Making Sense of the “Many Mekongs”
October 23, 2019
Political leaders are under constant pressure to introduce new initiatives, because new implies better, and that’s the nature of politics. Even clever repackaging of previous efforts is often not enough. So, it was quite a surprise when, in June 2018, Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha hosted a summit to resurrect ACMECS, the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy, an initiative launched by a predecessor in 2003 that had languished for several years.
It was also a pleasant surprise, for Thailand is not the only country with the three rivers flowing through the ACMECS subregion. All of mainland Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, are included in that group, and the Mekong also flows through part of China, which is considering becoming an ACMECS development partner. While the Mekong serves as a natural border between several countries, it also unites all of them with shared benefits and vulnerabilities, and it has given its name to the Mekong subregion.
But what will a reinvigorated ACMECS do? To its credit, the summit resulted in a detailed Master Plan 2019–2023, with pillars, goals, and a prospective fund. Yet the Mekong subregion has changed dramatically from what it was in 2003. Surrounding ACMECS today is a crowded field of Mekong-related governance architecture—13 separate frameworks, each with its own focus, priorities and plans, dialogue and development partners, internal dynamics, or external patrons. Between the river, the basin, the delta, and the subregion, within the governance architecture of the Mekong subregion there are today “many Mekongs.”
The issue isn’t that ACMECS member states don’t appreciate the 13 frameworks individually. The challenge is to understand them collectively: how they resemble, complement, overlap with, and potentially compete with one another. Are there redundancies? Gaps? Cross-purposes? Synergies? Trends? With Australia as a partner through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), The Asia Foundation undertook research to map the labyrinth of Mekong architecture and try to make sense of it. The results of this mapping are contained in a new Asia Foundation white paper, Implications of a Crowded Field: Subregional Architecture in ACMECS Member States.
From a “big picture” standpoint, eight frameworks are indigenous to the Mekong subregion, established by and for the Mekong nations. ACMECS is the most recent among them; most others were established before the year 2000 and focus especially on the river itself, reflecting the early recognition that coordination would be necessary to ensure that the Mekong was managed for mutual benefit.
The five remaining frameworks were founded by nations outside the subregion: by China, the United States, Japan, South Korea, and India. In contrast to the indigenous architecture, most of these external initiatives are quite recent—China established its Lancang-Mekong Cooperation just four years ago—reflecting the subregion’s rapidly growing geopolitical importance to nations outside of Southeast Asia.
Divisions also exist within ACMECS member states. Frameworks led by foreign ministries rather than technical or planning ministries have predominated since the early 2000s, a period roughly corresponding to the establishment of the five external frameworks. This is part and parcel of national leadership setting political priorities, but as Asia Foundation research reveals, it can also result in frameworks with the most political clout taking precedence for reasons not necessarily consistent with national development needs. ACMECS has the prime minister’s attention in Thailand; where it falls on the Mekong agendas of other nations remains to be seen.
Another key finding is that the big picture, on one hand, and internal divisions, on the other, make coordinated national policymaking difficult. Frameworks must be simultaneously engaged; various ministries and agencies have their own processes and priorities; and no country has infinite human or financial resources. Over just a four-year period, from 2015 through 2018, at least 131 meetings were held among the 13 frameworks at the national-leadership, ministerial, or senior-official level—an average of nearly three per month! Many of the frameworks include even more frequent working-group meetings as well.
The Asia Foundation found considerable overlap among the 13 frameworks. Although this generally reflects a broad consensus on clearly established needs, redundancy in projects warrants deeper examination. The overlap also reflects the various frameworks’ capacity and capabilities: they have identified projects they can actually do and absorb. Perhaps unsurprisingly, connectivity—topping the list of Mekong buzzwords—is taken up by 11 of 13 frameworks. Education is second with ten. ACMECS has taken up both.
Moreover, as indications of synergy—real or aspirational—nearly all frameworks, including ACMECS, publicly reference at least one other piece of Mekong architecture in their statements, press releases, websites, or reports. Yet, the references are often not reciprocal, and so require further efforts to complete these “one-way bridges.”
Finally, the Foundation’s research draws exclusively on publicly available sources of information, and it is clear that the frameworks vary in what they make public. While deliverables and success stories tend to lead on websites and in press releases, funding and expenditures are harder to track down. The same is true of the criteria the frameworks use to set priorities and implement projects, and whether social and environmental impact assessments are conducted. This matters, because greater transparency is needed to prevent political arm-twisting by players with their own agendas, and because projects that lack transparency often have unintended and undesirable consequences on the ground.
A draft of The Asia Foundation’s white paper was well-received during a track 1.5 Mekong policy dialogue in late June, which included representatives of the ACMECS member states and other countries, partners, and institutions. Cosponsored by DFAT, in its new role as an ACMECS development partner, the dialogue resembled the white paper in taking a broad view of the subregion and its river. Indeed, leading off the agenda, the Foundation’s findings illustrated the need for the policy discussions that followed. As a reinvigorated ACMECS continues to take shape, so will its role and rightful place among the “many Mekongs.”
Benjamin Zawacki is a senior consultant with the Asia Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of DFAT or The Asia Foundation.
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