What are the available options that Seoul can consider to contribute in the resolution of environmental, economic and political challenges that have haunted the Mekong subregion?


In 2019, the Republic of Korea’s (ROK, hereafter South Korea) diplomatic relations with the Mekong states of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam were elevated when the formerly ministerial-level engagement was upgraded to a full summit. This is less than a decade since Seoul had first begun engaging the Mekong subregion in 2011 with the adoption of the Han-River Declaration of Establishing the Mekong-ROK Comprehensive Partnership for Mutual Prosperity. 

Among others, the Declaration had emphasised connectivity, sustainable development and people-oriented development. To that end, the Mekong-ROK Plan of Action for 2014-2017 was adopted and had prioritised six areas for cooperation, namely infrastructure, information technology, green growth, water resource development, agriculture and rural development, and human resource development. This was followed by the 2017-2020 Plan of Action that laid out a three-point vision for partnership, inclusive of connectivity, sustainable development and human-centred development. 

But apart from all these – even with the Mekong-ROK Cooperation Fund (MKCF), South Korea’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) and the growing trade numbers with Mekong countries – is that increasing pressure is being placed on the Mekong’s resources and tensions are rising among the riparian states. 

This is, however, of no surprise. Experts have been warning for years that the construction of hydropower dams along the transboundary river’s upstream in China (where it is known as the Lancang) and downstream in Cambodia and Laos will come at the high price of reduced water levels, nutrient-rich silt, ecology and biodiversity. Furthermore, the damming of the Mekong mainstream reduces its natural ability to act as a flood pulse, increasing the vulnerability of the entire Lower Mekong Basin riverine communities to floods. Meanwhile, a 2018 report by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) predicted that total fishery biomass from the Mekong will be reduced by 35-40% by 2020, and 40-80% by 2040, threatening the food security of the approximately 70 million people living in the basin area. 

As a chorus of voices calling for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to treat the Mekong like the South China Sea grow louder, the South Korea-Mekong subregion relationship cannot be neatly compartmentalised and insulated from this unsettling development. Having said that, and acknowledging the inherent limitations of what Seoul could possibly do to affect the situation, the following are but a few broad areas in which it could make progress. 

The first is concerning South Korea and ASEAN. Here, Seoul, together with other like-minded ASEAN Dialogue Partners, such as Japan and India, can consider raising the matter surrounding the Mekong and of tensions over resource sharing whenever possible at ASEAN-led platforms. Considering how the issue has traditionally been overlooked by the regional organisation, getting the subject matter on the agenda would demonstrate its significance. The recent Joint Communiqué of the 53rd ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on 9 September 2020 had made four mentions of the Mekong, but none had mentioned concerns over resource sharing. 

ASEAN’s multilateral platforms, in theory, will give the Mekong states more options, and perhaps leverage, in resolving the issue with China, rather than through the minilateral Lancang-Mekong Commission (LMC), which the latter had set up. With the LMC being perceived as the minilateral institution of choice now due to greater funding, suspicions abound that Beijing could sway the narrative on the transboundary resource sharing in its favour – making the shift to an ASEAN-led platform all the more attractive. 

Nevertheless, maritime Southeast Asia must also do its part. Simply put, if the maritime ASEAN Member States (AMS) 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 for South China Sea, then the least they could do is show greater interest in the issues surrounding the Mekong and share the concerns faced by the mainland AMS. 

The second, pertaining to minilateralism, concerns Seoul’s MKCF and how it only provides grants for projects that are regional in nature. Tensions over resource sharing on the Mekong stems primarily from developmental plans based on narrower national interest calculations, such as decisions to build dams for hydroelectric energy. For this reason, it is hoped that by tying the grants to projects that benefit more than one country in the Mekong subregion, it can lead to mutually beneficial and equitable economic and developmental opportunities. Through this process, perhaps a paradigm shift in how investing and recipient countries view opportunities on the transboundary river and its resources can be shifted for the better. 

A further area of exploration pertaining to minilateralism can include the merging of or at least a better coordination among the current “alphabet soup” of subregional cooperation mechanisms. These include 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), MRC and LMC. Here, where and when the areas of cooperation are overlapping, Seoul could take the lead in enhancing coordination to better achieve institutional and policy complementarity. 

Thirdly, bilaterally, South Korea through its Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) remains one of the leading providers of ODA for AMS. More relevantly, in the period between 1987 and 2017, South Korea’s ODA for the Mekong region accounted for 74% of the country’s total ODA towards the region. With plans to increase the ODA amount by 20% annually until 2023, Seoul should consider setting a detailed plan and timeline of how it might allocate the funds to assist Mekong states in their long-term planning. Where possible, KOICA should coordinate its ODA with the MKCF with the view of increasing synergy between the two bodies. 

Fourthly, it goes without saying that Seoul must leverage on its scientific and technological prowess in its engagement with Mekong states when it comes to the agricultural and aquacultural sectors. As dam construction increases the risks associated with lower water and nutrient-rich sediment levels and the salinity rate in the Mekong, the need for higher technology and innovative practices can no longer be viewed as a luxury, but rather a necessity. 

To close, it must be admitted once again that the potential role of South Korea to influence change in the Mekong region is inherently limited by hard power considerations. Nonetheless, Seoul remains a benign power, does not seek regional hegemony and has neither historical baggage nor territorial disputes with the Mekong countries (or any AMS for that matter) – thus, placing it in a strategic position to do what it can. With the 10th anniversary of the Mekong-ROK partnership looming in 2021, the time is ripe for Seoul’s contributions to bear fruit.

Harris Zainul is Analyst in Economics, Trade and Regional Integration (ETRI), ISIS Malaysia

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