Henning Spreckelmeyer, Chapter IV: Lancang or Mekong? Power Capacities of Thailand and Vietnam in the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism in:

Nele Noesselt (Ed.)

Reassessing Chinese Politics, page 70 - 90

National System Dynamics and Global Implications

1. Edition 2019, ISBN print: 978-3-8288-4325-7, ISBN online: 978-3-8288-7265-3,

Series: East Asian Politics: Regional and Global Dynamics, vol. 1

Tectum, Baden-Baden
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70 Chapter IV: Lancang or Mekong? Power Capacities of Thailand and Vietnam in the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism Henning Spreckelmeyer Introduction Analyses of conflicts in Southeast Asia almost always focus on China and its assertive power capabilities (Chang Liao 2018), portraying the People’s Republic as the main actor in the region. This is also the case for East Asia’s most important river: the Mekong, on which’s river politics of cooperation and conflict this essay focuses. Chinese officials praise the successful teamwork surrounding the Mekong: “The river, which plays such a big part in our lives, is a gift from nature and embodies a natural bond of mutual support. It brings the six riparian countries together into a community with a shared future featuring equality, sincerity, mutual assistance and kinship.” (Li 2018) The reality along the Mekong is characterized however by China’s strategy to ensure greater influence within each of the other riparian states here—Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam—while also only looking at the benefits for itself. China is the “upstream superpower” (Nickum 2008: 227), and its assertive power capabilities (Chang Liao 2018) are also highly effective in issues of river politics. At the same time, some authors (e.g. Biba 2018) are convinced that there is a real chance for balanced cooperation around the Mekong—including a fair distribution of its resources. This conflict between the official peaceful discourse and the hard and beneficial reality for China on the ground is a typical pattern vis-à-vis conflicts in Southeast Asia. In Laos, for example, Chinese construction companies build a 414-kilometer long new railroad line towards the capital Vientiane. The credits for the project should be backed by the state but with costs of over 5.2 billion euro, which is almost a third of Laos’s entire gross domestic product per year, an unsurmountable debt trap for Laos and a dependence on China through harsh lines of credit is more than likely (Zand 2018). The following essay takes a different point of view on these conflicts in general, and on river politics in particular. It will examine the power capacities of Thailand and Vietnam along the Mekong. This 71 change of perspective makes it possible to ask questions other than just how responsibly or not China acts in Southeast Asia and toward the downstream countries of the Mekong (Xia 2001). It becomes clear that the strength of China is accompanied by a simultaneous weakness and indecisiveness on the part of the other riparian states along the Mekong. Together with Western powers, they have missed the chance to counterbalance China’s growing influence along the river. The analysis is knitted around the new cooperation platform that was initiated by China in 2015: the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism (LMCM). The platform is already the subject of controversial discussion in water and river politics analytical circles. While some authors point out the benefits, as well as China’s willingness to cooperate on an equal footing with its Southeast Asian neighbors (Biba 2016a; Han 2017), others describe the LMCM as the next example of China’s strategy to maintain influence and to assert its own interests in the region (Luedi 2017). China’s motives span from better regional economic development (Lu 2016) to excluding regional competitors like Japan (Bunyavejchewin 2016). Overall, all analyses start and end with China. Because of this narrow perspective, very little is known about the roles of the other five members in the LMCM and their own respective river politics strategies. It can be assumed, however, that all of the participating states have a high degree of interest in influencing the LMCM agenda according to their own needs. Therefore, the research question of this chapter is: What power capacities do Thailand and Vietnam possess to influence the new LMCM mechanism, and to address their own issues through the LMCM? To operationalize the possibilities that Thailand and Vietnam have to exert influence on the mechanism, I will use the taxonomy of power elaborated by Barnett and Duvall (2005). Their approach offers a multidimensional conceptualization of power, leaving behind the simplistic notion thereof as found in realism-based theoretical approaches. Taking such a perspective makes it possible to identify power relations within a not yet fully institutionalized and a multidimensional framework like the LMCM. In my analysis, I will focus specifically on Thailand and Vietnam. Both states have a significant interest in effective management of the Mekong. They depend on the river in many areas. The three biggest national electric power markets of the region are in China, Thailand, and Vietnam, while hydropower generated through damming is a rapidly increasing resource in fulfilling energy demands (Middleton and Allouche 2016). As the last country of the Mekong, situated at the basin of the river, Vietnam is also very dependent on a steady flow of water 72 to push back the salt water coming in from the ocean. Thailand is also a cofounder of the LMCM. First it will be explained why transnational cooperation along the Mekong is necessary, and why at the same time it currently only takes place in a handful of fields. Second, existing cooperation mechanisms and their development over the last few years are described so as to understand the roots of the LMCM. The theoretical concept of Barnett and Duvall is then combined with regional power approaches. In the empirical case study, the institutional and productive power capacities of Thailand and Vietnam will be examined. At the end of the chapter, a short overview is given of why looking at China’s ability to assert power should not be the only way of analyzing conflicts in Southeast Asia. The Mekong: Chances and Problems of Cooperation Over the past twenty years, cooperation along the Mekong River became a popular topic of discussion within the academic community. Parallelly, expressions like “water conflicts” or “war about water” became part of the broader media discourse (Chellaney 2011). However, until today, many volatile issues around the world’s twelfth-longest river are still “under the radar” (Luedi 2017). Other conflicts, like in the South China Sea, still dominate the concerns of politicians and the public debate instead. This lack of attention is problematic, because many issues around the Mekong have profound impacts on the ecological, social, and economic stability of the region—and, indeed, of East Asia as a whole. More than sixty million people depend directly on the lifeblood of the Mekong, by using its aqua resources for fishing, producing energy, or for the delivery of fresh water. One of the biggest issues is balanced dam building along the river. Since the 1950s, China alone has built six dams along the river. Another twenty are planned, as it is China’s national aim to generate 15 percent of its overall energy production from renewables by 2020 (Biba 2016b). At the same time, increasing energy demands have caused all of the riparian states to improve their efforts to develop their hydropower supply from dams (Schneider 2017). The river is, however, not only a significant resource for energy, but also for food. The delta is the main source of water for Vietnamese rice production. Extracting all of these respective resources from the river cannot be seen separately but must be considered strongly interconnected within a water-food-energy nexus (Biba 2016b). Additionally, the three global trends of urbanization, population growth, and climate 73 change will increase the challenges vis-à-vis effective cooperation (ibid.). The use and control of resources are strongly connected with security issues. While ten years ago stability and regionalism were the two main characteristics when talking about security along the Mekong (Goh 2007), in the last few years new problems have come up. Drug production and smuggling expand significantly, for example (Luedi 2017). These selective examples show that there are a number of problems around the Mekong, ones that are strongly interlinked across the six states. Developments in one sector like energy will always affect other ones in multiple ways. Therefore, effective cooperation along the whole river is an absolute necessity. At the same time, the current pushing of dam projects by different states in only a self-centered way illustrates the barriers to cooperation. Like in other policy areas, states are w illing to cooperate over soft resources. When it comes, however, to their own fundamental needs, like the securing of energy demands, cooperation becomes much more difficult. This is not a new insight along the riverbanks of the Mekong. Platforms of cooperation existed already in previous decades, while support came from the riparian states themselves or also from influential players like the United States. Already in 1957, the Mekong Committee was founded under the sponsorship of the United Nations. In 1995, its successor organization, the Mekong River Commission (MRC), was founded by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Simultaneously, the Greater Mekong Subregion Project was launched in 1992 with the assistance of the Asian Development Bank. The aim of the former was to promote better cross-border economic development; China was a member from the very beginning. In the MRC, meanwhile, China was involved but not as a regular member. Since 2015, there has been a new platform in existence for regional cooperation around the Mekong. Under the leadership of China, the aforementioned LMCM was started. This mechanism should support “industrialization, infrastructure construction, upgrading industrial structure, accelerating agricultural modernization, and developing tourism, and have strong complementary advantages” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China 2016). The LMCM is already a controversial topic in scientific debates. Biba (2016b) sees the chance for transparency and trust to be increased by the new mechanism. Han (2017) shares this view, and argues that the LMCM is the first new step in cooperation over river politics offered by China since the early years of the new century. He lists also other smaller and larger forms of cooperation, which show China’s 74 willingness to share information and technology. At the same time, Biba (2018) does not see a real change in China’s river politics over the Mekong before and after the establishment of the LMCM. Lu (2016), meanwhile, identifies three reasons for launching the LMCM specifically now. First, less economic growth ensuing from the benefits of lower tariffs makes it necessary to now find new ways to push the economy forward. One such method would be stronger regional partnerships. Second, from China’s point of view, policy fields like security and social problems must be addressed if economic growth is to continue. Third, stronger regional cooperation is an easy way for China to exclude external competitors. This last argument is also supported by Bunanyavejchewin (2016). He draws on the regional leader theory to explain how China uses the LMCM to secure its regional influence and to exclude other regional powers like Japan. All of these presented works have in common that they only focus on China’s own motives and behavior, however. So far it is not clear, though, whether the LMCM is able to balance its attendant opportunities and risks successfully—and, further, for all of these riparian states in the same manner. Thinking Power in Capacities To analyze the role of Thailand and Vietnam vis-à-vis the LMCM, I will, as noted, use the term power in the way that Barnett and Duvall (2005) categorized it. Power is one of the most used tools but also a controversial and heavily contested expression in International Relations. Therefore, it is necessary to combine the setting of the empirical puzzle with an appropriate definition of power. The LMCM is a regional organization in which power is exercised in diverse ways among the six states. Hence, considerations of power must include a regional dimension to them. As one of the first to do this, Nolte (2006) attempted to combine together different concepts of power and regionally powerful actors. He argues that power in the regional context can only be analyzed by combining power resources and power relations. However, his conceptualization still highlights the material aspects of power, which emphasizes the realistic tradition and is more a compilation of different power concepts. Hanif (2012) traces the span of the debate about regional power along material power resources to the nonmaterial dimensions of power. She suggests that it is more useful to ask how power is implemented than what it is. As such power should be seen as a capacity; this is similar to what Lukes points out, meanwhile: “It implies that power 75 identifies a capacity: power is a potentiality, not an actuality – indeed a potentiality that may never be actualised” (2005: 478). At this point, Barnett and Duvall (2005) come into play. They also recognize power as a capacity but go a step further by analyzing the factors determining this capacity. They define power as “the production, in and through social relations, of effects that shape the capacities of actors to determine their circumstances and fate” (Barnett and Duvall 2005: 39). They look at the social relations through which power works, and the specificity of these relations—through which, effects are produced. Taking this approach into account, it is possible to leave the resource-based, realistic approach behind and to use power in a more differentiated manner. The typology of compulsory, institutional, structural, and productive power makes it possible to examine how the latter is implemented by different actors, and what their strategies for that are. It is not the aim here to analyze the LMCM through the eyes of all four of these different types of power. Only two will be chosen for the following analysis. The first dimension will be institutional power capacities. The six states currently meet within a new organization, one that is still emerging. Therefore, it is gainful to look at how the processes are built up in which “rules and procedures that define those institutions, guide, steer, and constrain the actions (or non-actions) and conditions of existence of others” (Barnett and Duvall 2005: 51). As a second dimension, productive power capacities around the establishment of the LMCM will be examined. “Productive power […] is the constitution of all social subjects with various social powers through systems of knowledge and discursive practices” (Barnett and Duvall 2005: 55). The productive approach is used to look at governmental statements and media reports around the LMCM. Thereby, it is also possible to capture a second point that Hanif (2012) identified as a feature of regional power. Powerful regional states have the ability to influence the interests of other actors also beyond their own territories. Institutional Power Capacities First, I will look at the rules and procedures of the LMCM mechanism and how far they are currently established. Second, the role of the MRC as well as the nature of its founders are considered. Third, Thailand’s and Vietnam’s cooperation around the Mekong within other institutions will be analyzed. The empirical analysis will be added after each part, with an accompanying assessment of the power capacities of Thailand and Vietnam respectively. 76 Rules and behaviors around the LMCM Since 2015 two foreign minister meetings and one leaders meeting has taken place regarding the establishment of the LMCM. After the leaders meeting in March 2016, the Sanya Declaration was published. China prepared every meeting, as well as the declaration, and also the concept papers for the LMCM framework. In the declaration it is recorded that: “The LMC[M] is aimed at building a community of shared future of peace and prosperity and establishing the LMC[M] as an example of a new type of international relations, featuring win-win cooperation” ( 2016). The LMCM should be a form of South-South cooperation. Therefore, three cooperation pillars are implemented herein: namely, political and security issues; economic and sustainable development; and, social, cultural, and people-to-people exchanges. On the formal level, all members are equal and have the same rights to bring their respective interests into the discussion. However, China especially is pushing forward the initiative, by offering a loan and credit package worth USD 11.5 billion plus a further USD 200 million for poverty alleviation and USD 300 million for regional cooperation (Pongsudhirak 2016). In March 2017 the new secretariat of the LMCM was opened in Beijing. The functions of this body are “planning, coordination, implementation and publicity” (Geng 2017). Three cooperation centers and additional secretariats are planned to be launched soon. The real work should be organized within lower forms of cooperation, however. First, seventy-eight early harvest projects were announced—with several of them having already taken place. One was an exposition for officials, business representatives, and scholars in Yunnan. Topics were the establishment of new trade parks, but also the development of the Maritime Silk Road (Xinhua 2016). Another example is the proposed scholarships for students along the river, for research projects on better cooperation around the Mekong. For easier coordination, five working groups were formed to discuss the priority topics of interconnectivity, production capacity, cross-border economy, water resources, and agriculture and poverty alleviation (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China 2016) . Unfortunately, so far little is known about the rules and working practices within these groups. The Working Group on Water Resources Cooperation met in February 2017 in Beijing, and was led by the Chinese minister of water resources. One topic was China’s behavior during droughts in the lower riparian states in summer 2016. Especially 77 Vietnam is, as noted earlier, dependent on a steady flow of water to push back the salty ocean water coming in to the basin. Therefore, China opened the upstream rivers to increase the water flow. In official statements, Vietnam was glad about China’s unconventional reaction to this situation and praised their successful cooperation. However, looking at the situation on the ground on the riverbanks, many problems remained for the population living there—who were not informed in time about the higher water levels ensuing from the upstream release. Hence, the extra water had harmful effects on their agrarian and fishing activities (Wangkiat 2016). This case shows that there is a gap between the officially praised form of intergovernmental cooperation and the (poorly) announced people-to people approach. Overall, formal rules and procedures are not very well established yet. The LMCM is more a project-based platform for discussing problems (Middleton and Allouche 2016). Hence, it is not clear what the “conditions of existence” (Barnett and Duvall 2005: 48) are. However, all rules and platforms bear the signature of China. As in its Belt and Road Initiative, China is using its capacities to organize events, determine the agenda, and to create a mechanism on its own terms (Middleton and Allouche 2016). To refer to Barnett and Duvall (2005: 51), China has a degree of dependence on the LMCM as a resource-laden actor. By locating important administrative units like the first secretariat in its own country, Beijing is also able to keep out Western donors by controlling financial flows. China’s efforts regarding the LMCM mean a loss of power for the other involved countries. They are not investing sufficient resources and capacities in the establishment of the LMCM, and not attempting to live up to the amount of influence that they could potentially have. At the same time, they neglect the establishment of alternatives to the LMCM—in the form of other institutions, as will be explained in the next section. Marginalization of institutions As mentioned earlier, there is a long tradition of institutionalized cooperation along the Mekong. Different actors have tried to gain greater influence in the region by constituting organizations. One of the oldest and biggest of these is the earlier-mentioned MRC. The aim of the MRC is to set out “a framework for achieving the strategic objectives of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM)” (Mekong River Commission 2017). Until today, the MRC has remained more a consultative 78 platform for discussing technical issues on how to use water resources sustainably. It does not have a comprehensive approach like the LMCM, which tries to include also social and economic dimensions. Furthermore, the MRC has no enforcement mechanism by which to bring the states together, or rules for settling disputes (Han 2017). One of the biggest problems for the effective functioning of the MRC is that the four members—Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam—are not reliant on the MRC, but instead prefer bilateral negotiations and agreements (Phua 2011). Additionally, at previous points in the MRC’s history, concerns were raised by scholars about the independence of the body and about its means of producing reliable knowledge between the interests of civil society, donors, and governments respectively (ibid.). Another disadvantage that the MRC faces in implementing effective IWRM is the missing membership of Myanmar—and especially of China. While some authors point out China’s willingness to cooperate with the MRC in the last few years (Biba 2016a; Han 2017), its nonmember status is nevertheless a significant obstacle to the emergence of an effective cooperation platform. Even though many authors give recommendations on how the MRC could be reformed, there is broader consensus that the body is ult imately a “weak institution” (Han 2017: 34). This insight seems to be shared by the donors to the MRC as well. In February 2016 it was reported that the MRC would face massive financial constraints going forward because of “falls in the value of the currencies of major donors” (Hunt 2016). From a former level of USD 115 million, support is now being cut to USD 53 million for the period 2016–2020 (Kossov 2016). It is said that especially Western donors like the US, European countries, and Japan have recently reduced their spending on the MRC. What do these various weaknesses mean for the power of the riparian states within the LMCM? The Mekong states have missed the chance to strengthen alternative pathways by which to bring their topics onto the agenda of a strong institution. Supporting and using the MRC as a key organization for cooperation along the Mekong would have made it more difficult for China to implement the LMCM. The MRC could have widened their focus to political and social content too, which is now the approach of the LMCM. Furthermore, safeguarding transparency and ensuring effective operation would have helped build up more trust between the MRC and Western donors. Of course, it is not clear whether China would have accepted a strong MRC or if there was ever a real interest in either Thailand or Vietnam to support and harness it as an effective institution. However, the marginalization of the MRC was not compelled by China but by the founders themselves. Therefore, 79 establishing an alleged better organization alongside a weak and ineffective MRC was simple to do. Relying on other institutions Thailand and Vietnam both use many different bilateral institutions and platforms to enforce their interests around the Mekong. In a meeting between the prime ministers of Vietnam and Thailand in August 2017, effective management and sustainable use of the Mekong River were discussed without specifically naming the LMCM or any other organization (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand 2017). Furthermore, Thailand promotes cooperation with other states outside the region such as India and the US. Also in August 2017, the 8th Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) Ministerial Meeting took place. The MGC has six members—Cambodia, India, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam—and seven areas of cooperation—tourism, culture, education, transport, health, agriculture, and the development of small and medium enterprises. The broader framework aspires to developing economic and cultural connections between India and Southeast Asia. It can be interpreted as one way for India to secure its influence in the region. Also in August too, a meeting of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) took place. The ministers “re-affirmed their commitment to LMI as a primary driver of Lower Mekong sub-regional economic integration and sustainable development” (US Department of State 2017). Important here is the claim to be the primary initiative promoting economic growth, which would bring it into competition with the LMCM. Again, it also represents an attempt by an external power to be heard in the region. The lower Mekong countries also cooperate in many ways with Japan, as the foreign ministers meeting—held also in August 2017—between the latter and the Mekong states shows. Japan offered several measures to improve human resources in the region. Additionally, under the framework of the GMS, Thailand is now in the process of establishing new special economic zones (The Government Public Relations Department of Thailand 2017). The GMS has traditionally remained under the influence of Japan, because it is has been facilitated and driven by the Asian Development Bank while the island country has increased its economic and technical support for the GMS ones too. At this point, Bunyavejchewin’s (2016) theory of China’s efforts to exclude foreign powers from the region specifically by using the LMCM 80 can be taken up again. Excluding Japan is maybe one of the motivations behind China’s involvement in the LMCM. However, Thailand and Vietnam do not seem to have any great interest in relying on China alone—with the two countries still cooperating with Japan, and using the resources offered to them via the GMS and bilateral connections. Not only Thailand but also Vietnam uses a number of other inst itutions and frameworks to fulfill its own aims too. At the end of August 2016, the Vietnamese and Cambodian foreign ministers met and discussed topics concerning, among other things, the Mekong. In the common statement subsequently issued it was noted—but without any mention being made of either China or the LMCM—that: “Both nations emphasized the importance of sustainable use and protection of water resources in the Mekong River, whilst enhancing cooperation with other countries within the framework of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), Mekong River Commission (MRC), Cambodia-Laos-Viet Nam Development Triangle, Cambodia-Laos-Myanmar-Viet Nam (CLMV), Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya- Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), and other international forums.” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam 2017) The productive fishing system located in the Mekong basin is nowadays in danger because of the upstream construction of large dams. As a result, Vietnam is looking for alternatives; one could be aquaculture. To promote the trade in fish, Vietnamese companies have acquired Russian fish-distribution ones (Hunt 2017). This small-scale acquisition can tell us a lot about the efficiency around the institutions along the Mekong. Vietnam and its economy do not rely on cooperation with upstream countries, but instead try to find different—or at least additional— growth strategies. The buying of fish-trading companies in Russia and not naming one particular institutional platform in an official statement could be interpreted as ultimately unimportant points. However, in considering all the different initiatives, instances of cooperation, and statements made, a more all-encompassing picture becomes clear. Thailand and Vietnam do not rely on the LMCM. They rather prefer a form of “hedging.” This means that states “cultivate a middle position that forestalls or avoids having to choose one side at the obvious expense of another” (Goh 2005). The concept was first introduced with regard to security politics, but can also be applied to river politics too. 81 What does the hedging of Vietnam and Thailand mean for the power capacities of these states within the context of the LMCM? Using different organizations, platforms, and frameworks can help expand their power capacities. It makes it possible to stand within socially extended relations with different actors. “Frozen configurations of privilege” (Barnett and Duvall 2005: 52), or the resource advantages of China within the LMCM, can hereby partly be balanced and offset. Productive Power Capacities Analyzing productive power means to scrutinize what defines “the (im)possible, the (im)probable, the natural, the normal, what counts as a problem” (Hayward 2000: 35). The first aim of discursive analysis is to look at the presented discourse itself. However, discourses are also reproduced by social actors. Hence, social actors have significant influence on what even counts as a problem within a given discourse. In the following, I will focus less on the discourse itself but rather on the involved social actors and how they are able to use different channels to influence their partners. First, I will look at the public statements published to date around the LMCM. So far, China has dominated the public discourse. The first hint is the name of the framework itself. By bringing in the Chinese name for the river, Lancang, a distinction takes place from the other similar institutions—which are all named after the lower part of the river, the Mekong. This deliberate geographical labeling makes clear who is part of the cooperation and who is not. It is an “effective way for China to discourage Japan’s request for membership” (Bunyavejchewin 2016: 61). Not only naming is an effective instrument for reproducing discourses but also the simultaneous using of different public channels to share information. China is very active in reporting on the LMCM, while the other five states only name the mechanism a handful of times in the public statements issued by their respective foreign ministries. One example is the coverage about the opening of the secretariat in Beijing. Chinese foreign minister Weng noted how much progress the LMCM had made so far, and what the main topics of discussion are (Xinhua 2017). The press release was quoted in many Chinese English language newspapers. What is, however, conspicuous is the fact that these statements were also published with the exact same wording in a newspaper in Laos(Vientiane Times 2017). This example shows one specific feature of regional power, as mentioned by Hanif. China can 82 influence the interests of other actors also beyond their own territories by spreading positive news about the LMCM via the media in other countries. In general much of the information about the LMCM used by scientists working on the topic (including this essay) is based on Chinese government sources (Middleton and Allouche 2016; Han 2017; Bunyavejchewin 2016). Of course, all of these authors strive to shed light on “China’s” perspective and its set of motivations—while no scholar just copies this information uncritically. Nevertheless, this reality shows the capacity of China to determine the public discourse on the LMCM—or, contrariwise, the limited capacities of the other five states to themselves influence it. This also becomes apparent in the official press releases about the LMCM in Thailand and Vietnam. They represent the views of these two states, but are essentially only copies from the official Chinese statements (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand 2017b; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam 2016). It does not become clear from these press releases, therefore, what these two countries’ own aims, expectations, and problems are with regard to the LMCM. Another example of this low level of agenda setting is the coverage of the earlier-mentioned Working Group for Water Resource Management and the Chinese upstream response. The Chinese Ministry for Water Management published a press release about the meeting and former regulations regarding the Mekong. It is said that the meeting was successful, and that “all Mekong Basin countries highly praised and appreciated China’s rescuing actions” (Ministry of Water Resources of the People’s Republic of China 2017). This statement is marked by its highlighting of China’s willingness to cooperate, and the showing of its positive impact on the lower Mekong region. However, as mentioned before, the release of (additional) water actually had negative impact s on fishing and agrarian activities along the river. Subsequently, the behavior of the Thai government was criticized by local authorities because they refused to inform China about the problematic situation on riverbanks affected by the high water levels (Wangkiat 2016). Overall, though, there are only a very limited number of critical articles about the river politics of the Thai government to be found (Ganjanakhundee 2016). In an official response, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry thanked China and praised its swift action. It is important to note that China reacted only upon a Vietnamese request for support being made via diplomatic channels. This water management incident and the reactions to it show us three things. First, China does not ignore requests and can react in a cooperative way. It is possible, then, for the other five states 83 to address problems and expectations, and to put some pressure on China. Second, this is not really done by these states however. Instead, they rather follow China silently and do not want to name problems— as the reactions of Thailand and Vietnam show. Third, the discourse on the LMCM is very positive. Negative voices—especially from local people—are not heard let alone addressed. Overall, the English-language newspapers in Thailand and Vietnam merely copy almost verbatim the positive statements of their own government or those from the Chinese one. Critical articles are rather the exception than the rule. For effective management, and to successfully fulfill the ambitious approach of the LMCM, critical opinions must, however, be included in the discourse. What, then, do these observations tell us about the respective power capacities of these riparian states concerning productive power? China’s own views and statements dominate the discourse. Being at the beginning of the LMCM’s establishment, this is not surprising as China is the initiator hereof. However, with ongoing cooperation it will be much easier for the Chinese government to determine the problems to be solved vis-à-vis the Mekong. The other states involved could potentially change this situation by trying to influence the discourse themselves. This does not mean that they must confront China. Also inserting one’s own topics in the public debate is, however, an important task in securing influence in the long run. In general, all six of these states must find mechanisms by which to integrate local voices and marginalized discourses in the LMCM if it is to work effectively and sustainably. Conclusion This analysis has focused on two often neglected actors in Mekong river politics: Thailand and Vietnam. By applying the theoretical framework of “thinking power in capacities” to conflicts in Southeast Asia, important insights have been gained for the related both empirical and theoretical aspects. From an empirical point of view, this essay argues that counterbalancing China in Southeast Asia is indeed possible in certain policy fields. To achieve sustainable cooperation, Thailand and Vietnam need to be proactive and invest more resources in Mekong river politics. Many authors underline how assertively China can act in conflicts in the Southeast Asian region, especially by leveraging its strong financial means. A large power imbalance in favor of China can also be found along the Mekong River. Like in the Belt and Road Initiative, China exerts major influence on the mechanism by relying on its discursive power capacities and the ability to establish the formal setting. 84 However, currently, the LMCM is not as effective as it seems, because of its broad and universal approach. The progress of implementation is rather slow than dynamic, and most of the output is smaller projects underpinned by only a low level of cooperation. Important topics like security or energy supply have not been addressed yet. As a result, this essay cannot give a definitive answer to the question of whether the LMCM will function as an effective instrument for cooperation along the Mekong in future. It can be assumed, though, that the impact of the LMCM will increase in the coming years. In many official statements China has expressed its desire to push the mechanism forward, and indeed to turn it into a “bulldozer” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China 2017) vis-à-vis politics along the Mekong. Also, financial investments in and loans for projects along the Mekong have increased strongly since the establishment of the LMCM (Biba 2018). Yet, this chapter has sought to highlight a different argument. It is not only China’s strength but also the weakness and indecision of the other five involved actors that puts the former in a comfortable position—one that remains unchallenged. Thailand and Vietnam have missed their chance to develop other institutions, like the MRC, to deal with broader Mekong political topics. They have simply accepted the marginalization of the MRC, as Western states have done too. The role of the MRC will be further weakened going forward, instead of it coexisting with the LMCM. That all said, some forms of counterbalancing do already take place though. Thailand and Vietnam seem not to rely on the LMCM alone, but have both also built up cooperation initiatives with India, Japan, and the US. How effective these projects ultimately are should be the subject of future scholarly research. On the level of productive power, meanwhile, these states have not taken the available opportunities to influence the public discourse on the LMCM. So far, only the voice of China has been noticeable in the media and in public statements hereon. The case of the LMCM shows how China increases its influence systematically in policy fields that some time ago were not important ones for the country. Other actors realized much earlier the importance of cooperation along the Mekong, and thus established functional mechanisms. At this point it is important to mention that Thailand and Vietnam can still find a way to exert influence in the LMCM and to “gain leverage or countervailing power against the Chinese economic giant” (Renwick 2016: 22). All states need to accept the LMCM as an up-and-coming, important actor. They have to invest capacities in this organization. By promising equal rights to all members, the LMCM can 85 be a chance for Thailand and Vietnam to influence Mekong politics. Of course, it is not possible to compete with China on financial questions. But the praised equality approach of the LMCM opens up chances to explain and claim their own ideas and needs. Another inexpensive means of doing this would be to expand these countries’ own productive power capacities. Influencing the public and media discourses is an important aspect of future negotiations. Thailand and Vietnam need to address their own interests around the LMCM via the media—and toward China. Carefully expressed issues or critiques can change China’s behavior, as the case of Vietnamese requests for a higher water level in 2016 has shown. For Thailand and Vietnam, a mix between self-centered agenda setting and the creation of independent networks with the integration of interested partners might be one viable strategy. Of course, all of this will not stop the rise of China as the new superpower in the region. But simply following China, not thinking about alternatives, and forgetting or ignoring the older partnerships (like the MRC) is not the right way to go either. To aid the further consideration of conflicts in Southeast Asia, this essay has also included several theoretical insights too. First, thinking power in capacities can be a helpful tool to bring together different levels and actors. They offer a differentiated picture on cooperation and conflicts, and do not draw black-and-white conclusions. 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The Chinese government has recently reconfirmed its “going global” strategy. Beijing is currently constructing a global “New Silk Road,” and has begun to engage in various transcontinental infrastructure projects. From the long-term perspective, the corridors of this New Silk Road might facilitate the exporting of Chinese governance paradigms and hence lead to the formation of institutions that pose a severe challenge to the existing liberal order. The essays in this volume thus take a closer look at recent governance innovations and domestic policy experimentations in China, and also discuss international and regional responses to China’s active positioning as a global power.

The book series East Asian Politics: Regional and Global Dynamics publishes cutting-edge research on dynamic changes in and recent development trends of East Asian politics. The series follows a multilevel framework of analysis: It examines the impact of global power shifts and the transformation of the international system on (domestic) politics in East Asia.