It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Mekong River to Southeast Asia. Originating in the Tibetan Plateau, it traverses six countries — China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam — before it empties, over 4,300 km away, in the Pacific Ocean. It drains an area of 795,000 square km and discharges 475 cubic km of water each year. Its waters have for centuries irrigated some of the world’s most productive rice crops, and continue to do so, as well as provide energy and drinking water today. Hundreds of millions of lives depend on it, and it is with good reason that it is known as the “mother of water.”
Cognizant of the growing importance of the Mekong and the countries that it waters, the Japanese government in 2009 launched the Mekong-Japan summit to build better relations between Tokyo and the five Southeast Asian riparian states. At the 10th meeting, held earlier this week, they agreed on a new three-year plan, the Tokyo Strategy 2018 for Mekong-Japan Cooperation. It includes at least 150 projects that will focus on three areas: building effective connectivity through traditional infrastructure projects, building people-centered societies (or using technology to improve social outcomes as well as other forms of human resource development) and environment and disaster management.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe noted at the summit that Japanese firms have invested more than ¥2 trillion in the Mekong region in the past three years. “Japan will use public funds, such as overseas development assistance, as well as overseas investments and loans” to “realize even more private investment than before,” he promised.
The strategy is a useful and important document. In addition to the development commitments, it also applauded Japan’s efforts to create a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region. It backed the importance of maintaining a rules-based order and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Without mentioning any particular country, the leaders “took note of some concerns, over the situation in the South China Sea, including land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.” They called upon regional governments to show “self-restraint,” “avoid actions that may further complicate the situation” and “pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law.”
Finding common cause with the Mekong governments is a wise move for Japan. The “Mekong region” is emerging as a new source of Southeast Asian energy and dynamism. Its five countries together have a population of 238 million, a large percentage of them young, and a combined GDP of $781 billion in 2017, with annual growth rates exceeding 5 percent (except Thailand).
Equally important in Japanese thinking is countering the creep of Chinese influence in the area. China has pledged $10 billion under its “Lancang-Mekong Cooperation” scheme for infrastructure development projects; the “Belt and Road” initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will see that those funds are delivered. China’s presence is inescapable: It is building a rail line through Laos, ports (and casinos) in Cambodia and dams in Myanmar. Beijing’s influence in Cambodia has been especially valuable: The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has been carrying China’s water in ASEAN councils, reportedly watering down proposals by the organization to condemn Chinese behavior in the South China Sea.
Japan must be careful, however, and not overemphasize the competition between Tokyo and Beijing. On one level, it cannot compete: China has much more money that it can spend to buy friends. But Japan must also recognize that Southeast Asian government do not want to be forced to take sides between the two Asian giants. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha expressed his hope at this week’s summit that “Japanese companies will cooperate with Chinese companies in several projects. … We welcome this kind of cooperation between Japan and China.”
Japan has advantages, however. It has a long-standing presence in the region and is not merely responding to China’s lengthening shadow. While its pockets are not as deep as China’s, it can provide higher-quality investment and on more transparent terms, is more committed to helping local economies through human resource development, and is working to protect the environment.
Japan has one more disadvantage in dealing with Mekong River countries: None of them are strong democracies and their governments instinctively lean toward Beijing on questions of governance and human rights. Japan cannot ignore those principles to engage these countries. Rather it must work with them and help them realize their value. Turning a blind eye will only undermine Japan’s position in those countries and in the world.