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China on the Lancang/Mekong: ‘We Share the Water, We Share the River’

Below are excerpts from remarks by Yang Yi, secretary-general of the Chinese Institute of International Studies, at the public forum ‘The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation: Challenges, Opportunities and Ways Forward’ on Apr. 28, 2016 in Bangkok, Thailand. It was organised by the Institute of Security and International Studies.

Yang Yi, secretary-general of the Chinese Institute of International Studies, at the public forum ‘The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation: Challenges, Opportunities and Ways Forward’ in Bangkok Photo: Mia Gomez

Yang Yi, secretary-general of the Chinese Institute of International Studies Photo: Mia Gomez

The first Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) leaders’ meeting co-chaired by the prime minister and premier Li Keqiang and Thai Prime Minister was held in Sanya, China last month (March) – it marked the official launch of the LMC. The LMC is a historical moment that will promote the close relationship among all six countries in the region.

So we look forward to work with all the countries in our region together to realise political cooperation under the LMC.

I have three points I’d like to share with you. The first point I’d like to make is that stronger Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, even closer ties or friendship, are the common interest, the common aspiration of the people in this region.

In the short (period of) one year (among) the six countries, there is one leaders’ meeting, one foreign ministers’ meeting, three senior officials’ meetings, three working group meetings and a step up to what we call ‘3+5’ framework (referring to the three pillars of the LMC and its five priority areas below).

We have three pillars in the LMC – political and security issues, economic and sustainable development and socio-cultural ones, the people-to-people exchanges. These three pillars are in line with the three pillars of ASEAN Community building and will provide useful impetus to the ASEAN integration process.

The five key priority areas include connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources and the last one is agriculture and poverty reduction . . . These have laid out a solid foundation for the all-round long-term completion under the LMC framework.

The LMC is a useful complement to China-ASEAN cooperation, helps promote the economic and social development of its members, narrow their development gaps and upgrade our overall cooperation between China and ASEAN.

So the ASEAN Community set up at the end of the last year is a milestone in the development of ASEAN and a new chapter in China and ASEAN relations. So we have a new alternative to cooperate between China and ASEAN.

The five Mekong River countries are very important members of ASEAN. China is a strong supporter of ASEAN integration, community building. So we give priority and China is committed to deepening its good neighbourly, friendly and co-operative relations with ASEAN, because we think that we have a common objective in pursuing our development. We have a common interest in upholding peace and stability in our region.

We already have started comprehensive strategic partnership with all the other five Lancang-Mekong countries. In 2015, the total trade with five countries reached almost 200 billion US dollars.

China is now the largest trading partner of Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. It is the top investor in Cambodia and Myanmar.

As the global economy (is showing) a very slow recovery and Asian economies face growing downward pressure, economic development and better livelihoods for the people under the framework of the LMC will be a useful complement to the ASEAN-China cooperation.

Lancang-Mekong Cooperation is a new practice. . . a concrete action that demonstrates the joint commitment of the Lancang-Mekong countries to the United Nations 2013 agenda for sustainable development.

It has been the fine tradition of the Lancang-Mekong countries to engage in cooperation, so right now the LMC is in its early stage.

In short, I think peace and stability in our region is a guarantee of the LMC and the development of all the six countries – including Thailand, a developed country but they face the same problems – so development is the priority of the six countries.

The world economy as a whole is now in very slow recovery. There are also some destabilising factors and uncertainties on the rise. So the ASEAN economy is facing growing downward pressure and China and the other five Mekong countries have also encountered some new challenges. So the LMC will help us withstand outside downward pressure, promote our respective requirements and open up new ways for sub-regional and regional development.

I think this is the situation of the LMC, it’s very important for the Lancang-Mekong region’s efforts to cooperate in the future. The leaders of all the six countries have made a very clear message that they will share the river, share the future.

Water resources is one of the 3+5 key priority areas of the LMC. So the five Mekong countries produce 100 million tonnes of rice in 2014 and account for 15 percent of the world rice production. The downstream of the Mekong River is also very popular for fresh fish. Agriculture accounts for 25 percent of the world’s fresh fish. This is data from last year. It’s very important and all the speakers have mentioned that – that’s why they call the river as the mother river in some of the countries’ languages.

For China, we are willing to cooperate with all the downstream countries and resolve the water resource problem facing all of us. We already did so and will do so in the future.

So some of the colleagues have mentioned that all of the Lancang-Mekong region faces a very serious problem with the drought, with no water. Not only in the downstream. . .

At the request of the downstream countries, we have done emergency release of the water supply downstream so hope we can contribute to all of the region for water supply.

In recent years, there is climate change. . . I also remember several years ago there was a big flood in Bangkok, overflows of the mainland river. So we face the same problems in China. In China. . . we face a lot of problems, natural disasters, droughts, floods.

The dam has a lot of roles. . . First, you can use the dam for irrigation, human consumption, industrial use, agriculture, flood prevention. So because of the climate change, the importance of that, I think it’s very important we can transfer the water during the dry season and the rainy season. So, particularly in this region, the Lancang-Mekong river, we need to do something for dams.

But first of all, I think that we need to (start) from the very basic work. The first one is overall or general planning of the whole region, not only China, not only the upstream, also the downstream. They (need to) have overall general planning of the Lancang-Mekong river. All the countries should work together.

The second point is that in our region, we lack basic information. So this stage is very important. This time, all the countries have a drought problem. If China has a drought problem and Laos has a very serious flood, and Thailand lack of water and Cambodia has a flood, how do we deal with that? So we need very basic information relating to the Lancang-Mekong River and in the framework of the LMC, I think it’s very, very important.

The third one – I think we need to set up a monitoring point or survey point in all of the countries. In China, we are willing to help other countries set up monitoring points to do some basic research to help us. We call it in Chinese ‘scientific water management’. We share the water, so we need to cooperate and comprehensive scientific development at the international level, international water resources and through this kind of development to promote good neighbourhood. It’s also very important.

According to the consensus of the LMC leaders’ meeting, the LMC will establish a centre for water resources and also a centre for environmental protection will be established. I think they will be set up very, very soon.

Most people are very concerned about the environmental issues in the river. I think this is also the concern of China. Sometimes I feel that it’s not fair that only emphasise the role of the upstream countries. Sometimes the downstream countries can also play a very, very important role. Because no matter you’re strong or small, you’re big or small, we share the water, we share the river.

Of course, China as the upstream country, we can take more responsibility in that way and maybe we can take a lead. But anyway, it’s a move that all countries should join in, not only China, not only the upstream countries.

In China. . . we have at least 15 international rivers, including Lancang-Mekong. Most of the international rivers are not developed very well because there are sensitive issues, concerns from downstream. In the world, there is no standard sample we can follow (for addressing such concerns).

If we can take some examples, normally the Chinese experts take the example of Canada and the US. How they share, how they cooperate together to develop the river of Columbia. So they signed an agreement in 1961 for 60 years and the two countries of Canada and the US, they realised the importance of cooperation. There are dams in the treaty and the dams should keep adequate storage capacity for flood control, according to the requirement of the flood control planning. And the US will pay for the upstream, they will pay Canada – this is a kind of an example.

Another sample that I think that we can take as reference is the US and Mexico.. . There is the example of India and Bangladesh. In Africa, sometimes there is actual conflict.

I think there is no very simple example to follow because every region has its characteristics. So in this region, the Lancang-Mekong river, they have some traditional conflict. This kind of sub-regional cooperation is also linked with ASEAN Community building. I believe in ASEAN, there’s also a lot of subregional cooperation. So I think maybe we can find a new way with all the countries working together to cooperate and to share the water.

We, at least myself, do not see any contradiction with any other existing mechanism of the ASEAN Community, such as ASEAN plus China or the Greater Mekong Sub-regional Economic Co-operation or the ASEAN Mekong Basin Development Co-operation.

I think the LMC can play a beneficial supplement to the present existing regional cooperation mechanisms. I think all the six countries are developing countries so this is the first kind of mechanism that we try to transcend sub-regional co-operation between all the six countries in this river. I think it will be become a new model of the South-South cooperation in the future.

China only accounts for 4 percent of the Lancang River. The Lancang River is in China. If we take the whole river, Lancang-Mekong, we account for less than 1 percent of the water consumption. It’s a very small amount of water for the Chinese right now. The dam in the upstream, the major role of the dam for China, is for power, electric power.

I think there’s also one of the important roles of the dam. There should be a consensus that all the rivers will be welcome in the upstream to build dams. But how to build dams should be done in scientific reasonable ways, according to basic information. I think that’s the way we need to cooperate in the future, that’s the way we share the future.

If you use the water for electric power, the water will not disappear.

(Transcribed by M Gomez/END/Reporting ASEAN)

Read Johanna Son‘s related commentary for the ‘Reporting ASEAN’ series on the China-led Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) mechanism: https://www.reportingasean.net/mekong-cooperation-china-style/

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