U.S. bolsters commitment to the nations of the Mekong region

The United States is strengthening its long­-standing support for the nations of the Mekong region, which face increasing threats from drought, transnational crime and a global pandemic.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo recently announced the new Mekong­-U.S. Partnership, through which the United States plans to provide over $150 million in assistance supporting the autonomy and economic independence of the five countries located along the Mekong River: Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

“The Mekong­-U.S. Partnership is committed to the autonomy, economic independence, good governance, and sustainable growth of Mekong partner countries,” Pompeo said in a September 14 statement.

Pompeo also said he is concerned about the People’s Republic of China’s state­-owned construction firms that threaten nations’ economic autonomy and harm the environment. He noted that transnational organized crime has increased in PRC­-run economic zones.

For example, the U.S. Institute of Peace in a recent report found three new development projects underway in Burma that have connections to organized crime emanating from the PRC.

The partnership also comes as dam operations on the mainstem of the Mekong River in the PRC are threatening livelihoods and the natural environment in downstream nations.

In support of the partnership, the United States is planning to provide $54 million to counter transnational crime, $52 million to combat COVID­-19, $33 million to develop energy markets, and $2 million to counter human trafficking.

The support is designed to build on $3.5 billion in aid the United States has provided the region since 2009 through the Lower­ Mekong Initiative and other programs. The partnership will build on existing work on issues, including energy security and trans­boundary management of water and other natural resources.

Countries of the Mekong region face severe drought conditions worsened by the PRC’s unilateral dam operations decisions upstream. The PRC has built 11 dams along the Mekong River upstream from more than 60 million people in the Lower Mekong region who rely on the river for their food and livelihood.

Statement on Chinese dam operations and drawing of bucket-shaped Chinese flag dripping on map of Mekong River basin (Images: © Shutterstock. Graphic: State Dept./M. Rios)
(State Dept./M. Rios)

Recent analysis of satellite data and Mekong River Commission (MRC) river height records confirm that the PRC dams are dramatically manipulating the natural flows of the Mekong. There is evidence that the PRC’s unilateral dam operations worsened already record-breaking drought conditions and caused unseasonal flooding without notifying downstream neighbors.

These problems are compounded by the PRC’s refusal to share critical data about water flow. The United States supports Mekong-region nations’ calls for the Chinese Communist Party to fulfill its commitment to disclose water data year-round through existing mechanisms.

Under the Mekong-U.S. Partnership, the United States is helping countries of the Mekong region build their capacity to collect, share and analyze water data and will continue support for the MRC in regional coordination, joint planning, stakeholder engagement and science-based decisionmaking.

“Countries of the Mekong region have undergone an amazing journey in the last few decades,” Pompeo said. “Through the Mekong-­U.S. Partnership, we look forward to many more years of collaboration to ensure a peaceful, secure, and prosperous Mekong region.”