What lies ahead for Cambodia in the Mekong subregion?

Sangeetha Amarthalingam

Territorial disputes, diverse value systems, strategic mistrust among Mekong countries, and strategic competition between external powers for influence in the region has failed to unleash the full potential of the 15 Mekong River mechanisms.

It stands to gain much from its Chinese relationship but Cambodia needs to be mindful of the cost, in all respects

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Territorial disputes, diverse value systems, strategic mistrust among Mekong countries, and strategic competition between external powers for influence in the region has failed to unleash the full potential of the 15 Mekong River mechanisms such as the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and Mekong Lancang Cooperation (MLC).

Independent think-tank Asian Vision Institute (AVI) board member Cheunboran Chanborey says in a research paper published in AVI’s inaugural publication, Mekong Connect, that Cambodia is well-positioned to be part of the constraints and challenges, with the institute helping the country bridge the Mekong region on five fronts.

The fronts comprise physical connectivity, economic development, people-to-people contacts and knowledge-sharing, the building of strategic trust among the Mekong countries and with external powers, and the narrowing of gaps within Asean.

The Mekong River provides a livelihood for riverine communities CC/Chor Sokunthea

But there is no mechanism that can align the frameworks’ connectivity projects to address the physical infrastructure development needs in the region.

“Given Cambodia’s location at the heart of mainland Southeast Asia, it can be a regional hub of physical connectivity and a potential point of synergies between Beijing-led projects and Tokyo-funded programmes, and other infrastructure schemes.

“The AVI should research and study the complementary aspects and misalignments of different infrastructure projects in the Mekong region, and how Cambodia can optimally benefit from those projects,” he adds.

However, AVI director of centre for strategic studies Leng Thearith says though power competition in the Mekong subregion including influences by China’s MLC and Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific benefits Cambodia, it also poses risks that cannot be underestimated.

The competition for influence creates a balance of power, triggering multiple channels for the Mekong countries to obtain funds for improving physical infrastructure.

“Cambodia may benefit from such an imbalance due to close ties with China. As a downstream country, Cambodia is at times under pressure from other upstream Mekong countries. Therefore, China can play a mediating role or even checker against those countries.

“Conversely, it is quite unlikely that Beijing would cause any major disruption to the water flow to Cambodia as it needs the latter to back its interests relating to the South China Sea, and also because its relationship is built on a long history, and mutual trust,” he adds.

In fact, the most tangible benefit Cambodia might receive from China is its continuous support for the Kingdom’s future dam construction projects particularly with its desperate need for more electricity to meet its growing demand.

It also aims to export surplus energy to neighbouring countries where some 70 percent of power is expected to be sold to Vietnam, and another 10 percent to Thailand.

Here, Thearith cautions that Cambodia could face environmental and social risks due to China’s dominant position in the Mekong subregion in the long run. It is not always good for a small state to be too dependent on one power. Its security and economy can easily be vulnerable as proven by history when the Kingdom was dependent on one power during the Khmer Republic and Democratic Kampuchea periods.

However, China has shown its benign gestures in working with the downstream countries, he says, adding that there has been no clear indication of threats just yet.

AVI president Vannarith Chheang opines that to prevent water conflicts along the Mekong River, it is necessary to strengthen the extisting regional institutions particularly MRC, and promote multi-stakeholder dialogue with increased openness and transparency.

More importantly, China and Myanmar, who are not part of the MRC and its observers, should be part of that process.

Riparian governments need to enhance their working relationship and partnership with the development partners, private sector, and civil society organisations to develop a holistic solution to water security.

As such, he suggests that MRC member countries develop a code of conduct for the Mekong River Basin.

“Ideally, the six riparian nations – China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, should discuss three main issues comprising confidence building measures, preventive diplomacy, and dispute settlement mechanisms,” he says.

Hotline, communication, early warning, and using the “good offices” of diplomacy are vital to prevent potential resource-driven conflicts between the riparian countries.

There is no doubt that the Mekong River is at a critical turning point, being dependent on political will and commitment to sustain the flow of the river for the benefit of 70 million people whose livelihood relies on the rich ecosystem and biodiversity of the river.

He quotes MRC chief executive officer Pham Tuan Phan as saying that the growing pressure on the Mekong basin such as population increase, infrastructure development, and climate impact, requires a clear set of priorities.

Last year, Cambodian Water Resources and Meterology Minister Lim Kean Hor said some countries stand to benefit substantially from hydropower generation that vying for the diversified resources has been the source of conflict, negotiation and catalyst for peace and cooperation.

“Mismanagement of the Mekong River can result in regional tensions and conflicts if preventive measures, crisis management and a mechanism for conflict settlement are not in place,” Vannarith adds.

Asian Vision Institute President, Vannarith Chheang Photo: KT

In the early 2000s, MRC received plans for 11 proposed hydropower dams to be built on the Mekong’s mainstream, starting with Xayaburi Dam in Laos in 2010.

Although several National Mekong Committee (NMC) members were not satisfied with the project and proposed to put it on hold for 10 years, the project went ahead with construction and is expected to be completed this year, says Tran Diep Thanh of Vietnam-based University of Social Sciences and Humanities.

This sets a bad precedent for Laos’ next hydropower dams including Don Sahong, Pak Beng, and now the Pak Lay plan that is currently under the prior consultation procedure.

It might be built without MRC or NMC’s consideration as well as that of the local communities, international organisations and non-governmental organisations, Tran says.

“As a result, the MRC is not an antidote to deal with controversies or issues on management and protection of water and related resources in sustainable ways,” he adds.

Tran says the problems with MRC’s role include low capacity regional institution, lacking representation, and while it is the main body to promote and coordinate sustainable management and water development for mutual countries’ benefit, it is a weak authority.

Keo Piseth, AVI’s director of the centre for sustainable development studies, says there is evidence of conflict among riparian states over the common waters in which the upstream states’ utilisation of the river creates negative externalities to be borne by downstream countries.

“River development, which nicely fits within the popular narrative of national development, is frequently made at the expense of losses from the indigenous people, whose culture and livelihood have depended upon resources from the river for centuries,” he says.

Of late, hydropower dams have become the contested uses for rivers to support rapid population growth, economic development and wealth growth in the region.

A study titled `The current status of environmental criteria for hydropower development in the Mekong region: A literature compilation’ showed that some 216 projects were planned or are under construction in the upper and lower Mekong basin.

Piseth says the dams have the potential to contribute 43 to 49 percent of macro-economic growth in the lower Mekong region.

“The gain from hydropower development is however, accompanied by a 15 percent loss to fisheries,” he adds. CapCam

Sangeetha Amarthalingam
Assistant Editor, Capital Cambodia

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