The Lancang-Mekong: An Asean-China-MRC Shared Challenge

The Nation 1 April 2010

By APICHAI SUNCHINDAH

THE EXTENSIVE drought situation experienced in most of mainland Southeast Asia, as well as a good part of southwestern China, in recent weeks is exacerbating the extremely low flow situation of the Mekong River, and this is starting to strain relationships among the riparian countries. Though such dry periods are nothing new, what is unusual this time is the severity of the drought occurring in this region, resulting in a water shortage in the river basin.

Some people have pointed the finger at China - which has already constructed several dams along the upper mainstream reaches of the Mekong, known as the Lancang - for causing the low levels of water in the downstream sections of the river. This is becoming a hot issue, slated for discussion at the first ever Mekong River Summit to be held in Hua Hin on April 4-5, which also coincides with the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

The MRC was set up in April 1995 to promote and coordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources of the four lower riparian countries of the Mekong River Basin, namely Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The two upper riparian states, China and Burma, are dialogue partners of MRC, which is the successor of the original Mekong Committee (MC) established in 1957 to coordinate the investigations of the lower part of this important river basin. There is thus a wealth of technical information and practical experience on the Mekong riverine system, accumulated over 50 years. The strength of the MRC therefore lies in this technical competence. There is thus a wealth of technical information and practical experience on the Mekong riverine system accumulated over 50 years. The strength of MRC therefore lies in possessing this technical competence.

The MRC is however relatively weaker in terms of its diplomatic influence and negotiating power vis-a-vis its dialogue partners compared with the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) which groups the five lower riparian states of the Mekong Basin plus Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore. Interestingly, China is also a dialogue partner of ASEAN and an active participant of several Asean-China frameworks such as the China-Asean Free Trade Area (CAFTA), the ASEAN Mekong Basin Development Cooperation (AMBDC) as well as the Plan of Action (POA) to implement the Joint Declaration on the Asean-China Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity (2005-2010).

CAFTA officially came into effect this year for China and the six older members of Asean, while the new members (Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam) have up to 2015 to fulfill their commitments. Ironically, while CAFTA is supposed to facilitate an increase of trade in goods between ASEAN and China, and the Mekong is intended to be one such transport route, the shallow water levels recently have prevented cargo ships from plying the route, thus effectively impeding trade. This is in spite of the four upper riparian countries (China, Laos, Burma and Thailand) having signed a navigation agreement in April 2000 with the aim of utilising the river for transport of goods and people to enhance trade and tourism.

AMBDC was created in 1996 by the ten ASEAN member states plus China to foster economically sound and sustainable development of the Mekong Basin through the establishment of economic partnerships and linkages between riparian and non-riparian members. The latest AMBDC ministerial level meeting in August 2009 agreed to give priority to cooperation in trade and investment, human resources development and transport infrastructure.

Most significantly, the Asean-China POA mentioned earlier included a section on Mekong Basin Development Cooperation, which had several stipulations addressing environmental and social aspects of the sustainable use of water and other natural resources. These uses included navigation, power generation, water supply and forestry-related activities to be carried out on an equitable access and benefit-sharing basis with regular consultations and exchange of information among all riparian countries.

It would appear that ASEAN and China as well as the MRC had already committed to having dialogues and sharing information concerning the utilisation of water and related resources in the Mekong Basin. It is therefore just a matter of putting in place the necessary follow-up measures to ensure compliance with the stated aims. ASEAN also has an Integrated Water Resources Management initiative and is planning to enter into an agreement with the MRC to cooperate on several areas of common interest. With the forthcoming MRC-initiated Mekong Summit, the stage is set for hopefully a constructive and open discussion on some of the critical development challenges facing the Mekong.

Trans-boundary shared water and other resources can only be managed in an effective, equitable and sustainable manner through close consultation and in a spirit of mutual trust and cooperation. In this regard, Asean's experience in the South China Sea (SCS) negotiations with China could serve as a good guidance on how to address a shared natural resource in an agreeable multilateral fashion. In this particular case, ASEAN managed to convince China on behalf of the four ASEAN claimant states in the SCS to jointly issue a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002 after many years of negotiations. If it is possible to do so for a common marine resource like the SCS, it is worthwhile to try the same on a shared freshwater resource like the Mekong, which is so important to the livelihoods of at least 60 million people living within the river basin.

Interestingly, the former Chinese foreign minister Marshal Chen Yi, during a visit to Burma in 1957, wrote a poem in dedication to the mutual friendship between the peoples of the two countries:

I live in the upstream and you live in the downstream,

Our friendship flows with the river we both drink.

In a way, one could interpret that the Lancang-Mekong cooperation spirit was expressed five decades ago in both the lower and upper basins - the four lower riparian countries taking a more legal and institutional approach while the two upper riparian nations choosing a more diplomatic and political approach. Perhaps it is now time to attempt to merge the two approaches into one comprehensive and cohesive framework arrangement since the Lancang-Mekong is, after all, one shared river basin.

The writer is policy advisor at German Technical Cooperation based in Thailand. The views expressed are his own.