Cohabitation, Cooperation and Competition in the Mekong River Basin


For millions of people, the Mekong River is a cohabitation of people, animals, natural resources and culture. For some states and international organizations, the Mekong River is a place where cooperation is needed for sustainable development in the region. For a few, the Mekong River is considered as a strategic area of competition for their power and influence.

Teaser Image Caption
Morning Sunlight by the Mekong River, taken from Phu Huay Isaan, Sangkhom District, Nong Khai province, Thailand.

The Mekong River, the longest in Southeast Asia which flows almost 5,000 km through six countries from China, Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia to Vietnam, has gained attention among policymakers, scholars and development practitioners of not only these six nations but also from those outside the region. The strategic location of the Mekong River is one of the main reasons it attracts the attention of many countries, especially major powers who have had a footprint in the region over many years.

The Mekong River: the River of Lives, Cohabitation and Opportunities

The Mekong River that runs through the six countries has an underlying significance by its length and impact. The lives of more than 60 million people, with more than 95 different ethnic groups, directly depend on the Mekong River Basin, one of the largest inland fisheries in the world. In the Lower Mekong Basin alone, about 4.4 million metric tons of fish are annually produced from the Mekong River which is a major source of protein and income for millions of people in the region, the value of fisheries here was estimated at USD 17 billion a year. Its freshwater system is also critical for rice farming as well as for daily consumption. The Mekong River also provides jobs in fields such as forestry, agriculture, fishing or tourism for many locals. The value of the Mekong River is not only in the livelihoods of the local populations but also for the economy of countries sharing this great resource.

The importance of the Mekong River can also be found in terms of navigation. This waterway has long been used for transportation of cargo and people to numerous communities along the river. In modern times, this important inland waterway becomes more and more strategically important for international trade that helps to reach out to the sea and international markets. Sand mining is another economic opportunity of the Mekong River, especially when sand is increasingly demanded in construction and industrial sectors among countries that cohabitate the river.

The Mekong River separating Thailand and Lao PDR, taken from Chiang Rai, Thailand.

One of the most controversial benefits of the Mekong River is the hydropower development. Around 60–70 medium or large dams are operating along the river and many more are coming. Despite the certain benefits of power supply and associated economic activity, the construction of these dams receive a fair share of criticism. China’s interest in the river is driven by its energy needs, which significantly increase every year. However, the continuing construction of dams are damaging and threatening the environment and livelihoods of millions of people in the riparian areas. Today, the evidence of suffering and the increasing vulnerabilities of people living around the Mekong basin is more than obvious and has worsened.

Economic growth, which is a key goal of every country, is unfortunately achieved at the expense of environmental degradation. The Mekong River, which is recognized as one of the most biodiverse rivers in the world, is now facing many challenges of transboundary issues that a country, particularly a developing one, cannot overcome alone. As such, transboundary water cooperation, not only among the riparian states but also with countries outside the region that can assist with knowledge and technology is considered vital to create well-balanced and sustainable development of the basin.

The River of Cooperation

The Mekong River is significant not only for transportation, but also agriculture, tourism, ecological systems, socioeconomic development and food security, especially for those whose livelihood depends on this River. Beside the countries where the river flows through, there are many players in the international arena that actively cooperate with Mekong countries for the sustainability of the Mekong River.

Many countries, such as the U.S., China, Japan and European countries, put great effort into encouraging sustainable development of the Mekong region through strong, yet debatable, global partnerships. Below are some key partnerships in the region.

The critically low water level of the Mekong River in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

The Mekong–U.S. Partnership

The U.S. has invested a lot in the development of the Mekong Region, especially in the Lower Mekong. The support of the US government covers many dimensions through several programs, ranging from the issue of drug and human trafficking, transnational crime to environmental and infrastructure development. Starting from the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) in 2009, the U.S. partnered with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam to help the Lower Mekong countries enhance sustainable economic growth of the region. Later on, several programs followed, for example, the Mekong Water Data Initiative to support and encourage research and shared data on water flows, the SERVIR-Mekong Program to use satellite data to reduce problems on drought, floods and transboundary water competition (supposedly by the upstream dams), the Sister River Exchange between the Mekong River Commission and the Mississippi River Commission, and the Mekong-U.S. Partnership, which transformed from the LMI in 2020 to focus on transboundary water management, new security, economic connectivity, energy and infrastructure. According to the report by the U.S. Embassy in Thailand, the U.S. Department of State and Agency for International Development (USAID) dedicated more than USD 3.4 billion to the development of the Mekong partner countries from 2009 to 2020.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo participates in a Lower Mekong Initiative Ministerial family photo in Bangkok, Thailand, on August 1, 2019

The Mekong–China Partnership

Although China has mutual benefit of transboundary resources from the Mekong River, its water management causes severely damaging effects to the Lower Mekong areas. However, China has put its hands to collaborate with the Lower Mekong countries in many ways. China joined the Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation Program (the GMS Program), with the support of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 1992. Almost a decade later, China joined the Joint Committee on Coordination of Commercial Navigation on Lancang-Mekong River (JCCCN), which included Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and China in 2001, with aims to improve commercial navigation and share water data. Later, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) was established in 2016 and the members include Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and China. The LMC is planned as a research-based river management cooperation program to cover the three major issues, including political and security issues, economics and sustainable development, and social, cultural, and people-to-people exchanges. More than 400 projects on the related issues have been supported by the Chinese government under the LMC since then.

The Mekong–Japan Partnership

Japan has played a leading role in the Mekong region since the 1990s. When the Asian Development Bank (ADB) launched the Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation Program (the GMS Program) in 1992, Japan was one of the leads that set up the program and was the core donor. The Japanese cooperation in the Mekong Region is strengthened through its own platform of the Mekong-Japan Cooperation, which was initiated by the Japanese government and had the first Mekong-Japan Summit meeting between Japan and the Mekong region countries in Tokyo in November 2009. The meeting continues every year.

The outcome of the recent Mekong-Japan Cooperation is considered as a big push to the development of the Mekong region countries. Under the Five Points of Cooperation’, announced by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in 2020 to:

  1. promote loans and investment for the private sector
  2. provide grant assistance for grass-roots human security projects
  3. cooperate concerning the rule of law
  4. cooperate concerning the ocean, and
  5. collaborate concerning strengthening supply chains.

This can be considered as well-rounded cooperation to promote economic security, human security, and legal security of the region. 

The Mekong–Europe Partnership

The international cooperation in the Mekong Region is not only from old friends such as the U.S. and Japan but also good friends from European countries. The European Union (EU) supports this region through both bilateral and multilateral agreements. For example, through the Mekong River Commission (MRC) platform since 2003, the EU has provided technical and financial assistance on issues such as development and climate change. Before the global pandemic of Covid-19, the EU contributed EUR 1.2 million for humanitarian aid and disaster preparedness projects in the Mekong region in 2018 and there were more than 135,000 people in underdeveloped areas of the Mekong who were recipients of the EU-funded support. Recently, the governments of Germany and Switzerland committed nearly USD 10 million in funding to the MRC to assist Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam to respond to the problems of ecological changes and challenges, and the preservation of the ecological function of the Mekong River in order to reduce people’s vulnerability and improve their livelihoods.

The Mekong–Global Partnership

The transboundary water cooperation in the Mekong Region opens the path for more constructive collaboration that engages partners from different political ideologies. For example, the initiative of the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), launched in 2003, consists of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam with the collaboration of other key stakeholders including the U.S., China, India, Australia, Japan and South Korea to enhance water management and environmental cooperation. This type of multinational collaboration can be also seen through the platform of the Friends of the Lower Mekong (FLM). The FLM, although under the Mekong-U.S. Partnership, intends to create integrated subregional cooperation between and among the Lower Mekong countries, the U.S. and other donors, international financial institutions and multilateral organizations. The participating FLM members include Australia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, the European Union, Asian Development Bank, and the World Bank.

Floating Market in Vietnam's Mekong Delta

The River of Competition

The Mekong River is not only important in terms of socioeconomic value, but also in terms of security for many countries in and outside of the basin. Unfortunately, it has become a new battleground for superpowers like China and the U.S. The interests of China in the Mekong River is quite clear: dams for electricity, the waterway for the movement of goods and people, water for agriculture, and the control of water to secure environmental and geopolitical leverage. The expansion of China’s influence in the region has forced the U.S. to actively oppose Beijing’s power in the area.

China has long been accused of dominating the Mekong River for its geopolitical leverage. By controlling the upstream, Beijing could substantially restrict the amount of inflow into the downstream nations. The reduction of water flow and unseasonal fluctuations in the flow of water in the Mekong River will affect ASEAN food security, water and resource management and navigation in the long run. China’s control of the Mekong River waterway indicates that ASEAN water and food security can be at the mercy of Beijing.

The concern of Chinese hegemony led the U.S. to actively cooperate with some ASEAN nations to fend off the increasing influence of Beijing. As mentioned by the former Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo on 11 September 2020:

“We stand for transparency and respect in the Mekong region, where the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has abetted arms and narcotics trafficking and unilaterally manipulated upstream dams, exacerbating an historic drought. And we stand for open and rules-based economic growth, in contrast to the opaque and predatory business practices of Beijing’s state-owned actors, such as China Communications Construction Company.”

His rhetoric on China reflects the U.S. goals in the region that aims to manage Beijing’s influence and underpin its foothold, and strengthen alliances and partnerships. China, on the other hand, seems not to be convinced by the U.S. “Countries outside the region should refrain from stirring up trouble out of nothing,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry told Reuters in July 2020.

The rivalry between the U.S. and China is unfortunately becoming more regular in the international arena. To contain China’s influence in the region and maintain the balance of power, the U.S. needs to affirm its position, strengthen cooperation with its own alliances and block Beijing’s offers in the region. By doing so, there is no doubt that the Mekong River Basin will unavoidably become another ground for U.S. and China competition.

Life of the Mekong riverside people in Chiang Khong district of Chiang Rai Province, Thailand.

How will the Mekong River partnerships flow in the future?

Are these major powers friends or foes of the Mekong countries? It is unlikely an absolute answer to this question can be found. We do not mean to turn a blind eye or be too naïve on the fact of rivalry between the superpowers in this region. Mekong politics is undeniably obvious and is perhaps one of the main reasons drawing more players into the region.

The importance of the Mekong River is not limited to only the six Mekong countries. The value of this great river is beyond doubt. There are countless benefits stretching from water-based resources to geopolitical leverage. The cooperation between countries and international organizations is necessary to sustainably develop this region. However, the benefits of the river also make this region a ground of competition among major powers in world politics.

Governments of the region need to balance between the profits and cost of cooperation and development in order to preserve this river of life for generations beyond our time. It may be time to reconsider separate cooperation and turn to a more constructive collaboration so the greatest benefits are in the hands of that local communities cohabiting along the river.


Dr. Thanikun Chantra and Dr. Pradit Chinudomsub are both lecturers at the International Development Program, School of Social Innovation, Mae Fah Luang University, Chiang Rai, Thailand.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.