Expert Speak War Fare
Published on Jun 20, 2020
The Mekong subregion in Beijing’s strategic calculus  

The strategically vital Mekong subregion has been gaining salience in Beijing’s strategic calculations as China faces growing pushback from the US and other countries. The global pandemic appears to be consolidating a few trends in China’s ties with the Mekong nations. In this emerging scenario, it is likely that China will keep its focus on the Mekong subregion in the post-COVID-19 period.

Cooperative partnerships with some countries have been further deepening, while China’s “mask diplomacy” has raised concern among citizens who want their governments to adopt a more cautious approach and there have been new factors that have been added to existing difficult relationships often viewed through the confrontational lens.

Apart from China-ASEAN cooperation in engaging with the Mekong subregion, Beijing has been using the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC)–––a subregional cooperation mechanism jointly established by Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam–––in engaging with the subregion in the fight against the global pandemic.

In February, Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Vientiane, Laos, to participate in the fifth LMC foreign ministers’ meeting where he called for “concerted efforts” to fight against the COVID-19 epidemic.

The global pandemic provided Cambodia and China to further consolidate their cooperative partnership. During Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to China in early February at a time when “anti-Chinese sentiments” were rising has been interpreted as demonstrating “solidarity” and China-Cambodia relations has described as “a model” for neighbourhood diplomacy.

In one of the first high-level bilateral meetings between China and its neighbouring countries since the COVID-19 outbreak, Chinese Wang Yi co-chaired the fifth China-Cambodia intergovernmental coordinating committee with Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister, Hor Nam Hong on 16 June via videoconference. During the meeting Wang has been cited saying that the two countries have strengthened their “traditional friendship” by supporting and assisting each other since the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The establishment of a “fast track” for the movement of people and a “green corridor” for the flow of goods between the two countries to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and Cambodia expressing its support to China’s decision on national security legislation for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region are signs growing strategic ties between the two countries.

Like Cambodia, China’s cooperative partnership with neighbouring Laos has also been strengthening during the pandemic period. The Lao government has been instrumental in organising the China-ASEAN special foreign ministers’ meeting on coronavirus held alongside the LMC ministerial meeting in February. When cases of the COVID-19 was reported in Laos, China sent medical teams and medical supplies to Laos and were described as “return the kindness” from China.

On 3 April, in a phone conversation with his Lao counterpart Bounnhang Vorachith, Chinese President Xi Jinping assured continued “all-out support and assistance” to the Southeast Asian nation to its fight against the pandemic.

Similarly, on 20 May, President Xi in a phone conversation with Myanmar President U Win Myint reassured “staunch support and assistance” to Myanmar in combating the global pandemic. While Myanmar have been receiving medical supplies as well as technical assistance from China in fighting COVID-19 crisis, there have been concerns expressed about China’s medical assistance.

Long-standing issues such as the South China Sea dispute and the growing concerns over China’s dams building in the Mekong river have also posed challenges in China’s ties with the Mekong nations. For Vietnam, a couple of developments have further posed complicated its relations with China. In early April, a Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk in the disputed South China Sea after it was rammed by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel.

A new dimension that has been added to the already tensed relationship has been Vietnam’s growing role in providing neighbouring Laos and Cambodia with medical aid to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. While the move need to necessarily be a challenge China’s “monopoly” on COVID diplomacy in the neighbourhood, rather it could be part of Hanoi’s efforts to position itself as an emerging “responsible” nation, the geopolitical dimension would have been noted.

Still in early April another development that reminded the complexities of China’s ties with Mekong nations was the release of a study that alleges China’s dams being responsible for the drought in lower Mekong basin. Though Beijing disputed the findings of the study funded by the US government, it again brought to the fore the concerns of the Mekong nations with rights groups calling for “greater transparency” from China.

With Beijing likely to prioritise its neighbourhood in the post-COVID-19 period, how its relations with the Mekong subregion pans out will be major test for China with huge implications on its Belt and Road Initiative, both within the subregion as well as in other regions.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


K. Yhome

K. Yhome

K. Yhome was Senior Fellow with ORFs Neighbourhood Regional Studies Initiative. His research interests include Indias regional diplomacy regional and sub-regionalism in South and Southeast ...

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