Thứ Bảy, 4 tháng 10, 2014

THE MEKONG BASIN A CHALLENGING NEIGHBORHOOD FOR THE U.S

To the Friends of the Mekong
& VN 2020 Mekong Group


“The United States is back in South East Asia. President Obama and I believe that this region is vital to global process, peace and prosperity and we are fully engaged with our ASEAN partners on the wide range of challenges confronting us.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ASEAN Summit 07/ 28/ 2009.

“The United States and the global community have a strategic and moral obligation to preserve the health and wellbeing of the people who depend on the Mekong River for their livelihoods and way of life.” Senator Jim Webb’s Press Release 12/ 08/ 2011

AN OVERDUE COMEBACK FOR THE U.S.

In the post Vietnam War era, the withdrawal of the U.S. from Southeast Asia’s geographical and political arena created a void that offered a golden opportunity for an emerging and ambitious China to fill with earnest. The five nations in the Mekong Basin are now confronted with a growing threat emanating from that country’s economic as well as military expansion. The situation does not get any better with the attempt of a belligerent government in Beijing bent on the “Tibetization of the South China Sea” as described by B.A. Hamzak of the Malaysian Institute of Maritime Affairs.
Consequently, with the most vital interests of the U.S. at risk, the Obama administration cannot turn a blind eye to this challenge coming from China. This most populous country in the world is also seen as a fast emerging economic and military superpower that is not only content to compete fiercely with the U.S. but determined to overtake the latter within the next decade. According to Jane Perlez of the New York Times, the two countries are now inexorably locked in a “zero-sum” game. [9] Therefore, from a strategic standpoint, the return of the U.S. to the Southeast Asian region becomes an inevitable not optional process.

In the past, the U.S. had been a financial contributor to the Mekong River Committee and is presently providing foreign aids to the Mekong countries. In addition, it also exercises considerable influence with international institutions like the World Bank (WB), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and Asian Development Bank (ADB)… In such a capacity and with its active commitment, it is conceivable that the U.S. can regain its past standing and play a “countervailing” role to check China’s expansion into the basin.


FROM THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH

On the occasion of the ASEAN conference held in Phuket, Thailand on 7/23/2009, acting on an American request, a sideline meeting was held for the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to meet with her counterparts from the four nations of the Lower Mekong region: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Representing Vietnam, at the time, was Mr. Phạm Gia Khiêm, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The American Secretary of State stressed the importance her country holds in regards to the Lower Mekong Basin and each of the countries in question. At the same time, she also reiterated the American commitment to work toward the peace and prosperity of the ASEAN region as a whole. On their part, the four foreign ministers from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam welcomed a closer cooperation of the United States with the four countries of the Mekong Basin in the areas of mutual interests in order to secure a lasting development for the region.

At the conclusion of the meeting, an unprecedented declaration was issued covering the areas of common concern especially in the fields of Environment, Health, Education, and Infrastructure Development in the region.

In addition, the U.S. Department of State expressed its concerns about the negative impacts caused by the dams on the region’s “Food Security” including the important fish source of the Mekong which also represents the main protein intake of the local inhabitants.

It is worth mentioning here that China is the first country to build the first of the 15 hydroelectric dams on the main current of the Lancang-Mekong and still continues to do so to the present time. Besides, it also claims ownership of 4 of the 11 mainstream dam projects in the Lower Mekong.
The five foreign ministers discussed among other things the issue of climate change and how to deal with it, prevention of contagious diseases, technological application to education particularly in the rural areas, and development of infra-structures. They also reviewed the common efforts being undertaken and agreed to open up new avenues for cooperation. They particularly applauded the initiative of “The Mekong River Commission and Mississippi River Commission Sister-River Partnership” allowing for the sharing of technical experience and know-how in areas like: adaptation to climate change, coping with floods and droughts, development and impact evaluation of hydroelectricity, management of water resources, and food security.

The Lower Mekong Initiative advocated by the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton aims at the facilitation and coordination of the various efforts to cope with the challenges posed by the development of the region through the exchange of technical information, training workshops, and observation trips. The Mekong countries unanimously embrace the Lower Mekong Initiative.


[Picture I] _ At the ASEAN Summit held at Phuket, Thailand in July of 2009, the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed that “The United States is back in South East Asia” [Source: AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong ] 

The sum of US$ 22 million earmarked for ecological programs in the 4 countries of the Lower Mekong is intended partly to finance the “The Mekong River Commission and Mississippi River Commission Sister-River Partnership” in order to improve the management of trans-boundary water resources capitalizing on the lessons learned from the Mississippi River. Some of the money goes to the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to fund the study of the impacts of climate change on the water sources, food security and livelihood of the people in the basin.

As suggested by Aviva Imhof, Campaigns Director of the International Rivers Network, the US Geological Survey (USGS) can offer its technical assistance in the gathering of information on hydrology, ecology, sediment flows, and water quality with the assurance that the knowledge thus gained would be widely disseminated to the public at large. [2]

The Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) is expected to inject more dynamics into the region’s development and turn the spotlight on the geopolitical issues that have surfaced.

The U.S. State Department has established the “Friends of the Mekong Group” to work with the financial institutions such as ADB and WB. In its initial stage, LMI has succeeded in combining of “both ‘soft’ and ‘smart’ power”. [3]

Even though the jury is still out on the initial impacts caused by the recent American commitment to the Mekong countries and ASEAN, it has undeniably forced China to become more mindful of the voices of the local population and the governments in the Lower Mekong. Not long ago, the Chinese have agreed to share their “operational data” with the Mekong River Commission and also symbolically invited a group of its officials to visit the Xiaowan [4,200 MW] and Jinhong [1,350 MW] hydroelectric dams that are operating with others upstream in Yunnan Province.

TO THE LEGISLATIVE BRANCH

Members of the U.S. Congress, particularly of the Senate, have voiced their support for the policy being adopted by the White House. In his capacity as Chairman of the Senate’s East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, Senator Jim Webb has been quite active over the past years in his efforts to stem the irreversible damages emanating from the hydroelectric dams on the Mekong.

This Democratic Senator from Virginia since 2006 graduated from the Navy Academy in 1968 and served with distinction in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War until 1972. After a short stint working as a lawyer, he joined the Reagan administration in the capacity of Undersecretary of Defense then moved on to become the Secretary of the Navy. He also is the author of nine books, an Emmy winning journalist, and a film-maker. Fluent in the Vietnamese language, Jim Webb is hailed as a “rising star” in the American Senate by the Washingtonian Magazine.


[Picture II]_ Prime Minister Hun Sen with Senator Jim Webb, 19/ 08/ 2009, on his five-country tour in Southeast Asia. [Source: Office of Senator Jim Webb] 
 
In 2009, Senator Webb went on a two-week tour of the five countries in Southeast Asia to observe the development projects of the Mekong and the management of trans-boundary water resources. He has garnered the support of numerous officials at the U.S. State Department, policy setting statesmen, expert environmentalists, and scholars concerned about the threats to a balanced ecology of the Mekong and its pivotal role in the economic and social development of Southeast Asia.

At the 18th ministerial level Meeting of the Mekong River Commission held on December 8, 2011 in Siem Reap a decision was reached to temporarily suspend the implementation of the Xayaburi Project which is also the first mainstream dam to be constructed on the Lower Mekong Basin outside of China. The official reason was to give more time to further investigate the detrimental impacts caused by the dams. This decision did not come about with the unanimous support of the member countries. On the exact same day, in Washington D.C., Senator Webb observed that this is “an important step toward a responsible policy that will protect the economic and environmental conditions of more than 60 million people.” He added: “The Mekong River Commission’s efforts to preserve the ecological and economic stability of the Lower Mekong region demonstrate a willingness to respect the riparian water rights of other river basin countries and to take into account proper environmental standards when considering construction projects”. [4]

Prior to that event, Senator Jim Webb had scheduled a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 9/23/2010 on the topic of “Challenge to Water and Security in Southeast Asia”. Along with the testimony of Joseph Yun, Deputy Assistant Secretary Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, representing the executive branch we also have the authoritative and respected depositions of Richard Cronin [The Stimson Center], Aviva Imhof [International Rivers Network], Dekila Chungyalpa [Greater Mekong Program World Wildlife Fund for Nature] [1]

At the close of the hearing, the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate passed a resolution submitted by Senator Webb calling for the American representatives at the multilateral development banks to observe “strict adherence” to the “internationally approved standards on the environment” in the funding of all hydroelectric dam projects on the Mekong. This resolution serves as a show of support for the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in its enforcement of the “prior consultation process” with each dam construction project and its call for China and Myanmar to increase their cooperation with the MRC.

The resolution endorses a hiatus on the building of dams on the Mekong’s mainstream. At the same time, it also issues a call for president Obama to increase the funding for the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), bolster the support for “infrastructure-building projects” and search for long-lasting alternatives to the construction of hydroelectric dams on the Mekong.

In a letter addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dated 10/27/2010, Senator Webb urged her Department to take stronger measures to further and strengthen its cooperation in the implementation of the hydroelectric dams on the Mekong.

Senator Webb asserted: “As a donor to the Mekong River Commission, the U.S. should be prepared to consider withdrawing that contribution if the plans for this dam fail to meet internationally accepted environmental standards for hydropower dams,” He also suggested to the Secretary of State that all pertinent issues should be raised at all government levels of the member countries including Thailand and China – the two leading funding sources of the dam projects on the Lower Mekong mainstream.

Senator Webb added: “The United States and the global community all have a strategic interest in averting regional conflict by preserving the health and well-being of the more than 60 million people who depend on the Mekong River,” [5]

The author would like to note here that the fund the United States contributes each year to the Mekong River Commission is relatively modest in comparison to that of the other countries. Moreover, the MRC is not a regulatory agency. It functions mainly as a depository of knowledge and know-how to assist and advise the member countries.

The full text of the Senate Resolution 227 (as passed) cosponsored by Senators John Kerry, Richard Lugar and James Inhofe reads as follows [6]:

IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES, JULY 7, 2011,
  1. Mr. WEBB (for himself, Mr. INHOFE, and Mr. LUGAR) submitted the following resolution; which was referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations
  2. S.Res.227 - A resolution calling for the protection of the Mekong River Basin and increased United States support for delaying the construction of mainstream dams along the Mekong River.
Whereas the Mekong River is the world's 12th longest river, originating on the Tibetan Plateau and flowing nearly 3,000 miles down through China into Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam;

Whereas the Lower Mekong River in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam is a source of freshwater, food, and economic opportunity for more than 60,000,000 people;

Whereas the Mekong River is second in biodiversity only to the Amazon River, with an estimated 1,500 different species of fish, of which at least a third migrate up the river and tributaries in their life cycle, including the majority of the commercial fish catch;

Whereas the Mekong River supports the world's two largest rice exporters, Thailand and Vietnam, [Author's note: the rice growing region of Thailand is located in the Chao Phraya Delta not Mekong] as well as the world's largest inland fishery of 4,000,000 tons of freshwater fish per year, providing up to $9,000,000,000 annual income and approximately 80 percent of the animal protein consumed in the Lower Mekong Basin;

Whereas China is constructing up to 15 dams along the mainstream of the Upper Mekong River, and Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam are planning to construct or finance the construction of up to 11 dams on the lower half of the river's mainstream.

Whereas scientific studies have cautioned that mainstream dam construction on the Mekong River will negatively affect the river's water flow, fish population, and wildlife;

Whereas the Mekong River Commission is a river basin management organization including the Governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam that have signed the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin, done at Chiang Rai, Thailand, April 5, 1995, and agreed to cooperate on management of the river and development of the full potential of sustainable benefits to all riparian States;

Whereas the members of the Commission have also agreed to “make every effort to avoid, minimize and mitigate harmful effects that might occur to the environment, especially the water quantity and quality, the aquatic (eco-system) conditions, and ecological balance of the river system, from the development and use of the Mekong River Basin water resources or discharge of wastes and return flows” Article 7 of the 1995 Mekong Agreement, MRC.

Whereas the Mekong River Commission sponsored a Strategic Environmental Assessment of the proposed series of mainstream dams along the Lower Mekong River, concluding that the mainstream projects are likely to result in serious and irreversible environmental damage, losses in long-term health and productivity of natural systems, and losses in biological diversity and ecological integrity;
Whereas such changes could threaten the region's food security, block fish migration routes, increase risks to aquatic biodiversity, reduce sediment flows, increase saline intrusion, reduce agricultural production, and destabilize the river channels and coastline along the Mekong Delta;

Whereas the United States has significant economic and strategic interests in the Mekong River subregion that may be jeopardized if the construction of mainstream dams places the region's political stability at risk;

Whereas the Department of State initiated the Lower Mekong Initiative in July 2009 to engage Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam on water security issues, to build regional capacity, and to facilitate multilateral cooperation on effective water resources management;

Whereas funding for the Lower Mekong Initiative has primarily focused on the environment, health, and education leaving the fourth pillar--infrastructure--largely unfunded;

Whereas attention to infrastructure development is a critical element of promoting the coordinated construction of hydropower dams in the region;

Whereas, on September 22, 2010, Laos submitted for review to the Mekong River Commission the proposal for the Xayaburi Dam, the first of nine mainstream dams planned by Laos along the Lower Mekong River; [Author’s note: the two other dams that are not included in the count are Stung Treng and Sambor on the Cambodian territory]

Whereas, on April 19, 2011, the Mekong River Commission's Joint Committee representatives met to discuss the Xayaburi project without reaching consensus on whether the project should proceed, but agreed during the meeting to table the decision and consider it at a later date at a higher ministerial level; and

Whereas, on May 8, 2011, the Government of Laos agreed to temporarily suspend work on the Xayaburi dam and announced plans to conduct further environmental assessments on the project in response to regional concerns:


[Picture III] _ ASEAN Summit on 11/ 17/ 2011 at Bali, Indonesia, with the motto "ASEAN Community in a Global Community of Nations": The Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao standing next to the American President Obama but each looking his separate way [Source: Photo Reuters] 

Now, therefore, be it resolved, that the U.S. Senate--
  1. calls on the United States Government to recognize different national circumstances of riparian states along the Mekong River, including their energy and natural resource profiles, and to support the development of cost-effective base load power that meets electricity generations needs, promotes economic growth, and alleviates poverty;
  2. calls on United States representatives at multilateral development banks to use the voice and vote of the United States to oppose financial assistance to hydropower dam projects on the mainstream of the Mekong River that have not been adequately coordinated within the region and would impose significant adverse effects on the environment, population, and economic growth along the river and its basin;
  3. encourages greater United States engagement with the Mekong River countries through the Lower Mekong Initiative and increased support for energy and water security in Southeast Asia;
  4. calls on the United States Government in leading the Lower Mekong Initiative to devote greater attention to capacity building projects on energy and water infrastructure;
  5. applauds the decision of the Government of Laos to temporarily suspend work on the Xayaburi Dam in response to regional concerns;
  6. supports delay of the construction of mainstream hydropower dams along the Mekong River until the comprehensive environmental assessments have been completed and adequate planning and multilateral coordination has been achieved;
  7. calls on all riparian states along the Mekong River, including China, to respect the rights of other river basin countries and take into account any objection or concerns regarding the construction of hydropower dams;
  8. encourages members of the Mekong River Commission to adhere to the prior consultation process for dam construction under the Commission's Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement;
  9. calls on the Governments of Burma and China to improve cooperation with the Mekong River Commission and information sharing on water flows and engage in regional decision-making processes on the development and use of the Mekong River; and
  10. supports assistance to the Lower Mekong River riparian states to gather data and analyze the impacts of proposed development along the river.
A VERY SYMBOLIC BEGINNING BY THE UNITED STATES 

The return of the United States to Southeast Asia by the way of the Lower Mekong Initiative so far has only made its tentative steps with a symbolic investment not commensurate with the policy and needs of the countries in the basin. It can in no way deal with the growing expansionist policy displayed by the Chinese who are apparently holding the upper hands compared to the United States in many areas:
  • China enjoys the advantage of being the local power. More than half the length of the Lancang-Mekong flows within its territory while the other half meanders through the five countries south of its borders. In comparison the United States is located on the other shore of the Pacific Ocean.
  • China is the owner of the existing gigantic mainstream dams on the Upper Mekong and will continue to build new ones turning this river into its “new water tower and electrical powerhouse.” [8]
  • China has built and will expand the “Made in China” Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in the basins of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam with its own manpower and money. The infrastructures they built will anchor their interests in the region for a long time to come.
  • China has obtained the right to use its military powers to patrol the Mekong outside of its borders since December of 2011 in order to protect the security of its SEZs. [7]
  • China is exploiting to the fullest the division within ASEAN and among the countries of the Mekong. A case in point is the former Indochina peninsula where we are witnessing Cambodia and Laos slowly drifting away from Vietnam to fall into the Chinese orbit.
  • China possesses a seemingly bottomless purse. It is America’s creditor and in a position to finance the construction of infrastructures as well as hydroelectric dams in the Lower Mekong.
As things now stand, besides the funding from China, the construction of hydroelectric dams on the Mekong can be financed more easily by local banks in Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. In the old days, one must invariably turn to international institutions like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank where the U.S. is exerting considerable influence.

We can say the Lower Mekong Initiative, to this day, is short on substance. The Executive and Legislative Branches of the U.S. Government have repeatedly mentioned the American commitments to assume a more active role in the Mekong Basin. However, its “total investment” still remains inadequate to finance the assessments of the accumulative impacts of the hydroelectric dam projects on the Mekong mainstream. Naturally, there is a commensurate price to be paid before the United States can return to the Southeast Asian region in a dominant and strong enough position to counter China’s influence.

In the next article, the author will expound on the implementation and realization of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) along with his proposals.

NGÔ THẾ VINH, M.D.
California, 04/ 21 / 2012

REFERENCES:
  1. Challenge to Water and Security in Southeast Asia; U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations; Presiding: Senator Webb, Thursday, September 23, 2010; http://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/hearing/?id=4c2fd291-5056-a032-52fd-414f26c49704

  2. Testimony of Aviva Imhof, Campaign Director, International Rivers Before the Senate Committee on “Challenge to Water and Security in Southeast Asia”, Sept 23, 2010 http://foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Imhof.pdf

  3. Mekong, Tipping Point: Hydropower Dams, Human Security and Regional Stability; Richard Cronin, Timothy Hamlin; The Henry Stimson Center 2010; www.stimson.org

  4. Press Releases: Senator Webb: Mekong River Commission Announcement on Xayaburi Dam “Important Step Toward Responsible Policy”; December 8, 2011; http://webb.senate.gov/newsroom/pressreleases/2011-12-08-02.cfm

  5. Sen. Webb Calls on Sec. Clinton to Strengthen Cooperation to Avert Crisis in Mekong River Region of Southeast Asia. Says U.S. should consider withdrawing funding for Mekong River Commission if environmental standards are not met. http://webb.senate.gov/newsroom/pressreleases/10-27-2010-02.cfm

  6. In The Senate of The United Stated,; The full text of S.Res. 227 (as passed July 7, 2011), (Mr. Webb, Mr. Inhofe, and Mr. Lugar) A resolution calling for the protection of the Mekong River Basin and increased United States support for delaying the construction of mainstream dams along the Mekong River.

  7. Mekong River Patrols in Full Swing but Challenges Remain ublication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 4
    February 21, 2012; By: Ian Storey

  8. The Damming of the Mekong:
Major Blow to an Epic River; Yale Environment 360 by fred pearce, June 16, 2009 http://e360.yale.edu/feature/the_damming_of_the_mekong_major_blow_to_an_epic_river/2162/

  9. China Sees U.S. as Competitor and Declining Power, Insider Says; By Jane Perlez, April 2, 2012; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/world/asia/chinese-insider-offers-rare-glimpse-of-us-china-frictions.html?_r=1&hp

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