In the midst of an ongoing China-US spat (see here and here), Mr Stephen Biegun, Deputy Secretary of State of the United States (on behalf of US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo), held the 1st Mekong-US Partnership (MUSP) ministerial meeting less than a week ago.
The MUSP takes over from the Lower Mekong Initiative, which was initiated 11 years ago in 2009 by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Ministers of the Mekong region countries.
Co-chaired by Mr Biegun and Vietnamese Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, the meeting also saw the participation of the Foreign Ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, as well as the ASEAN Secretary-General. Myanmar was represented by U Kyaw Tin, Union Minister for International Cooperation.
The meeting, held virtually, is supposed to mark “the opening of a new chapter of cooperation among Mekong Countries and the United States.” The meeting discussed “how the Mekong-US Partnership can contribute to the regional sustainable development and prosperity in the new global and regional context” says the press release.
The Deputy Secretary of State pledged to contribute 153.6 million USD to the programmes and activities under the new partnership mechanism.
Priority areas are “Economic Connectivity, Sustainable Water and Natural Resources Management, Environmental Conservation and Protection, Non-Traditional Security, and Human Resource Development.” The meeting concluded with the adoption of the “Joint Ministerial Statement of Mekong-US Partnership” and “Mekong-US Partnership Foundational Document”.
The Mekong River has become a new geopolitical front in U.S.-China rivalry, with Beijing overtaking Washington in both spending and influence over downstream countries at the mercy of its control of the river’s waters. China has 11 dams on the Mekong, upstream, giving it extensive control of the waters that flow down and enabling it to set the agenda for development linked to the waterway. China also created its own cooperation body called the Lancan Mekong Cooperation (LMC) in 2016 grouping the same countries.
Mekong countries also have their own coordination group called the Mekong River Commission (MRC) first starting as a post-colonial era committee in the 50s. The Mekong is said to sustain the livelihood of over 60 million people.