Asean and China: Cooperation in the Mekong River?

Amado S. Tolentino Jr.

Amado S. Tolentino Jr.

The Mekong River is the twelfth longest river in the world at 4,173 kms. and the largest international river within Southeast Asia. It encompasses six countries – China, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam with the headwaters originating in the Tibetan region of China. Its notable characteristic is the extent to which the river is “international” in nature; not only is it a boundary river for over 1,000 kms. but also constitute all the water resources of Cambodia and Lao PDR as well as the Northeast of Thailand and the Vietnamese “rice bowl” in the Mekong Delta.

A 1995 Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin was signed by four Asean member riparian countries, namely, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam. The Agreement emphasizes joint development, ecological protection and dynamic process of water allocation. China and Myanmar (a member of Asean), two upper basin countries are not parties to the Agreement but were designated “dialogue partners” in 1996 and have participated in various Mekong River-related activities.

Mention should be made of the fact that customary international law played an important role in reaching the Agreement on cooperation by providing a framework of guiding principles among which are: (i) Principle of international waters, i.e. watercourse which means a system of surface and groundwater constituting by virtue of their physical relationship a unitary whole and normally flowing into a common terminus; (ii) Principle of reasonable and equitable utilization whereby all watercourse states are entitled to the  reasonable and equitable uses and benefits of an international watercourse within their territory and, by implication, have a correlative obligation not to deprive other watercourse states of their right to reasonable and equitable utilization; (iii) Obligation not to cause significant harm which requires states to exercise due diligence to utilize an international watercourse in such a way as not to cause significant harm to other states; (iv) Principle of notification and negotiation on planned measure the purpose of which is to assist watercourse states in maintaining an equitable balance between their respective uses of an international watercourse by helping to avoid disputes and providing the context for negotiations if harmful effects are unavoidable; and (v) Duty to cooperate through regular exchange of data to allow watercourse states to practice “due diligence” in their activities.

The Agreement established a Mekong River Commission which articulated the principles mentioned above and outlined a set of rules for the reasonable and equitable use of the basin’s water resources. It also provides for cooperation in all fields of sustainable development, utilization, management and conservation of the water and related resources of the Mekong River Basin with the end in view that the livelihood of 60 million people living within the Lower Mekong River Basin will improve.

Identified areas for cooperation include, but is not limited to, irrigation, hydro-power, navigation, flood control, fisheries, timber floating, recreation and tourism.

Lately, regional cooperation is evident at the way Asean (Lower Mekong) riparian countries cooperate with China in regard to the Mekong River. There is a proliferation of regional frameworks and cooperative mechanisms to promote development of the riparian countries. For instance, a Quadripartite Economic Cooperation Initiative was launched by Thailand and China in 1993 to promote economic cooperation among Mekong’s upper riparian countries (China, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Thailand) through transport—related projects. Another example is the Asean Mekong Basin Development Cooperation launched in 1996, a larger framework which encompasses riparian countries and non-riparian countries. It aims to stimulate economic cooperation addressing the economic disparity between long-time Asean countries and the later Asean members Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam.

In addition, the Asian Development Bank supported improved environmental management in the Greater Mekong Sub-region in 2006 through its Core Environment Program. The sub-region is composed of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and China (for the southern region), Thailand and Vietnam. The program aims to mainstream environmental considerations into the transport, energy, tourism and agricultural sectors of the sub-region’s economic cooperation program. It promoted the application of development planning tools and integrate environment into sustainable development. Likewise, a Mekong Wetlands Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Use Program exists among Lower Mekong River Basin countries (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam) for the purpose of building awareness of conservation of natural resources in the Mekong Basin wetlands and reinforcing the effectiveness and strength of local organizations and communities to uplift their quality of life and to manage wetlands and biodiversity wisely.

The cooperation mechanisms in place show that while China opted not to be a member of the Mekong River Commission set up in 1995, it can be enticed to cooperate with other riparian countries through some regional development frameworks. The above-mentioned mechanisms have China as a major actor which draws China out of its self-imposed isolation as far as the Mekong is concerned. China as a “dialogue partner” of Asean sits at the negotiating table to discuss the regional development of the Mekong riparian countries. It could, perhaps, be   assumed  that riparian countries in the Mekong Basin (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam) have functioning communication channels with China through various cooperation mechanisms.

*A lecturer on international environmental law, Ambassador Tolentino favors the creation of a world court for the environment.


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