The formation of AUKUS, a defense pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States made headlines around the world in September. After a decade of Chinese military escalation in the South China Sea, this new pact was the most tangible action made by the west in an attempt to counter China’s growing influence.
The seriousness of the pact is illustrated by the U.S’s commitment to transfer its nuclear submarine construction capabilities to Australia, a move that greatly upset France.
But as the West realigns its military position and priorities, questions have been raised about the role and appetite of some of China’s immediate neighbors.
China’s ridiculous 9-Dash-Line territorial claim in the South China Sea has led to at least six territorial disputes with six different countries: Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam. Thailand, through sheer luck of her geographic positioning, was spared from this geopolitical timebomb. That does not mean, however, that Thailand is safe from China’s growing influence and encroachment.
Although there are no territorial disputes like those in the South China Sea, and no Western presence, China’s economic might is on full display in the Mekong region. Before Covid-19 struck, cities like Sihanoukville, Pattaya, and Luang Prabang were swamped with Chinese tourists. One only has to look at the impact that Chinese business and interests have had on the Cambodian economy to understand how the world’s newest superpower is flexing its economic muscles.
In Sihanoukville, for example, Cambodian restaurants are replaced by Chinese restaurants to accommodate Chinese tourists. Meanwhile, high rise condominium projects are built by Chinese construction companies, only to be sold to Chinese clients. In Laos, the High Speed Railway Project is built by Chinese construction companies using Chinese labor, financed by Chinese banks. In Thailand, CP’s monopolization of the overall economy and Dhanin Chearavanont’s personal connection with the CCP’s hierarchy is a major cause for concern. (Read more here) Unlike the South China Sea, private funds and construction companies are favored over cruisers and jets. If this is not a 21st century version of colonization, it sure does look like one.
China’s dominance over the Mekong region is best illustrated through her water management policy of the Mekong River. With more than 11 gigantic dams in the upper Mekong, China’s priority to meet her insatiable energy demands put the livelihood of communities that live by the riverside in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand at risk. Nonetheless, it appears that there is nothing that countries downstream can do to stop China’s reckless and selfish management of the river.
The Mekong area is not unused to being a boiling point for international pressures and imperialism.
Britain, France, Japan and the U.S. have lost men and treasure in the region when seeking their fortunes or interests. China too has historically taken the region underneath her hegemony if one looks far back enough in the history books.
But the 20th century has, perhaps, changed the region. Gone are the days of client states easily subjugated by ‘great powers’ and in its place are varied governments and peoples with their own ambition and newfound sense of national identities.
Could a new South East Asian Alliance stop the region from once again becoming just another square in the grand chess match between competing superpowers and ideologies.
On paper, Mekong has everything she needs to prosper. With a large combined population of 242 million people, a GDP of 800 Billion USD, active military personnel of 1.4 million people and a growing middle class, the region has all of the necessary components to foster a strong and vibrant economy that is militarily capable of defending itself. However, nationalistic tendencies, not to mention China’s sizable investments into Laos and Cambodia, prevents any genuine economic and military cooperation from happening.
Each country in the Mekong has its own distinct culture and language, but that is not the reason why the region has failed to form a meaningful coalition. After all, France, Germany and Spain also have their own culture and language, but it did not prevent them from participating in NATO and EU. Rather it is age-old, meaningless animosities that has stopped cooperation on an international scale.
Instead of celebrating Mekong’s cultural commonality and diversity, the region bitterly divides itself according to the pre-colonial narratives and accuse other countries with similar cultural practices of cultural theft. The recent case of Cambodian netizen’s accusing Lisa Blackpink of cultural appropriation through her music video in one such example.
These nationalistic tendencies are toxic, divisive and weakens the region. It creates an artificial division among the Mekong communities that prevents the region from accomplishing what really matters: cooperating to safeguard the region’s autonomy. To give the region a chance to prosper, it is time to recognize that the greatest threat to the Mekong region comes from without rather than within.
It may not be possible for each individual Mekong country to resist continental and global powers, but collectively it might just stand a fighting chance. It will take great political bravery and political determination from the leaders of all countries to make this vision into a reality and to give the region an opportunity to put an end to this disastrous historical trend. Thailand and Vietnam will have an additional leadership responsibility. This is not because both countries are inherently “better”, but because both countries have the economic and military readiness to assist other countries in the region. The stronger the economic integration, the stronger the military cooperation, the stronger the Mekong region will be.
King Rama III Phra Nangklao Chaoyuhua’s reign between 1824 to 1851 coincided with the era of European colonization of the Mekong. His majesty famously stated:
“การศึกข้างญวนข้างพม่าไม่มีแล้ว จะมีก็แต่ข้างฝรั่งต้องระวังให้ดี อย่าให้เสียทีแก่เขาได้ การงานสิ่งใดของเขาที่คิดควรจะเรียนเอาไว้ ก็ให้เอาอย่างเขา แต่อย่านับถือเลื่อมใสไปเสียทีเดียว”
“There are no more battles with the Nguyens [Vietnamese] and the Bamas [Burmese]. There will now only be those with the “Farangs”, which we have to be extremely careful with and to not be outsmarted by them. We should learn from what it is that they do well, but not to admire or worship them.”
170 years onwards, foreign forces are still threatening the autonomy of the region.