Truth be told, Mekong sub-regional frameworks have been overstretched by multi-layered structures just to accommodate specific partners. When competition between these partners increases, Mekong frameworks have become the “melting pot” of mechanisms characterized only by beautiful statements, hollow pledges, and verbal attacks among major powers that do not contribute to real development for people in the region.
Valid political and security concerns exist, such as over the lack of transparency on water data and non-participatory attitudes toward water-resource management. This tendency also stems from the “Sinophobia” of some actors that are at odds with or feel security threats from China.
But such sentiment is not equally shared by Mekong riparian countries. While most countries agree that water-resource management should be improved, it is also true that most do not agree on securitizing Mekong issues.
Countries in the region think that technical matters should be separated from geopolitical issues. And comparing the Mekong issues to territorial issues like those of the South China Sea is absurd. The complexities and time elements are completely different, because disagreements on management of the Mekong are temporary and manageable, unlike territorial contests in the South China Sea that are extremely complex and have existed for centuries.
The attempt to push for security considerations of the Mekong is self-serving. Some suspect this push represents a desire to provide a platform for superpower rivalry, which can be dangerous in terms of security in the region itself. Mekong riparian countries do not have the individual capacity to manage major-power rivalry and the extreme pressure to take sides.
Such attempts will also divert the limited energy and human resources under the Mekong frameworks that are already struggling to cope with increased cooperation. Securitization will make the region lose track of what we are trying to achieve within the sub-regional cooperation frameworks: To serve local people or to serve the agenda of major powers?
There is a saying that goes, “A good neighbor is better than a far-away relative.” And there is also another saying, “You can change friends, not neighbors.” Countries in the Mekong region are trying to promote peaceful and harmonious co-existence among themselves even if they have differences.
Under pressure for transparency, China last year agreed to continue sharing hydrological data with the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which would contribute to better river monitoring and flood forecasting in the Mekong countries. The MRC was also granted an “observer status” to join the working group on water resources under the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation (MLC) framework with China.
In terms of development, MLC is project-based cooperation that supports Mekong countries with small and medium-sized projects with up to half a million US dollars per project. These projects are aimed at capacity-building, education, agriculture support and improvement of local livelihoods.
MLC projects are more transparent than those under the Belt and Road Initiative because no one really know which projects are under the BRI or whether they are government supported or by private investment. The official list of projects is hard to find.
This transparency issue does not only apply to China. Some development partners often pledge a huge amount of assistance and initiatives but no one really knows what those projects are, who are the implementers and who are the beneficiaries.
Concrete projects are important for development cooperation. Local stakeholdership and ownership are also crucial. Recipient governments or even technical agencies that have jurisdiction over the areas of cooperation often hear reports of big amounts of assistance that they don’t know of. They don’t know how those funds are being spent, to do what, by whom and for whom.
This is not only the case for Cambodia, but we keep saying thank you for their assistance because we cannot afford to be disrespectful or we don’t want to spoil relations.
Some development partners do not even care to deal with local host governments that are supposed to be their official counterparts. They only deal with affiliated non-governmental organizations but always ask the host governments for acknowledgement of their activities that have never been reported. Some partners collect data from governments but never share their study results. Transparency of partners should be questioned too.
Partners should support Mekong development through promotion of synergy and complementarities, streamlining of the existing frameworks, and should not push for alienation, securitization, and mutual demonization at the detriment of development interest of the Mekong region.
They should assist the Mekong countries in addressing practical issues such as illegal fishing that has depleted fishery resources of the Mekong so much more than the occasional drought or low level of water in the river. They should help the Mekong countries manage their water resources in a scientific, data-based analytical and impartial manner.
Last, partners should support and encourage the harmonious co-existence and good neighborliness in this region that has known the ravages of war for far too long. It is not a distant concern that over-securitization of issues may invite another proxy war like the Vietnam War, which was devastating to the Mekong region. The security threat stemming from the possibility of Vietnam War 2.0 is not far-fetched, especially for Cambodia. It is quite a haunting trauma. It is a decades-long nightmare, whose legacy still lasts.
As the last country to have peace in Southeast Asia as well as in the Mekong region, Cambodia has no wish to be invited to the “sideshow” of another Vietnam War.