CONVERSATIONS on Asean in recent years have largely revolved around its community- building initiatives, its master plan on connectivity, its positioning vis-a-vis the United States’ Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in addition to the latest incursions of sovereign waters in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, issues surrounding the Mekong river, primarily concerning equitable resource sharing arising out of uncoordinated dam building, go relatively under the radar to most.
This apathy is most glaringly seen with the maritime Southeast Asian countries of Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Brunei and Singapore all of whom collectively make up half of the 10-member regional association.
But this is not to say that Asean has done nothing at all.
The Asean Mekong River Basin Development Cooperation (AMBDC) was established in 1996, but in the almost two and a half decades since, little has been achieved. The Mekong is increasingly characterised by decreased water levels and the gradual depletion of fish stocks, nutrient-rich sediment and agricultural output.
Adding salt to injury is that the Xayaburi Dam in Laos — the first dam built along the Lower Mekong — commenced operations just mere days before the 35th Asean Summit over the weekend in Bangkok.
This despite fierce protests by non-governmental organisations and pressure groups who claim that the dam will exacerbate already felt tensions over resources in the Mekong River.
The irony is how Thailand, the Asean Chair and host of the summit, had themed its chairmanship “Advancing Partnership for Sustainability”.
At the same time, it was Thai investors who had funded the Xayaburi Dam, and it is the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) — a state-owned enterprise under Thailand’s Ministry of Energy — that will be buying over 90 per cent of power generated from the recently operational dam.
The Xayaburi Dam now joins 11 other completed dams built along the Mekong upstream in China, where the river is known as the Lancang.
In a nutshell, most, if not all of these dams were built to generate hydropower to further the respective countries’ development. Yet, due to the nature of transboundary rivers, incessant damming upstream creates adverse effects downstream — stressing the critical need for coordination of development along the Mekong.
Indeed, in the absence of Asean’s stewardship and political appetite to manage the Mekong, a plethora of subregional cooperation mechanisms have blossomed.
This includes the Ayeyawady- Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC), Mekong-Japan Cooperation (MJC), Mekong-Republic of Korea Cooperation (MKC), Swiss Mekong Region Cooperation Strategy (MRS), the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC).
Amidst this alphabet soup of subregional cooperation mechanisms, the LMC, established in 2016, is perhaps the most important when it comes to development coordination.
This is because the LMC, characterised by “pragmatism, high efficiency, (and a) focus on concrete projects” benefits from having all six riparian states as members in addition to having China’s political buy-in and deep pockets.
Yet, some observers remain sceptical of whether China would co-opt the LMC as a means to control the agenda surrounding development on the Mekong.
In the same vein, it remains too early to tell whether the LMC will compete or complement the plethora of other subregional cooperation mechanisms, and whether it will actually encourage the building of norms on the equitable usage of the Lancang/Mekong River.
While it might seem unfair to pin responsibility for coordinating development along the Mekong on the LMC, realistically, it is the only subregional platform that includes all the riparian states and enjoys the political buy-in of China — which benefits from its position as being the most upstream riparian state, and, at the same time, possessing the strongest military, economic, diplomatic and political capabilities.
For Asean to not involve itself further on the Mekong would be costly. Continued apathy would undermine both its ambitions to be “central” in the regional decision-making process and its relevance to the five riparian Southeast Asian states.
Working in favour of Asean in this instance is that the Mekong, unlike the South China Sea, remains as a non-traditional security issue and not another manifestation of “great power competition”.
This means that negotiations should, theoretically at least, be less complicated and not coloured by senseless politicisation and nationalistic grandstanding. Here, Asean would do well to remember that it cannot insulate itself from the global trends of rising nationalism and isolationism.
Five decades plus into existence, Asean needs to move beyond past glories and make its relevance felt among the new generation of Southeast Asians.
Simply put, if the maritime Southeast Asian states expect landlocked Laos, or non-claimants Cambodia and Thailand to play a positive, supporting role for the Asean claimant states in negotiations surrounding the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea — then the least they could do is to show greater interest in the issues surrounding the Mekong and to share the concerns faced by the mainland Southeast Asian states.
This article first appeared in the New Straits Times on November 8, 2019