Can the countries of the Mekong pioneer a new model of cooperation?

Over the last two years, the China led Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism has used everything from a “bulldozer approach” to engaging with local communities to deal with tensions over development projects.

For the group of Tibetan youngsters, it was a rare opportunity to see what life is like on the lower reaches of the river known as the Lancang in China, and the Mekong elsewhere.

Hailing from Qinghai Province, near the source of the Lancang, the group was part of a youth exchange in the Lao capital of Vientiane at the third Youth Innovation Competition on the Lancang Mekong Region’s Governance and Development (YICMG), which started on January 27.

Since 2016, when the first youth exchange took place, more than 100 university students from the six Lancang Mekong countries of China, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Cambodia have participated.

Wang Zeyun, media officer from Yushu government in Qinghai Province, which had hosted the previous two events, said the government advocates a common theme of “drinking water from the same river and building a community of common destiny”. Wang added that, “The event is intended to unite young people’s wisdom and power, and provide support for the sustainable development of the six countries in the Mekong River region.”

The cultural and educational exchange program, sponsored by the Chinese government and organised jointly by the six riparian countries, has been included in the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Framework, an initiative started by China in 2015 to facilitate multilateral cooperation and regional integration.

In January 2018, during the second LMC Leaders’ Summit in Cambodia, the event was listed as a model achievement and is one of 132 projects proposed by the six member countries through the LMC Special Fund.

The six countries are showing a ‘spaghetti bowl’ phenomenon due to the complexity of bilateral or multilateral cooperation on various levels.

Xu Liping, senior research fellow, National Institute of International Strategy 

LMC Formation

The world’s 12th-longest river, the Lancang-Mekong meanders over 4,909 kilometres from its source—considered to be the Lasagongma Spring in Yushu—until it empties into the South China Sea via the Mekong Delta. Over 60 million people depend on the river and its tributaries for food, water and other aspects of their daily lives.

At the 17th China-ASEAN Summit in November 2014 in Nay Pyi Taw, capital of Myanmar, that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang proposed establishing the Lancang-Mekong cooperation mechanism. The establishment of the LMC was officially declared in November 2015 by the six member states, and the first LMC Leaders’ Meeting was held in south China’s Hainan Province in March 2016.

The mechanism identified three pillars of cooperation—political and security issues, economic and sustainable development, and social, cultural and people-to-people exchanges. The five priority areas under the LMC include interconnectivity, industrial capacity, cross-border economy, water resources, agriculture, and poverty reduction.

At the first LMC Leaders’ Meeting, Li noted the LMC was a useful complement to China-ASEAN cooperation, which helps promote the economic and social development of its members, narrow their development gaps, and upgrade overall cooperation between China and ASEAN—the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.  Apart from China, the other five members of the LMC are also members of ASEAN.

Xu Liping, a senior research fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), said the proposal for the LMC mechanism was inspired by some domestic think tanks, which has suggested promoting more interaction among high level officials in the six countries.

“The six countries are showing a ‘spaghetti bowl’ phenomenon due to the complexity of bilateral or multilateral cooperation on various levels, so the birth of the LMC is only natural considering it can better exhibit the geographic closeness and stimulate the economic complementary roles among member countries,” Xu said. The “spaghetti bowl” effect occurs when the number of trade deals between countries actually slows down trade, instead of boosting it.

Before the LMC, China already had strategic partnerships with the other five countries. China is the biggest trading partner of Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. It is also the biggest investor in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. According to Chinese government data, in 2015, China’s total trade with the other five member countries reached USD 193.9 billion.

The LMC is the first multilateral cooperation mechanism in the Mekong River subregion to have been initiated by the six countries within the region. Other economic mechanisms in the region also involve players from outside the region, including Japan or the US.

“Apart from economic cooperation, the LMC also focuses on poverty reduction, capacity building and security issues, which are also significant and creative,” Xu said. “In addition, to be more effective, the LMC has a four-level meeting mechanism – working groups, senior officials, foreign ministers and leaders—to smooth out disagreement or potential conflicts.”

So far, under the auspices of the LMC, there have been three leaders’ meetings, three foreign ministers’ meetings, five meetings of senior officials meetings and six working groups.

In early January, ahead of a visit to Cambodia, Li Keqiang wrote a commentary in The Khmer Times, saying that in the context of a rising backlash against globalization and protectionist sentiments as well as lack of momentum in East Asian cooperation, the LMC as a basic component of regional cooperation will not only help narrow the development gap within ASEAN and advance ASEAN integration, but also enrich South-South cooperation and efforts to foster a more open, inclusive and balanced economic globalization that benefits all.

Achievements and breakthroughs

Under the LMC framework, China has pledged to provide concessional loans of up to 10 billion yuan (USD 1.6 billion) and credit loans totalling another 10 billion yuan to promote industrial capacity cooperation and infrastructure construction within the region.

Additionally, China is committed to prioritizing the Mekong area for spending in the South-South cooperation aid fund totalling USD 200 million, and to setting up an LMC special fund to provide USD 300 million in five years to support small- and medium-sized cooperation projects within the region.

The LMC set up a number of model projects which have shown early achievements. These 45 “early achievement” projects were identified at the LMC’s first leaders’ meeting in 2016. By late 2017, these projects had been implemented as scheduled.

According to Xu, among the 45 projects, some are pre-established and concern local livelihoods, while some were already existing infrastructure projects such as the China-Lao cross-border railroad or local power plant construction. Through the LMC mechanism, some infrastructure projects that had been suspended were successfully pushed forward. “The purpose of such ‘early harvest’ projects was to act as plot projects to enhance confidence in multilateral cooperation,” Xu said.

This story was published with permission from The Third Pole. Read the full story.

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