Mekong: A Vital Regional River Can Be a Route for U.S. Diplomacy

Courtesy of Foreign Policy, a commentary that U.S. President Biden’s Vietnam deals should center on the Mekong:

On Sept. 10, Joe Biden pays his first visit to Vietnam as U.S. president, where he is expected to ink a deal to elevate the U.S.-Vietnam relationship from “comprehensive” to “comprehensive strategic”—the highest level of Vietnam’s diplomatic hierarchy. Biden is forgoing this week’s twin summits in Indonesia—the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit and the East Asia Summit—to show the value Washington places on key bilateral partners, such as Vietnam, in the Indo-Pacific.

Some critics worry that China and Russia, two of Vietnam’s other comprehensive strategic partners, could punish Vietnam for its choice to upgrade relations with the United States. But Vietnam can come out of this complicated diplomatic competition a clear winner by centering the U.S.-Vietnam collaboration on the Mekong—the mighty river that keeps both Vietnam and much of the rest of the world fed.

While details of the upgrade are still unknown, a key element will likely be increased commitments to war legacy issues such as Agent Orange cleanup and disabilities assistance—a cornerstone issue for the U.S.-Vietnam relationship but one that will inevitably sunset as memories of the war fade on both sides. Reporting also suggests that there will be fresh cooperative steps on defense relations, semiconductors, and maritime security—geostrategic issues that will likely rankle Beijing. Yet many meaningful new deals struck in sectors such as commerce, energy, educational exchange, climate adaptation, sustainable development, and science and technological transfers can be captured fully or partially under the Mekong umbrella. While these issues have strategic implications, they focus first on economic development and sustainability issues, which likely will not upset Beijing in the same way.

Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is a food security guarantor and also a big export zone for Vietnam. It produces 50 percent of the country’s rice, and its products stock the shelves and freezers of every supermarket in the United States. Much of Southeast Asia also relies on Vietnam’s rice export, 90 percent of which comes from the delta.

Yet this natural wealth is under threat. Climate change is reducing rainfall to the Mekong Delta’s wet season. Additionally, data from the Mekong Dam Monitor (an effort supported by the State Department’s Mekong-U.S. Partnership) suggests that China’s two major dams on the Mekong mainstream alone can reduce total wet season flow to the delta by around 10 percent during dry years. During particular weeks of the wet season that are critical to agricultural cycles, flow reduction from China’s dams can be much higher.

China’s upstream dams also block up to 60 percent of the Mekong’s annual sediment flows, which under natural conditions would replenish the delta’s landscape with nutrients and build more land out into the ocean. Without that sediment, the delta’s geological integrity weakens, and riverbanks, many of which are home to entire communities, are susceptible to collapse. Dams and riverbed sand mining are also causing the bed of the Mekong to rapidly lower, so water released from China’s dams during the dry season provides little to no utility as it rushes out into the sea. Impacts from upstream dams and climate change pose an increasing water and economic security risk for the Mekong Delta.

U.S. agencies such as NASA and the Army Corps of Engineers, research universities, and nongovernment organizations such as the Stimson Center, where I work, are global leaders in real-time water monitoring and forecasting, and many are already working with partners in Vietnam. Doubling down on scientific partnerships via a Mekong-centered U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relationship can give Vietnam the scientific tools it needs to monitor and forecast water conditions both in the delta and upstream to reduce risk.

This evidence can promote accountability and could support Vietnam in negotiating via the Mekong River Commission’s ongoing discourse with China to restore the Mekong Delta to its natural conditions, a goal Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party prioritized at the highest level with its Resolution 120 in 2017. Improvements in Vietnam will also result in similar positive knock-on effects in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.

The Mekong also plays a partial but critical role in Vietnam’s ability to meet its ambitious carbon emission goals through the import of power from Laos. Vietnam’s neighbor has built nearly 100 dams on its tributaries of the Mekong, with scores more in the planning stages. As the most downstream country, it is in Vietnam’s core interests to invest robustly in solar and wind projects in Laos and negotiate smartly with its neighbor to avoid further dams with social and environmental impacts to the Mekong Delta.

Via vehicles such as the Just Energy Transition Partnership and the U.S. International Development Finance Corp., the United States can directly assist Vietnam in identifying suitable projects across its borders and widen lanes for investment in energy sectors where U.S. and European investment is typically scarce.

Laos has been on a dam-building spree and remains desperately poor. I’ve recently pointed out several instances when Laos violated the 1995 Mekong Agreement, of which it is a charter member. Donor partners such as the United States are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in bilateral projects for sustainable development in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, but the success of these projects is predicated on the countries following rules for river development that they agreed to in the Mekong Agreement.

This entry was posted on Sunday, September 10th, 2023 at 3:37 am and is filed under China, Mekong River, Vietnam.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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