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Mekong Region in the strategic forefront of Southeast Asia Policy for India; By Lt. Col. (Dr.) Mohit

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Article No. 022/2018

Mekong river basin is the third largest in the world, wherein for centuries the Mekong River passes through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam, supporting the riparian countries with traditional sustenance through fishery and agriculture. During the middle of the 21st century, mainly due to the wide spread poverty within the region, reduced colonial influence and much due to the land proximity with China, which was literally emulating the Soviet political pattern, this region became vulnerable for spread of communism. To counter this alarming pattern, the region received American financial assistance to support democratic value systems, but the process remained short-lived, primarily due to the Vietnam conflict, which ended with reduced American creditability and complete withdrawal from Mekong, thereby leaving a vacuum for Chinese to occupy.

In addition, China drew advantage from the fact that for centuries, a substantial strength of Chinese had already migrated into the Mekong region for economic activities, by use of abundant natural resources. Therefore, it was further logical for China, to increase its economic and political engagements within the Mekong region with vigour, to meet its own national interest of stability and speedy development, especially in its closely aligned border areas. China through Langcang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) and even at bilateral level, has invested in the countries of Mekong basin for hydroelectricity, highway construction, railway connectivity and other related infrastructure development.

Interestingly, once again during the 1990’s, due to its geostrategic location the Mekong region facilitates interconnectivity within Southeast Asia, gained not only the attention of regional players but also many developed countries. The region promised the fastest economic growth opportunity globally, if there was optimal use of the regional resources. In fact, apart from South China Sea this region became the other key area for future opportunities in Southeast Asia. Thus, countries like Japan, South Korea, America, India and ASEAN nations also increased their economic engagement within the region. Over, the years, Japan, South Korea and other members of ASEAN countries have created various economic assets within the region, providing it alternative to Chinese development model. Still, on ground China maintains a huge lead. The American administration, especially under Obama considered the region crucial for their ‘Asia Pivot Policy’, and accordingly explored fresh areas for assistance and economic cooperation. However, with change of administration in America, the prospect of ‘Asia Pivot Policy’ seems to have lost priority.

As far as India is concerned, at the policy level it understands and acknowledges the importance of the region, which is in its close proximity and took the initiative of Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC), in July 2000, created a forum to interact with all five countries in Mekong basin. In 2017, the 8th MGC ministerial meeting was held in India which lay emphasis on better connectivity and stronger ties amongst the members. Out of all the nations engaged in empowerment of Mekong region, comparatives between India and China becomes quite natural, considering them to be the key players within the region, while advancing towards the much awaited ‘Asian Century’. China with its huge financial, potential and well-oiled state run infrastructure development resources, has been delivering multiple projects in a time bond manner. This leaves a restricted scope for India, which has comparatively limited resources at its disposal for creating a parallel alternative for enhanced regional infrastructure, needed for all economic and commercial activities. However, irrespective of China’s advantages and India’s limitations there is still great opportunity which India must optimally explore.

Many of these opportunities have interestingly become more visible due to vacuum created by China itself. Due to the communist form of governance in China, it naturally leads to trust deficit amongst the populaces within the Mekong region regarding their community interest been grossly ignored. Today, quite in alignment to these fears, China has mostly employed its own human resource while creating various infrastructures like the hydroelectricity plants, highways, railways, etc. The locals at best are employees for temporary jobs, which are menial in nature. In addition, the mass displacement of villages for development projects has offered people poor compensation, an issue left for the host states to resolve. China even ignores the issue of ecological imbalance due to extensive exploitation of natural resources. Further, much of the developed facilities in the region, China intends to draw out for its own advantage, leaving very limited benefits for the locals. The Chinese activities have also created major health concerns. Like in Laos, Chinese banana cultivation is heavily relying on use of pesticides, which are not only causing direct health hazard to the local workers, but also subsequently polluting the rivers with toxic contents. In the disguise of promoting tourism, there is creation of infrastructures in host countries for illegal activities, which include sale of endangered species for human consumption, animal hunting, drug trafficking and casinos.

Under such circumstances, China cannot justify its activities in the region for a long time and will soon become susceptible to mass resentment by the local population, even beyond the control of governments of these nations. Therefore, India must plan inclusive growth model for the region, while undertaking any form of infrastructure development activities. The pace of this model may be slow, but its attached benefits will make it more acceptable within the region. Until the time India further prospers, to enhance its economic power for greater assistance within Mekong region, it must primarily continue to inspire the region with its democratic form of governance and historic goodwill, which is truly unparallel to any other nation.

India must also prioritise following initiatives for a more valuable and impactful contribution within the Mekong region. Firstly, provide health facilities to the region through well-accomplished institutions in India, especially in the remote regions, which are devoid of medical infrastructure. Even, impart training in medical science and provide access to Indian pharmaceutical, with initial economic encouragements, for engagement within the region.

Secondly, promote education and youth connect with the region. This will entail scholarships, joint academic research in areas of mutual interest, skill empowerment, use of academic infrastructure and frequent interactions of the youth at various levels.

Thirdly, agriculture and fishery is the prime source of livelihood of many people in the Mekong region. The Ganga and Mekong projects for sustenance through advance knowledge in both the fields must find encouragement.

Fourthly, religion forms a common binding cord between India and the region. India must promote the Buddhists from the region to visit places of religious importance on own side, by ensuring better air links.

Fifthly, tourism promotion for better understanding and greater cohesiveness between the diverse communities must be accorded due priority.

Much of these initiatives are already been undertaken by the Indian government. However, they need clear understanding in light of Chinese activities for the much-needed influence. Notwithstanding the same, India must not be intimidated by China’s economic potential, but rather must initiate measures in which it has greater strength. In the end, the deeply rooted value systems which form part of India’s foreign policy extend optimism and will yield long term dividends ensuring that Southeast Asia find inclusive growth and development in its partnership with India. Further, India must closely monitor the developments within the region and be flexible to work along with all parties involved, including China.                                     

[Lt. Col. (Dr.) Mohit Nayal is serving with the Ministry of Defence. In 2012, the officer was awarded PhD in Political Science from HNB Garhwal University. In 2012, his book ‘The Invisible Wall of China’ was published under the aegis of USI. In 2013, he was the chief editor of the first coffee table book of 57 Mountain Division published by Extreme publication. In 2014, Manas Publications published his book ‘Enigmatic Northeast’. In 2016, his third book ‘Beyond the City Lights’ was published by General Press. His area of interest includes China, South Asia and Southeast Asia. The views expressed in the article are of the author.]

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