In a nod to green diplomacy, Vietnam is raising the geopolitical stakes over the Mekong River, Southeast Asia’s largest body of water, which has dropped to record lows due to a severe drought and construction of large dams.
Hanoi has signaled its intent to raise the issue this year as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. By putting the Mekong, which is shared by five riparian countries in the river’s basin and China, on the 10-nation regional bloc’s agenda, Vietnam has transformed the waterway from a subregional issue to one of greater international concern.
Until now ASEAN has limited its political interventions over transnational waterways to the South China Sea, another area where China looms large. The ASEAN countries that share the Mekong, whose 4,600 km course takes it from China’s Tibetan Plateu to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, are Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The river basin serves as the region’s rice bowl.
According to government sources in Hanoi, the fate of the Mekong will be up for discussion when Vietnam hosts the annual ASEAN ministerial meeting this summer. “Mekong sustainable development and connectivity has become an important issue for ASEAN and beyond,” states a draft of an official concept paper on the ASEAN+Policy Dialogue on Mekong basin development. “ASEAN should play a greater role in the development of the Mekong subregion, while strengthening its centrality in the regional architecture,” the paper says.