendas,” says Ruth Banmonyong, director at the Centre for Logistics Research at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “The interest of the Mekong countries should be a priority in these efforts to counterbalance China.”
“It is okay to have all these various initiatives, but the problem is coordination,” the Mekong logistics specialist told IPS. “We don’t want to see duplication.”
Even senior government figures prefer cooperation than competition. “We think that partnerships between the Mekong sub-region and bigger countries would help,” Thai foreign minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul told IPS. “I don’t think there should be competition… the sub-region needs help.”
Standing to gain from cooperation are 60 million people living in the lower basin of the Mekong, which begins its 4,660 km- long journey from the Tibetan plateau, snakes through Yunnan province and Burma, before touching Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before emptying out into the South China Sea off southern Vietnam.
Economic cooperation under GMS has seen the gross domestic product in the sub-region hit an annual average of nearly eight percent, “while real per capita incomes more than tripled between 1993 and 2010,” states the regional bank.
But geopolitics is not the only reason that sets the new Mekong initiatives apart from the older venture of the AsDB. Even the projects approved by the new development partners reveal an aid culture different from the GMS.
“The AsDB is seen as an honest broker and its agenda is the agenda of the GMS countries,” remarks Yushu, the bank’s economist. “But when Japan comes in, it is with Japan’s agenda, and when the U.S. comes in, it is with the U.S. agenda.”