FocusOSA #14: Vietnam: Foreign Affairs

Representatives of the Mekong river basin, meeting within the framework of Lancang Mekong Cooperation initiative, focused primarily on a few issues  which are  to catalyse further co-operation. Ministers of Foreign Affairs  stated that establishing LMC national secretariats, which will be responsible for implementing plans at a national level, is required. Also, it is necessary to establish an international secretariat as a co-ordinating body and set up ‚a hotline’ between countries in order to mitigate the impact of droughts or floods as quickly as possible. 

At the meeting a five-year plan of action on LMC, for 2018-2020, was adopted and it will be presented for approval to the leaders of the Mekong region in January. LMC formula will be based on 3 pillars and 5 priority areas. The backbone of the initiative will be 1) political and security issues, 2) sustainable economic development, 3) people-to-people exchange. The cooperation, on the other hand, will take into account 1) water resources, 2) cross-border activity to enhance economic growth, 3) agriculture and reduction of poverty, 4) actions enhancing efficiency of cooperation and 5) strengthening ties among the Mekong basin countries. Moreover,  it was agreed that awareness of the nature of the cooperation among LMC countries  should be increased, which can be achieved by trainings enhancing the potential of  Lancang Mekong Cooperation formula. 

Lancang Mekong Cooperation mechanism was launched at the first summit in March 2016, hosting the leaders of the river basin countries. Since then within the LMC framework, and primarily thanks to China, it has been possible to launch the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Center, the Lancang-Mekong Environmental Cooperation Center and Global Mekong River Studies Center. In addition, at the end of December the Integrated Law Enforcement and Security Cooperation Center of Lancang-Mekong River in Kunming was opened. China has also announced that LMC Special Fund, which will support other countries of the river basin, is to be established.

 Undoubtedly, the Lancang Mekong Cooperation is one of the strategies to bolster China’s influence in the region of the Indochina Peninsula, where Japan and western countries supporting the Indochinese initiative of the Mekong River Commission, are heavily engaged. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China Wang Yi, at the December meeting, emphasised the LMC’s efficiency would also depend on integrating this initiative with other projects such as    The Belt and Road concept. From the point of view of cooperation within the LMC framework, the problem of water resource management will certainly become an important issue.  Taking into account future development of Chinese hydroenergetic projects and their impact on agriculture in countries along lower reaches such as Vietnam, this area may determine Chinese-Indochinese cooperation.

The government in Hanoi, which has been watching the Middle Kingdom’s increasing power with fear, also from the perspective of the South China Sea disputes, can be left alone in the struggle for fair management of the river resources as other lower reaches countries tend to look more favourably on Beijing. Thailand was one of the supporters of launching the LMC initiative and involving China in the issue of water resource management, which in the 1990s Vietnam did not accept. Numerous Chinese investments in hydroenergy in Laos also make the government in Vientiane notice the benefits of good neighbourly relations with China. It seems that the Mekong River Commission may lose importance when confronted with tightening cooperation within the LMC framework, which resulted in creating an administrative structure. Under the circumstances the government in Hanoi  will be forced to struggle for its own interests and secure its position in the Mekong Delta region only in the forum where China will play a decisive role. The role of  the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which in the era of Chinese dominance may be marginalised despite Beijing politicians’ announcements declaring assistance in building ASEAN Community, is a question that still needs to be answered.