Thoughts About Northeast Asian Cooperation Upon Visiting the Mekong River

|China

From the beginning of August, I spent three weeks in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China with more than 40 students. The trip was one of the unique extracurricular lessons for “on-site research” organized by the Faculty of Modern Chinese Studies at Aichi University. During these trips, students visit local governments, companies, farmers and minority groups in China and conduct research in Chinese. Yunnan Province was selected for the fourth year of the scheme.

The Mekong River, which is known as the Lancang Jiang in Chinese, runs through Yunnan Province from north to south. One of the important themes of this research trip was a survey of the reactions of people in Yunnan to development along Mekong River. We flew to Xishuangbanna, which borders Myanmar and Laos, to see the Lancang Jiang with our own eyes, as well as to pay a visit to Daluo, a remote trade zone with province status that has been established in collaboration with Myanmar.

An earlier survey of executives from 130 companies around Kunming revealed that close to 90% favored the development of Mekong River basin; 45.3% expected economic development and 17.0% were interested in hydropower generation, with 13.2% expressing their interest in securing domestic non-commercial water.

With regard to hydropower development, there are nine plans to construct dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong River, with another eight planned on the middle and lower reaches of the river in Yunnan. Of these, construction of the Manwan Dam has been completed with investment from national and provincial electricity companies and the Hongta Group, with three more under construction. Once construction is finished, the electricity they produce will be provided to Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

For many years, the Mekong River has been called the “war-torn river”. Under an initiative of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), a ministerial summit was held for the first time in Manila in October 1992, with the participation of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, in addition to China (Yunnan Province) and Myanmar. The Ministerial Meeting on the ASEAN-Mekong Basin Development Cooperation was established in December 1996 and since then, together with the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between China and ASEAN, which is to be concluded in ten years’ time, the river has been attracting more attention. A yen loan has formed the core of Japan’s collaboration with this initiative.

Upon seeing sites where the development of the Mekong River basin has been going well despite the currency crisis in East Asia, I asked myself why economic cooperation in Northeast Asia (i.e. Japan, the ROK, the DPRK, Northeast China, the Russian Far East and Mongolia) has not progressed.

Geographical conditions are one primary reason. The countries around the Mekong River basin are connected by land and the development of the river itself is a supporting pillar of overall development and the national interests of each economy. In contrast, since the countries of Northeast Asia are not all connected, the conditions in the natural world vis-a-vis economic integration are unfavorable.

Secondly, as developing countries, the economic levels of the countries around the Mekong River are somewhat similar, so it is easy to establish economic development as a common purpose. In Northeast Asia, however, there are large differences in the economies and populations of the region and there is a tendency for common economic targets to become diffused.

Thirdly, while China and three countries in Indochina have fully adopted the market economy, not all of the countries of Northeast Asia have elected to follow this economic system. Furthermore, issues such as separation of the Korean Peninsula, the Northern Territories and the Cold War mentality are still latently in existence. Before establishing economic cooperation, the foundations for it must be laid by building trust.

Fourthly, outside institutions are enthusiastically cooperating in the development of the Mekong River basin; the ADB is diligently providing financial support, while Japan and the U.S.A are both keen participants. In contrast, there is no financial structure to support development in Northeast Asia, and Japan, the U.S. and Europe have all adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

Given the issues described above, developing transportation infrastructure and building hydropower generation facilities should be the main focus of Mekong River basin development in the near term. I believe that the expansion of trade to create better conditions for direct investment is necessary in Northeast Asia.

[Translated by ERINA]