11 July 2024

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has proposed a series of bilateral meetings, including a summit later this year, between the US and lower Mekong countries as part of efforts to promote sustainable development in the Mekong sub-region.

In a recent virtual meeting with the lower Mekong riparian countries, Blinken said that cooperation with the region is a top priority in the Biden administration’s foreign policy. He then outlined a broad range of opportunities and activities for US engagement with the region.

According to a senior ASEAN official, who asked not to be identified, the US proposed cooperation in economic connectivity, sustainable water use, natural resource management and environmental conservation and protection, non-traditional security issues, including trafficking in persons and narcotics as well as wildlife and timber, health security, cyber security, disaster response and preparedness and human resource development.

These areas are an expansion of the past 11 years of cooperation between the US and Mekong region, through the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI). “The US is extremely serious about competing with China in the Mekong’s overall development,” said the source. Last year, the LMI morphed into a comprehensive framework, under the reinvigorated Mekong-US Partnership.

The source said that President Joe Biden expressed a readiness to engage with the leaders of the Mekong countries, to promote sustainable development in the richly biodiverse region on mainland Southeast Asia.

The US is also proposing other meetings at ministerial, senior official and working group levels as well as “Track 1.5” dialogues and civil society organizations. The purpose, according to the source, is to increase transparency and good governance and to narrow the development gap in the region.

The US’s latest programs in the Mekong sub-region pose a direct challenge to the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), which was established five years ago. China has invested more than US$300 million in almost 500 joint projects, covering all areas of cooperation. The LMC has also held three summits and five ministerial meetings.

Other ASEAN dialogue partners, such as Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand, have bilateral programs with the Mekong countries. Among the five riparian countries, there is a sub-regional framework, known as the Ayewwaddy-Chaophraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), which will promote connectivity and the green economy, among others.