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Mekong leaders fail to raise environmental concerns at summit in Phnom Penh

12 January 2018

Li celebrated his embrace of multilateralism with an op-ed penned specially for a Cambodian newspaper, and basked in China's triumph with its five southerly neighbors, all of whom share the Mekong, Southeast Asia's longest river.

The Mekong is the world's 12th-longest river, running an estimated 4,880 kilometres.

A 2009 study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that if all 11 mainstream and 78 tributary dams planned on the river system were built, there would by a 51 percent decrease in the total fish biomass.

Chaired by Prime Ministers Hun Sen (Cambodia) and Li Keqiang (China), the 2nd Summit of the Mekong- Lancang Cooperation Group (MLCG) is also attended by their peers from Laos, Thongloun Sisoulith; Thailand, Prayut Chan-o-Cha; and Vietnam, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, as well as Myanmar's vice-president, Myint Swe.

China has said the LMC initiative is moving forward and making "remarkable progress" since it took place a few years ago, vowing to implement the initiative with "neighborhood diplomacy policy" through the ideas of "amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness". The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism, he told his counterparts, is similar a high-speed train engine "pushing the cooperation between China and five Mekong countries into the age of high-speed rail", the Khmer Times reported.

China is the driving force behind numerous projects, having already built eight dams on the river since the 1990s and now building or planning more than a dozen more.

Mekong leaders fail to raise environmental concerns at summit in Phnom Penh
Mekong leaders fail to raise environmental concerns at summit in Phnom Penh

Last year, China pledged US$400 million to support small and medium-sized enterprise projects along the river. "If Beijing manages to achieve control of the Mekong's development it would quickly become a crucial artery for China's rise and exportation of influence into ASEAN".

Brian Eyler, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, said Beijing could offset its "lack of multilateral engagement" in the South China Sea through its initiation of the LMC, adding that the Mekong engagement also could "shift attention away" from the conflicted sea. In 2016, when downstream countries faced their worst drought in years, environmentalists said the intensity of the drought was caused, in part, by the dams.

China plans to blast open the sections of the Mekong between Thailand and Laos to allow bigger cargo ships of up to 500 tonnes to pass through. Protests against the plan have been staged since December.

The authorities are to release official GDP figures next week, but Li has given his own forecast.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told reporters that centers meant to enhance water resource and environmental cooperation, as well as a global Mekong studies center, would be created, but he did not proffer any further details. Cambodian Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol said the Southeast Asian nation needs around US$500 million a year for transport infrastructure development.

China's determined push into mainland Southeast Asia lays bare the limits of existing Mekong initiatives supported by Japan, the USA and other Western nations, all of which focused on the five basin countries but shut out China.

Mekong leaders fail to raise environmental concerns at summit in Phnom Penh