Monday, March 20, 2023

China Challenging Sub-Regionalism in Southeast Asia

On March 23, 2016, six leaders of Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam declared the Sanya Declaration, re-emphasizing the establishment of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC). Initiated by China, LMC is a new sub regional cooperation connecting six countries through which the Lancang/Mekong River flows. Previously, there are several active cooperation initiatives, such as the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) 1992 and the Mekong River Commission (MRC) 1995. The question is why did they create a new subregional cooperation instead of utilizing that cooperation? Moreover, how will LMC affect ASEAN unity?


LMC and Sub Regional Cooperation

The Sanya Declaration stated that LMC should complement and develop in synergy with the existing sub regional cooperation mechanisms. LMC will work on some areas of cooperation that have been covered by GMS and MRC. There will be potential overlapping between LMC and the older initiatives. LMC will cover priority areas such as connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources, agriculture and poverty reduction. Meanwhile, GMS also focuses on connectivity. It has successfully built economic corridors, connecting Kunming, China in the north to Bangkok in the south, as well as Mawlamyine, Myanmar in the West, to Danang port of Viet Nam in the east. In terms of cross-border economic cooperation, GMS also has a Cross-Border Transport Agreement (CBTA), which simplify the procedures of cross-border trade and transport. In water resources area, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Viet Nam are incorporated in the MRC, which focus on managing Mekong river resources for sustainable development. Myanmar and China also participated in the MRC as the dialogue partners.

Although the members and programs of these sub-regional cooperation are relatively similar, the LMC establishment has continued to progress, from Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in 2015 to the Leaders’ Meeting in 2016, both were held in China. There are some facts that may lead us to understand the reasons. First, the Sanya Declaration stated that LMC will encourage synergy between China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative and LMC’s activities and projects. Second, China has made a commitment to establish a LMC Fund, provides concessional and special loans, and provides 18,000 persons-year scholarships and 5,000 training opportunities for the next three years. Third, the declaration also indicated its support for the China’s initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).


LMC and ASEAN Future

In the ASEAN context, the existence of LMC will cause challenging dynamics. LMC may strengthen connectivity and build closer relations among societies, which will boost the sense of community in the Mekong sub region. Meanwhile, for geographically separated ASEAN members, such process may take a longer time. This is a good as well as a bad news for ASEAN. LMC’s framework can support “Narrowing the Development Gap” of ASEAN Community Vision ASEAN 2025. However, such acceleration in the Mekong sub region may lead to segregation between the mainland and the archipelagic states of ASEAN. More importantly, China’s tremendous role in LMC is the elephant in the room that cannot be unseen. China’s domination on LMC will overshadow other members and consequently affect broader ASEAN.

ASEAN must be aware that it is impossible to control members’ relations with China, especially when it cannot match what China has to offer: huge investment and flow of capital. Looking at the post-PCA dynamics, there is already a salient disunity growing among ASEAN members when it comes to their relations with China. ASEAN’s failure to even note PCA’s ruling on the South China Sea at the 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting’s joint communiqué is evidence of how strong China’s influence within the organization.

ASEAN should come up with a better strategy when it has to deal with external actors, including China. Recalling to how ASEAN manage their external relations with big powers in the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Centrality is undoubtedly the key factor. The question now is how to maintain ASEAN Centrality in the current circumstances?


Indonesia’s Expected Role

The 28th and 29th ASEAN Summit and the related meetings in early September 2016 will be an appropriate moment to contemplate on this issue. Moreover, the events will also include the ASEAN-China 25th Anniversary Commemorative Summit. Indonesia has to urge the members to recommit themselves to ASEAN Unity and Centrality by pushing intra-ASEAN dialogue on current dynamics, including LMC. The positive sides of LMC must be acknowledged. Yet, the concern over China’s domination and the impact to ASEAN is worth considering. To lessen the implication of future clashes of interests, Indonesia should propose a concept where LMC and other sub regional cooperation would have to structurally coordinate with ASEAN especially under economic pillar.

(Khanisa Krisman and Sandy Raharjo are researchers from ASEAN Research Group at the Center for Political Studies, Indonesian Institute of Sciences)