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The six-nation LMC is a chance, and a challenge, for China to show it can lead in matters of regional diplomacy and collaboration

By NewsChina Updated Mar.6

In April 2017, Zhang Hongfu, a senior research manager with SynTao, a Beijing-based consultancy on corporate social responsibility, made another business trip along the Mekong River to Laos and Cambodia. As he was jogging along the river one morning, he saw a Lao family wash, play and fish in the river by their shack. One of their sons helped a Thai fisherman haul his boat to the river. Zhang took photos and shared them on the “Moments” feed of his WeChat account, China’s leading social media app. “The parents were watching their kids playing in the river, smiling, contented, understanding and a bit annoyed. Their smiles were so moving,” he writes in his comments. 
Five months later, Zhang’s friend Gong Zhihua, an independent producer of documentaries about environmental protection, traveled to Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture in South China’s Yunnan Province. The Dai minority is of a similar ethnic background to some ethnic groups in Laos and Thailand, and the Lancang River (China’s name for the upper reaches of the Mekong) is upstream from where they live. His documentary The River by Banna tells stories of how the river has provided drinking water, a place for recreation and business opportunities for local people. “It is absolutely the ‘Mother River’ for local residents,” Zhang and Gong gave the same answer to our reporter about their impression of their trips. 
The river is a natural bond not only for daily life, but also politics, security and business. On January 26, 2018, police forces from China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand completed their 66th joint patrol on the Lancang-Mekong River. The mission was launched at the end of 2011, two months after 13 Chinese sailors were killed by a group of armed drug traffickers at the part of the river where the borders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet, known as the Golden Triangle. 
There are now hundreds of joint projects along the river, with many in the pipeline, including agricultural, industrial and environmental projects. In January, China signed at least US$10 million in contracts with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to support small- and medium-sized projects on culture, transportation and education. 
There will be more cultural, political and commercial exchanges among the countries of the river. An action plan was adopted in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, by the leaders of the six countries of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) – China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam at the 2nd LMC Leaders’ Meeting on January 10, 2018.
Their common interests ensure that links between the six countries are already strong, and are designed to get stronger in the future via the LMC forum. However, theoretically and practically, common interests are not enough to ensure that members are always ready to take collective actions to make their joint platforms a sustainable success. The question for China, the only world power in this framework, is how to play a leading role in the process. It involves engagement with not only smaller partners, but also both competition and cooperation with other big players in the region.  

Late but Different Player 

The LMC was put forward by Thailand in 2012 and officially proposed by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at a summit meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the end of 2014. The vision, laid out in the joint statements since the launch of the LMC in March 2016, not only includes stronger ties among the six riverine countries, but also pledges to narrow the development gap within ASEAN to boost integration, as all five Mekong countries are ASEAN members. Chinese analysts also regard the LMC as a regional effort to resist the anti-globalization forces the world currently faces. 
To realize these ambitions, Chinese leaders have repeatedly stressed the importance of efficiency in making tangible results on the platform. The operation started with trial projects called Early Harvest, along with 13 Chinese initiatives. About 100 new projects were implemented later, and more are to come in the next few years, including 132 projects to be funded by China’s LMC Special Fund.  

This is different from other regional cooperation efforts which often focus on making, or remaking, rules to facilitate trade and investment. Once these rules are agreed upon by participating countries, enterprises and capital take over the lead role from governments. In Lancang-Mekong areas where production capacity, local supply chains and infrastructure connectivity are yet to be developed, this model will not be as effective in benefiting the local economy as in developed markets, according to Professor Wang Yuzhu, director of the Center for APEC and East Asian Cooperation under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. In an article on the People’s Daily website on January 10, Wang stressed that the project and efficiency oriented cooperation model of the LMC is more helpful in terms of addressing specific problems that hinder development, particularly in areas involving livelihoods. He mentioned four Early Harvest projects in agriculture which involved fishing resources protection, control of rice pests, fruit and vegetable quality improvement and research on bean crops.
Indeed, the LMC is more institutionalized than the Greater Mekong Subregion Program which was established in 1992 with the support of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which has been operating on a project-by-project basis. Professor Lu Guangsheng, director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at Yunnan University told NewsChina that a comprehensive, systematic framework has been installed, and the new five-year action plan in particular specifies the priorities as a long-term commitment. The dynamics of this cooperation would not have to rely on the life cycle of particular projects.  

Leadership Challenge 

However, it is probably necessary to move toward more institution-building, including rule-making, to facilitate implementation of the projects in the short term and realize the LMC’s long-term vision of a “community of a shared future of peace and prosperity.” All six countries have set up national secretariats or other agencies to coordinate local and joint projects within the LMC framework. An LMC International Secretariat, a China initiative, remains subject to further discussion by the members, according to the Phnom Penh declaration issued by the second LMC Leaders’ Meeting in January, 2018.
Cooperation in some areas has already become more rule-based. The Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Center was established in June 2017. At the end of that year, the Integrated Law Enforcement and Security Cooperation Center was established. Both are multilateral organizations. The secretary-general of the law enforcement center rotates among the six countries. Lu thinks these agencies can review projects for water and unconventional security – such as trafficking of drugs or people – by their standards, and similar professional agencies should be deployed in other areas of cooperation like commerce. 
Some analysts think the LMC will be a starting point for China to play a leading role in institution building, especially rule-making, in local cooperation, but he repeatedly warned that China has to be very cautious on the pace and steps it takes toward this. As the only global and regional power in the mechanism, China has the responsibility to take on leadership to make sure the platform is efficient and robust. But China has to realize there is an art to finding the balance between leading and accommodating.
“This is a big challenge that China has to face not only in the LMC, but also in all multilateral cooperation platforms that China has joined,” Lu noted. He added that it is realistic for smaller countries to resist being overwhelmed by any power, be it China, or the US and Japan as in the case of the Mekong countries. As a response to this concern of the Mekong countries and ASEAN, nearly all official joint documents from the LMC clearly state that it will coordinate with ASEAN’s own integration and China-ASEAN cooperation, as well as being complementary to other existing sub-regional cooperation platforms. Chinese officials and scholars have also publicly reiterated that the LMC will not replace other platforms.
The US and Japan have already built up a strong presence in the Mekong region for decades through their own cooperation platforms and the ADB. Lu stressed that China should think positively about potential competition with the US, Japan or even India in this area, and seek potential cooperation with them. For example, China can draw from the expertise of the ADB’s operations there. Unlike China, neither the US nor Japan share the common challenges that have brought China and the Mekong countries together, notably those concerning cross-border water resources, drug smuggling and terrorism. Besides, compared with China’s other neighbors, the Mekong countries boast a stronger economic cooperation foundation, smaller risk of territorial disputes and terrorist attacks and closer historical and cultural ties with China. Given this, Lu is confident that the Mekong area provides the best opportunity for China to make substantial progress on achieving its vision of deeper regional cooperation and a community of shared future. 
China believes a “community of shared future for the Lancang-Mekong River countries” will “stand as a pioneering example for the building of a community of shared future for all mankind,” declared Geng Shuang, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a press conference in Beijing on December 7, 2017. 
For China, the LMC is a challenge and a chance to gain early momentum in its goal to build a “community of shared future for mankind and achieve shared and win-win development,” a vision proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The prospect is largely dependent upon how China does its jobs of both leadership and neighborhood diplomacy.