China's ever increasing influence over the Mekong River Basin was apparent on the first day of a Mekong River Commission (MRC) summit on Monday, where cooperation between the MRC and the Chinese-backed Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) mechanism was floated.
The two-day conference brings together government representatives, civil society groups and researchers to discuss the latest data on the Mekong basin and submit recommendations to the MRC member states: Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. A two-day meeting of the countries’ leaders will follow, which is expected to result in a declaration on management of the Mekong. Also at the summit are the two MRC “dialogue partners” – China and Myanmar.
In 2015, China established the LMC, which includes sustainable management of the Mekong River, but it hasn’t been clear if it would challenge the MRC’s turf. As the most prolific builder of hydropower dams in the region, China’s potential stewardship of the Mekong River has been met with concern.
On Monday, however, both sides presented overtures to the other. “We should sit together for our shared future,” said Zhong Yong, Secretary-General of the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Center, the newly minted Beijing-based water management arm of the LMC established last year.
“We should have idea of reciprocity – upstream countries should listen to downstream countries, and downstream countries should listen to upstream countries. We should learn from each other,” Zhong added.
Danilo Türk, chair of the UN’s highest water management body, the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace, described transboundary water cooperation as “necessary for humankind” and also encouraged cooperation between the two bodies in his remarks.
“The increasing involvement of China and the growing importance of the LMC mechanism offers an important opportunity for the future of the week’s outcomes,” he said.
“An increasing exchange of data would go a long way to making a coherent process of making policy.”
MRC CEO Pham Tuan Phan also reached out to the LMC on the sidelines of the conference, saying he would “very much like” cooperation.
See our interview with Pham Tuan Phan here:
Brian Eyler of the think tank Stimson Center noted that for now the LMC’s Water Cooperation Center appears not to have a clear vision or policy aims, adding that it would be prudent not to assume too much about China’s intentions with the body.
“It was revealed quite clearly [at the summit] that Beijing isn’t quite sure what’s happening yet,” he told The Post. Nonetheless, he said there is still “no evidence” China is changing course on hydropower development, which is predicted to have severe consequences on the fish and agriculture productivity of the Kingdom and other lower basin countries.
Brian Eyler of the think tank Stimson Center speaks to The Post:
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