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Opinion

Washington gets serious about the Mekong

Vice President Harris signals a fresh challenge to China's dominant role

| Southeast Asia
Kamala Harris delivers a speech in Singapore on Aug. 24: the timing of her trip highlighted President Biden's concerns about burnishing America's image.   © Reuters

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris launched a mission impossible this week to restore her country's shaky credibility as a trusted ally.

"The reason I am here is because the United States is a global leader, and we take that role seriously," a straight-faced Harris said on her arrival in Singapore. Sidestepping questions about the chaos in Afghanistan, Harris emphasized that the administration was "singularly focused" on evacuation operations.

But the timing of her trip highlighted President Joe Biden's concerns about burnishing America's image. "I am here in Singapore as a reaffirmation of our commitment to our membership in the Indo-Pacific region," Harris said.

The Vietnam leg of Harris' trip heralds what Washington portrays as a new strategic relationship with its former enemy. Sitting at the heart of mainland Southeast Asia, Vietnam not only shares a border with China, but its 3,260 km of coastline is of enormous strategic value.

United by a shared desire to counter China's rise, Harris will press a long-standing U.S. plan to intensify its presence in the Mekong subregion, as well as focus on issues such as containing the pandemic, digital trade, cybersecurity and climate change.

Outlining a comprehensive action plan for the Mekong River region at a virtual meeting with Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made it clear that Biden sees the area as America's new strategic "pivot."

The three-year Mekong plan signals a fresh U.S. challenge to Beijing in the region, and could help the five countries that share the river -- Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar -- reap major economic benefits in nearby markets in China and India.

To succeed, Washington must not only align its intervention with other countries active in the region, including Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand, but keep in step with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. That could prove problematic when China-friendly Cambodia takes the rotating chair of ASEAN in November.

A turning point in Washington's efforts in the Mekong after years of half-baked, ineffectual responses to Chinese activity, boosting the region's development must take priority, with efforts too obviously driven by rivalry with China likely to founder, with no country wanting to be seen as a platform for great-power confrontation.

The four major areas of cooperation announced by Blinken -- economic connectivity, sustainable water resource use and management, nontraditional security issues and human resource development -- reflect the experience gained over 11 years managing the Lower Mekong Initiative and show that the U.S. understands that aligning its interests with the Mekong nations is crucial.

Cambodian fisherman sits in his boat on the Mekong River in Phnom Penh on Feb. 19: the U.S. understands that aligning its interests with the Mekong nations is crucial.   © Reuters

But Washington is attempting to do more by stressing the holistic aspects of its approaches, with programs aimed at minimizing the negative environmental impacts of infrastructure projects -- especially related transport and hydroelectricity -- as well as promoting peace and sustainable development while strengthening cooperation between Mekong countries and the U.S.

Still, a Mekong summit focusing on the riparian countries between Biden and ASEAN leaders -- who value personal rapport and visits from their bigger partners -- would set the ball rolling in terms of identifying tangible projects that will benefit the region. As China's leaders and the Mekong countries have met three times since 2015 -- and their foreign ministers five times -- the new U.S. president should visit the region without delay.

The Mekong region's strategic importance between the Indian and Pacific oceans has grown thanks to America's heavy emphasis on a free and open Indo-Pacific, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Japan, Australia and India.

To have maximum impact, Washington must also garner support from the Friends of the Lower Mekong group, which has provided more than $25 billion in development assistance to the region since 2015. This group comprises Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the European Union, the Asian Development Bank, the Mekong River Commission and the World Bank.

Furthermore, the U.S. needs to reach out directly to Mekong countries with support for programs and activities focusing on connectivity and infrastructure development. The U.S. and Friends of the Lower Mekong must support the ongoing effort in Southeast Asia to create Mekong-centric norms and standards. After two decades of cooperation, a strong sense of the Mekong Way has emerged, and this can contribute to the development of a rules-based regional order.

With U.S.-China rivalry unlikely to subside anytime soon, the Biden administration's reboot provides fresh options for a region that would be well served by acting as a bridge between Washington and Beijing. This is as true for Cambodia, China's loyal ally, as for the other four Mekong countries, giving Phnom Penh a powerful reason to reconcile with its neighbors and form a united front to secure the best outcome.

There is a real chance that Cambodia will use its looming chairmanship of ASEAN constructively. Choosing not to rise above its own narrow interests could harm the region, and the Biden administration's Mekong pivot. Whatever can be said about the Afghanistan debacle, the U.S. now has a rare opportunity to convince its allies and friends that America is back -- and better than before.

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