The new Mekong-U.S. Partnership between the U.S. and 5 ASEAN countries
The U.S. government is attempting to counter the growing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia with the new Mekong-U.S. Partnership. The new agreement aims to assist five ASEAN countries, namely Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. In fact, these five countries traditionally turned to Beijing for assistance.
The US government sealed the new Mekong-U.S. Partnership with these countries on September 11. The ultimate motives of the partnership are perceived to rejuvenate Washington’s waning influence in the region.
Apart from that, the new Mekong-U.S. Partnership also signifies the replacement of the U.S.-backed 11-year-old Lower Mekong Initiative. The countries involved signed a joint statement after forming their partnership. Under the new partnership, they pledge to build stronger “transparency” along with “respect for sovereignty, non-intervention and respect for international law.”
Terms under the newly signed Mekong-U.S. Partnership
Under the new partnership, the U.S. promised to assist with various projects including COVID-19 and anti-drought relief in the region.
Besides that, the new partnership also allows the U.S. to provide the much-needed pandemic relief to the five Southeast Asian countries and extra $6 million for work that will include steps to help the Mekong countries make informed decisions involving water flows. The data would facilitate the local authorities in making the best decisions on allotments to farmers and flood control measures. Hopefully, it would eventually control both floods and droughts that spans the 4,350-kilometer Mekong River. The U.S. even promised to provide aid to these countries in dealing with the illegal wildlife trade.
The controversial stance of the U.S. and China in Southeast Asia
The proactive stance taken by the U.S. came after China aggressively builds infrastructure in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world. The region has always been much attention in Chinese foreign policy, given its strategic and economic importance. In fact, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations accounted for nearly 15 per cent of China’s imports and exports during the first half of 2020, more than the United States or the European Union. In other words, China has become the most important economic partner to almost every nation in the region. From Southeast Asia’s perspective, the increasingly dominant presence of China could be both a bane and boon.
The rival superpowers have been competing with each other in almost all sectors for the last three years. Recently, they have shifted their focus on seeking the support of smaller countries in Southeast Asia. For instance, the United States supports Vietnam in resisting Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, where the two Asian countries have overlapping claims. The competition between both superpowers in the South China Sea indirectly recognizes the importance of the Mekong subregion. In fact, China has been making some vital gains.
The lasting ramifications of the new Mekong-U.S. Partnership
The newly signed Mekong-U.S. Partnership between the US and these ASEAN countries effectively reduced the dependency on Chinese aid. Dams on the river’s upper reaches in China can dry up the lower segments in Southeast Asia. China uses releases of water from the dams as “bargaining power” in Southeast Asia. In fact, 60 million people rely on the river for a living.
The attitude of ASEAN countries towards China
Each nation in Southeast Asia perceives China from various perspectives. In fact, for each nation, their perception towards the superpower is influenced by several factors including geography, history, ideology and economic interest. For instance, Cambodia has always seen China as a protective giant that can keep neighbouring countries from encroachment and help preserve Cambodian sovereignty from Vietnamese or Thai incursions. On the other hand, Vietnam or Myanmar, which directly border China might see China as a huge threat.
However, recently these ASEAN countries are starting to express their concern over their over reliance on China, which would eventually put their country’s financial status in jeopardy. They are worried that overreliance will ultimately compromise their sovereignty over the long run. For instance, Laos, a landlocked country faces a growing debt to China following several hydroelectric and other infrastructure projects. According to the Lowy Institute research group in Australia, the Lao debt comes to 45% of its GDP. This has already started to have negative effects. Just recently, a Chinese company took a majority stake in the Lao national power grid, because there were debts that the Lao state couldn’t meet.
Auditor generals in these countries have also expressed their worries on the long term effects of overreliance on high-interest loans from China. Recently, issues have also been raised in other parts of Southeast Asia overuse of Chinese workers instead of local labour.
The crucial role played by China in the ASEAN region
On the other hand, China offers the advantage of flexible conditions over its investment schemes. For example, the information minister in Cambodia hailed Chinese projects as crucial in boosting economic growth and making communication easier and faster.
“The thing is, China doesn’t ask difficult questions as to what the conditions would be if it invested, and they are very flexible,” said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
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