The Trump administration has announced the ambitious Mekong-US partnership which aims to curb China”s growing influence in Southeast Asia and promote economic independence of partner nations.
Apart from the US, the coalition includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam from Southeast Asia. It was formally launched after a virtual meeting on September 11.
The Mekong-US partnership reflects the importance of the Mekong region to the United States, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday.
He said these efforts will include working closely with Japan, Australia, South Korea, India, and other like-minded partners.
The cooperation name is derived from the Mekong river, which starts in Tibet and flows 4,180 km southeast through China, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, ending in the South China Sea. It forms the boundary between Laos, Burma and Thailand.
“Our relationship with Mekong partner countries is an integral part of our Indo-Pacific vision and our strategic partnership with ASEAN,” he said.
“With more than USD 150 million in initial investments in regional programmes, we will build on the good work of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) and the USD 3.5 billion in regional US assistance during the last eleven years,” he added. The LMI is the pre-existing regional cooperation programme of the US.
The Mekong-US partnership will continue to strengthen water security and the work of the Mekong River Commission, Pompeo said, noting that now USD 55 million will be allotted to combat transnational crime, viz-a-viz., human trafficking, smuggling of narcotics, arms, and banned wildlife products.
“We need to be candid, however, about the challenges we face, including those from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which increasingly threatens the Mekong”s natural environments and economic autonomy,” Pompeo said.
Alleging that the CCP”s unilateral decisions to withhold water upstream have exacerbated an historic drought, Pompeo said the US stands with the region and the Mekong River Commission in calling for transparent data sharing.
“We encourage countries of the Mekong region to hold the CCP accountable to its pledge to share its water data. That data should be public. It should be released year-round. It should include water and water-related data, as well as land use, and dam construction and operation data. It should be shared through the Mekong River Commission, the organisation that serves the interests of Mekong-region countries, not those of Beijing,” Pompeo said.
The US, he said, is also concerned about infrastructure-linked debt and the predatory and opaque business practices of Beijing”s state-owned actors, such as China Communications Construction Company (CCCC).
The US State Department said the partnership is complementary to the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), ASEAN, the Mekong River Commission, and with other Mekong development partners and cooperation mechanisms in line with these values.
Among other things, the partnership includes strengthening regional governance and promotes transparency with USD 6 million to support local voices and provide platforms to advance their research and explore diverse perspectives, to develop east-west transportation connectivity with India and Bangladesh, to promote women”s economic empowerment, and continue the Third Country Training Program with Singapore.
The Mekong-US partnership comes in the backdrop of China”s growing military and economic influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
China has made territorial claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, which have been disputed by Mekong nations. Both areas are stated to be rich in minerals, oil and other natural resources and are vital points in global trade.
Beijing has also built and militarised islands and reefs it controls in the region.