Sunday, 23/9/2018
Cooperation Mechanisms in the Mekong Region and Vietnam's participation
27/7/2018 10:49' Send Print
Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc attends the Plenary session of the 3rd Mekong River Commission Summit. Photo: VNA

Diversity and mixture of cooperation mechanisms

At present, there are about 15 cooperative mechanisms in the Mekong Region divided into two groups: intra-regional mechanisms (cooperation among Mekong countries) and between Mekong countries with external partners.

Group of intra-regional mechanisms:

The Mekong River Commission (MRC): On 5 April 1995, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam signed "The Mekong Agreement for Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River basin" (The 1995 Mekong Agreement for short). Accordingly, the MRC was established, opening a new stage for cooperation and sustainable development of the Mekong basin. Among existing cooperation mechanisms in the Mekong basin, the MRC can be said to be the most specific and irreplaceable. With the Mekong Agreement, the MRC is the only organization in the region that has the function of developing legal frameworks. The agreement goes further than those of other international river basin organizations with specific and strict regulations on water use. The 3rd MRC Summit in Siem Reap, Cambodia in April 2018, with the theme "One Mekong, One Spirit," issued the Phnom Penh Declaration, reaffirming the political commitment at the highest level of member states towards the 1995 Mekong Agreement and as well the unique role of the MRC in sustainable development of water resources and related resources in the Mekong basin.

Greater Mekong Subregion Cooperation (GMS): The GMS was established in 1992 at the initiative of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), comprising six members of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and two autonomous provinces of China (Guangxi and Yunnan). The GMS members approved major regional projects, such as the North-South Economic Corridor (NSEC), the East-West Economic Corridor (EWEC), the South Economic Corridor (SEC), among others and identified ten priority areas for cooperation including transportation, energy, environment, tourism, telecommunications, trade, investment, human resources development, agricultural and rural development and urban development along economic corridors. Infrastructure connectivity is a top priority and is in fact the most prominent field, gaining the most significant achievements for the GMS over the past two decades.(1) The 6th GMS Summit organized in Hanoi in March 2018 approved the Subregional Investment Framework until 2022 with a list of more than 222 specific projects worth approximately US$65 billion and adopted the Joint Declaration of the Summit, the Hanoi Plan of Action 2018-2022, and a number of documents guiding key areas and measures for cooperation over the next five years, including expanding the current economic corridors.

Mekong-Lancang Cooperation (MLC): The idea of Mekong- Lancang cooperation with the participation of six riparian countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and China was proposed by Thailand for the first time in 2012. With China's strong support in recent time, the MLC was formally established at the First MLC Leaders’ Meeting in Sanya, China on March 23, 2016 which adopted the Sanya Declaration on Mekong-Lancang Cooperation. With this Declaration, the Mekong River basin countries defines the "3+5" cooperation framework, agreeing that LMC practical cooperation will be carried out through the three cooperation pillars of political and security issues, economic and social area, sustainable development and humanities, endorsing the view that practical cooperation will start with five key priority areas, namely connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources, agriculture and poverty reduction. (2)

Within two years, the cooperation within the framework of the MLC has achieved some substantial results, such as the completion of all 45 Early Harvest projects in the five priority directions mentioned above. Financially, China has committed $11.54 billion in preferential loans and credit of which $1.54 billion is in Yuan. It is noteworthy that the MLC has been highly institutionalized with the holding of a biennial Leaders’ Meeting, the annual Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM). Member States also set up their National Secretariats for the MLC in 2017.(3)

The 2nd MLC Summit in Phnom Penh on 10 January 2018 adopted two important documents, the Phnom Penh Joint Declaration and the Plan of Action on the Lancang-Mecong Cooperation (2018-2022). The documents affirmed that years 2018 and 2019 will be the foundation-laying stage, when emphasis should be focused on strengthening sectoral cooperation planning and implementing small and medium-sized cooperation projects. The years 2020–2022 will be the consolidation and expansion stage, when member countries will further strengthen the cooperation in the five priority areas and may explore new cooperation areas. The meeting also noted a list of 214 project proposals and reports from six specialized working groups.

Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia Development Triangle (CLV): The Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia Development Triangle was initiated by Prime Minister of Cambodia Hun Sen presented at the First Summit of the three Cambodian, Lao and Vietnamese Prime Ministers in Vientiane in 1999. The objective of the CLV Development Triangle is to promote socio-economic development, hunger and poverty reduction, contributing to stability and security of the three countries. The cooperation focuses on the areas of transport, energy, trade, investment and training.

The 10th CLV Summit in Hanoi adopted the Joint Declaration on CLV Cooperation, emphasizing the need to strengthen connectivity among the three economies to enhance economic competitiveness, effectively take part in regional and global value chains, and respond to common challenges. Building on the proposal of Vietnam, the Summit agreed to step by step expand the CLV Development Triangle Area to cover all three countries. In order to launch this process, leaders adopted the Master Plan on CLV Economic Connectivity up to 2030, including major orientations for promoting connectivity in infrastructure, institutions, economy and people-to-people exchange.

Cooperation between the four countries Cambodia-Laos- Myanmar-Vietnam (CLMV): The first CLMV Summit was held on the occasion of the 10th ASEAN Summit on November 2004 in Vientiane. The Summit adopted the Vientiane Declaration on "Strengthening Cooperation and Economic Integration among CLMV Countries," affirming the determination of CLMV countries to strengthen economic cooperation and integration in the frameworks of Mekong subregion, ASEAN and the region. CLMV cooperation areas include trade, investment, agriculture, industry, transport, tourism and human resources development.

The Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS): ACMECS is the framework for economic cooperation between Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam which was established in November 2003 at the initiative of Thailand at the Bagan Summit. ACMECS has seven areas of cooperation including trade and investment, agriculture, industry, energy, transport, tourism, human resources development and healthcare. ACMECS has established seven working groups corresponding to these areas of cooperation. Each ACMECS country coordinates at least one area of cooperation. Thailand coordinates two areas of trade, investment and health; Vietnam coordinates two areas of human resource development and industry, energy; Cambodia coordinates tourism cooperation; Laos coordinates transport cooperation; Myanmar coordinates agriculture.

Initiative for ASEAN connectivity: In order to strengthen ASEAN's linkage to GMS cooperation, the ASEAN Summit in 1995 established the ASEAN Mekong Basin Development Cooperation Cooperation (AMBDC), with the main axis as a railway corridor from Singapore to Kunming, Yunnan crossing the Malaysian Peninsula, Thailand and Laos, branching to Cambodia and Myanmar. The program is considered as an important mechanism for promoting and sustaining the development of the Mekong River and is a forum for policy dialogue of ASEAN and China to strengthen subregional economic development, cooperation and poverty reduction. (4)

Group of cooperation mechanisms with partner countries outside the region:

Mekong-Japan Cooperation: The Mekong-Japan Cooperation Framework was launched in 2007 including many areas such as socio-economic development, infrastructure construction, implementation of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), environment protection and Mekong water resources security. Some of the noteworthy collaborative initiatives include "The Japan-Mekong Plan of Action for 63 Joint Programs,” focusing on the Green Mekong Initiative and the Mekong-Japan Economic and Industrial Cooperation Initiative. Many important projects have been implemented in the areas of infrastructure development, environment, cultural exchange and public-private partnerships. In particular, the Green Mekong Initiative seeks to promote biodiversity cooperation on water resources management, urgently addressing environmental issues relating to regional development. In 2016-2018, Japan has pledged to increase ODA to JPY 750 billion (JPY 150 billion more as compared to the previous period) for the Mekong River basin to promote sustainable development in four pillars of development of industrial infrastructure, industrial resources, sustainable development and policy coordination with stakeholders. (5)

Mekong-United States Cooperation: The year 2009 marks the United States' return to the Mekong region (6) with the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) between the United States and Vietnam, Cambodia , Laos and Myanmar which officially joined in 2012. The countries agreed to enhance cooperation in the areas of environment, health, education, and infrastructure development. To date, LMI has been carrying out a number of outstanding initiatives and collaborative activities. The Mekong River Commission and the Mississippi River Commission have recently signed a "sister-river" agreement to exchange experience and cooperation. The programs "Forecast Mekong," and environmental cooperation aims to build an automatic observatory to monitor climate change in the subregion. Assistance has also been given to expert and scholar exchanges. In addition to the LMI, the countries have also established the Friends of the Lower Mekong (FLM), a cooperative mechanism between LMI countries and partners, with the first FLM Ministerial Meeting held in July 2011, with the participation of LMI countries, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the European Union (EU), New Zealand, ADB and the World Bank.

Mekong-India Cooperation: Realizing the Look East policy since 1989, India has actively promoted cooperation with the Mekong region and ASEAN. In 2000, the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) was approved at a meeting of six foreign ministers from Cambodia, India, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The goal of the MGC is to strengthen friendship and solidarity among the countries in the Mekong and the Ganga basin through four main areas of tourism, culture, education and transport connectivity.

In addition to these mechanisms, there are other mechanisms such as the Mekong-South Korea, Mekong-Switzerland mechanisms, though the level of cooperation is not significant.

It can be said that the Mekong region cooperation has made tremendous changes in both quality and quantity, becoming an important component in the process of regional integration and connectivity. Through these mechanisms, riparian countries have had more conditions to improve infrastructure, transport connectivity, sustainable management of water resources, and people’s livelihoods. Programs and projects have helped sustainably protect and develop the Mekong River's water resources in the interests of over 60 million people in the basin, contributing to poverty reduction in one of the poorest regions in the world. Connectivity projects do not only help the sub-region countries, but also help this sub-region connect with the vibrant economic centers of the wider Asia-Pacific region.

Besides advantages, subregional cooperation also faces many difficulties and challenges. It is easy to see that the countries in the subregion, except China, have limited economic capacity and rely on external support. In addition, the capacity to implement projects is low and ineffective. The effectiveness of mechanisms with partners outside the region is uneven. However, it can be said that the biggest challenge for the countries is that there are too many overlapping cooperative mechanisms, and duplication of content; some mechanisms exist but they have almost been inactive.

Participation and contribution of Vietnam

In line with the development momentum of the Mekong mechanisms, Vietnam has also actively participated in cooperative frameworks and made contributions to regional development in various forms, such as organization of summits, conferences, development of important documents, development and promotion of initiatives, and provision of financial assistance to neighboring countries.

The most important contribution is that Viet Nam has played an active role in the process of institutionalization and put important contents into the framework of mechanisms in line with national interests and common interests of stakeholders. In particular, Vietnam has been early and actively involved in the development of the Mekong River Commission's mechanisms, procedures and programs, most notably was the development and negotiations on the 1995 Mekong Agreement. For Vietnam, this Agreement is an important legal basis, and to date only unique document on water resources and related resources in the Mekong Basin, to protect the interests of Vietnam in the Mekong Delta. Vietnam successfully organized the 2nd Summit of the MRC in April 2014 with the Ho Chi Minh City Declaration. At the 3rd Summit in Cambodia on 18 April, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc proposed the MRC to focus on the fair, rational and sustainable use of the Mekong water resources and related resources, substantially and effectively implement the 1995 Mekong Agreement as well as the MRC's procedures, improve the MRC's monitoring and coordination in the implementation of commitments of member states. He urged the MRC to focus on building development planning framework in the Mekong River basin to harmonize with the water resources planning of countries, and suggested some initiatives aimed at improving the effectiveness of cooperation on sustainable development and environmental protection.

Within the framework of MLC, Vietnam has also promoted cooperation in the management and sustainable use of water resources in order to achieve a balance of interests and responsibilities among the Mekong riverine countries. It can be said that together with China, Vietnam is the most active and proactive country in the preparation and drafting of documents as well as discussions at MLC conferences, encouraging similarities, especially the cooperation on sustainable management of water resources, ensuring the principle of consensus, equality, voluntariness, consolidation of trust, benefit sharing and respect for international law.

In the area of trade and investment, Viet Nam has effectively participated in trade and investment facilitation activities within the framework of the GMS, including the simplification of customs procedures, the facilitation of goods and persons crossing the border, granting travel rights to vehicles on the territory of the GMS countries. Viet Nam also chaired the trade and investment working group under ACMECS and CLMV. In the CLV mechanism, Vietnam has taken lead, reviewed and developed plan for the Development Triangle to 2020, and build the Triangle’s website in Vietnamese, English, Lao, and Khmer languages, supported Laos and Cambodia in constructing some key roads linking border provinces, markets and joint control posts.

On environment and sustainable development, Vietnam plays the leading role in environmental cooperation in Lower Mekong Cooperation with the US; has actively participated in the "One Decade of Green Mekong" initiative in Mekong-Japan cooperation. Vietnam has also succeeded in bringing the content of water resources cooperation to the Mekong-Lancang Mechanism. In the GMS, Vietnam has actively involved in the development of the GMS environmental protection strategy framework; built information and environmental monitoring systems; poverty reduction and environmental management in remote areas, watershed forests; management and protection of mangrove forest in the Lower Mekong Basin.

In the area of education and training, many cadres and students from Laos and Cambodia have studied at Tay Nguyen University and Vietnam assisted in building boarding schools in Sekong province of Laos and Ratanakiri province of Cambodia. Under the CLMV regime, Vietnam established a CLMV scholarship fund to provide annual scholarships to the three countries of Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. This is one of the first 58 pilot projects to be implemented and one of the outstanding outcomes of CLMV.

Notably, participating in Mekong regional cooperation mechanisms, Vietnam has actively involved in addressing complex issues, including the sustainable use of water resources. Due to economic development needs, some countries have implemented hydropower projects on the Mekong mainstream without fully complying with the provisions of the 1995 Mekong Agreement as well as concerns of related countries. Vietnam early identified that hydropower development on the Mekong mainstream is not only a technical and professional issue but also that of sustainable development and non-traditional security having profound and long-term impact to the Mekong Delta. Therefore, in the constructive and cooperative spirit while addresses these issues Vietnam has used various forms of communication with members of the Commission through various channels at working, professional, and high levels. Vietnam has actively coordinated with other countries to call for full compliance with the 1995 Mekong Agreement and related procedures, postponement of these projects until specific studies on environmental impacts are made. In parallel with the consultation process at the MRC, Vietnam has actively exchanged views with stakeholders through bilateral channel, thereby reducing the number of hydropower projects in the Mekong mainstream and selecting projects with less impact on the ecological environment of the whole basin. Viet Nam has proactively coordinated the study on the impact of hydropower project on the Mekong mainstream, such as the Vietnam Mekong River Commission's study with the participation of Lao and Cambodian experts themed "Mekong Delta Study on Hydropower Development," which was completed by the end of 2015; the MRC "The Study on the Sustainable Development and Management of the Mekong River, including impacts by mainstream hydropower projects," which was completed by the end of 2017.

Viet Nam's active engagement in Mekong regional cooperation mechanisms has contributed significantly to the development of mechanisms and development of the entire Mekong Region and the cooperative relations among regional countries. Being an active member which strictly abides by and upholds the spirit of cooperation for sustainable development, Vietnam is considered a lead factor, a connector and a country capable of contributing to addressing emerging challenges facing the Mekong region. At the same time, Vietnam has proactively initiated the issue of water resources, environmental protection, sustainable development into programs and documents of larger regional and international organizations and forums, such as ASEAN, APEC, and ASEM. The activities of Vietnam in recent years have achieved certain results, contributing to promoting the socio-economic development of the country as well as strengthening links with countries in and outside the region.

However, in the coming time, more attention must be given to the participation in Mekong cooperation mechanisms to improve efficiency. Reality shows that given a relatively high number of cooperation mechanism, some mechanisms use other's projects, resulting in virtual numbers, and not accurately reflecting the actual cooperation in the region. For Vietnam, the pursuit of a variety of mechanisms has made participation ineffective sometimes in some programs or projects. Therefore, Vietnam should have a comprehensive strategy for engaging in Mekong region cooperation mechanisms, which clearly defines focuses, concentrates resources needed to achieve optimum effectiveness. Each mechanism has different characteristics and overlaps. Vietnam needs to work with concerned parties to identify characteristics of each mechanism, supplements and compliments of mechanisms, remove unnecessary overlaps, and push for contents for mutual benefits while making comprehensive consideration of both immediate and long-term, national and regional interests. For sensitive issues related to water resources management and sharing, in the constructive and cooperative spirit, and taking into account the interests of all stakeholders, Vietnam should persist in advocacy, and being flexible and subtle in fighting and problem resolving in each framework of cooperation. These are issues that need careful attention, because strategically, the Mekong subregion plays a very important role not only for the security and sustainable development of the country, but also, in a broader perspective, is the core area to promote Vietnam's position to Asia-Pacific.

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(1) Nguyen Thuong Huyen: "Major achievements in infrastructure connectivity of the Greater Mekong Subregion over the past two decades," Southeast Asian Studies Journal, Issue 6 (183), p. 37
(2) "The Sanya Declaration,"
http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/2649_665393/t1350039.shtml, (accessed 11-12-2017)
(3) Wang Qingyun: "China and five countries inaugurated the Mekong-Lancang Mechanism’s agencies," Chinadaily, http://wap.chinadaily.com.cn/2017-03/10/ content_28510599.htm, (Retrieved on 11 December 2017)
(4) ASEAN, Overview of the ASEAN Mekong Basin Development Cooperation, http://www.asean.org/communities/asean-economic-community/category/overview-16
(5) New Tokyo Strategy for 2015 Mekong-Japan Cooperation (MJC2015)
(6) Chheang Vannarith (2010): An Introduction to Greater Mekong Subregional Cooperation, CICP Working paper No.34, Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace

This article was published in the Communist Review, No. 908 (June -2018)

Le Hai Binh, PhD,Deputy Director of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam