Emerging hotspot: why you should care about the Mekong Region


[Illustration by Armadilly]


The Mekong Region can be defined as the geographical area crossed by the Mekong River, the longest river in Southeast Asia. The region surrounding the Mekong River is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world with 20,000 species of plants, 1,200 of birds, more than 1,100 of fish, and 430 of mammals. Biodiversity is directly connected to the health and richness of habitats, which inevitably impact livelihoods’ supply. As a consequence, changes in the flow of the Mekong River directly affect the lives of millions of people in the region.

The rising environmental and economic vulnerabilities have resulted in the perfect terrain for great power intervention. Through developmental projects and economic aid, the influence of countries like United States, China and Japan are increasingly undermining political independence and autonomy of most Mekong countries: Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Climate change and environmental threats

A series of human and natural factors make the Mekong one of the regions in the world most exposed to climate change. Structural factors mainly arise from the populations’ strategies of survival, which have resulted in environmental disruptions and renewed economic vulnerabilities. Resources have been harvested in an unsustainable way: these entail illegal wildlife trade, deforestation, forest degradation and inefficient use of hydropower. According to the WWF, “3,700–4,500 tonnes of wildlife species are traded and consumed every year in Vietnam alone” and supply international markets, in particular China. Most importantly, the construction of dams for energy purposes has been particularly controversial: the goal of clean and cheap electricity has been pursued at the expenses of ecosystems. As stated by Michelle Nijhuis, this trade-off is tricky: “The people of Southeast Asia need the clean electricity—but also the fish and rice that an undammed river provides.”

Moreover, the profits are far from being equally distributed: dams built at the mainstream can dramatically alter the flow of the river, creating droughts and floods, and causing a loss of nutrients for the habitats, which directly impact the livelihoods’ supply all along the course of the river. The Mekong River Commission was precisely established in 1995 to safeguard a sustainable management of the river and to enhance “water diplomacy”. Nevertheless, the voting procedures are based on consensus and final decisions are not binding, making its political impact rather limited.

As a consequence, these factors, coupled with natural inherent conditions, such as a high exposure to extreme weather events and high sensitivity to changes in weather and temperatures, make the Mekong an already vulnerable victim to climate change.

Emerging geopolitical competition

Great powers are taking advantage of these vulnerabilities, increasing their presence through developmental assistance based mainly on sustainable infrastructure projects. Nevertheless, this interest is mainly based on the strategic position of the Mekong Region, close to the global trade routes of the Indo-Pacific and the Strait of Malacca and to hotspots such as the South China Sea. The historical involvement of China in the Mekong, dating back to the 90s, and its intensified commitment through the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (2016), has triggered the balance of power mechanism in the region: the United States‘ Lower Mekong Initiative (2009), as a consequence to the renewed pivot to Asia under the Obama administration, launched its Mekong-US Partnership in September 2020.

Japan, a foreign-aid champion in the region, has parallelly intensified its engagement in the Mekong through formal summits started in 2009, as part of a new foreign policy course which aims at reshaping Japan’s role in the international system. The two countries eventually coordinated their policies under the Japanese concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), a strategy that comprises the Japan-United States Mekong Power Partnership. The partnership, coherently with FOIP, is clearly meant to obstacle China’s growing economic influence and to prevent the exclusive use of the Mekong as a strategic hub.

Meanwhile, other players chose a less antagonistic approach due to strong economic dependence on China and picked ASEAN as their main interlocutor: the European Union and South Korea. The latter is recently expanding its alliances in order to diversify its trade through its New Southern Policy, while the former is only recently pivoting to the Indo-Pacific. The EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific was formalised only in March 2021, after Germany – in a historic move – published its Indo-Pacific Policy Guidelines at the end of 2020. Nevertheless, the EU has been a regular funder of the Mekong River Commission since 2003.

Sadly, the influence of this body is rather scarce, and not only because of its voting procedure. Cooperation between Mekong countries is hampered by the construction of dams in the upstream part of the river (China and Laos), which affects the availability of natural resources in the creation of a vicious cycle of renewed economic and environmental vulnerabilities. Conflicts over natural resources, increasingly scarcer, will fuel instability, which will make external intervention even more necessary.

How this impacts you

For many of us the Mekong Region might be far away, but the potential consequences of disruptions can affect us all, regardless of our location. Firstly, the covid-19 pandemic clearly showed how ubiquitous the consequences of the disruptions of habitats are, in particular when wildlife trade is present: as UNEP noticed “degraded habitats may encourage more rapid evolutionary processes and diversification of diseases, as pathogens spread easily to livestock and humans.” Secondly, growing deforestation affects our ability to respond to climate change as forests absorb excessive amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and are therefore key mitigating players. Lastly, be sure that if there was another major conflict between great powers, it would start in the Indo-Pacific. If that happens, who controls the Mekong controls many of the major trade routes on which many countries in the world so dearly depends on. Probably even yours.

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