To the Friends of the Mekong
& VN 2020 Mekong Group
“The United States is back in South East Asia. President Obama and I believe
that this region is vital to global process, peace and prosperity and we are
fully engaged with our ASEAN partners on the wide range of challenges confronting
us.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ASEAN Summit 07/ 28/ 2009.
“The United States and the global community have a strategic and moral
obligation to preserve the health and wellbeing of the people who depend on
the Mekong River for their livelihoods and way of life.” Senator Jim Webb’s
Press Release 12/ 08/ 2011
AN OVERDUE COMEBACK FOR THE U.S.
In the post Vietnam War era, the withdrawal of the U.S. from Southeast Asia’s
geographical and political arena created a void that offered a golden opportunity
for an emerging and ambitious China to fill with earnest. The five nations in
the Mekong Basin are now confronted with a growing threat emanating from that
country’s economic as well as military expansion. The situation does not get
any better with the attempt of a belligerent government in Beijing bent on the
“Tibetization of the South China Sea” as described by B.A. Hamzak of the
Malaysian Institute of Maritime Affairs. Consequently, with the most vital
interests of the U.S. at risk, the Obama administration cannot turn a blind
eye to this challenge coming from China. This most populous country in the world
is also seen as a fast emerging economic and military superpower that is not
only content to compete fiercely with the U.S. but determined to overtake the
latter within the next decade. According to Jane Perlez of the New York Times,
the two countries are now inexorably locked in a “zero-sum” game.  Therefore,
from a strategic standpoint, the return of the U.S. to the Southeast Asian region
becomes an inevitable not optional process.
In the past, the U.S. had been a financial contributor to the Mekong River
Committee and is presently providing foreign aids to the Mekong countries. In
addition, it also exercises considerable influence with international institutions
like the World Bank (WB), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and Asian Development
Bank (ADB)… In such a capacity and with its active commitment, it is conceivable
that the U.S. can regain its past standing and play a “countervailing” role
to check China’s expansion into the basin.
FROM THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH
On the occasion of the ASEAN conference held in Phuket, Thailand on 7/23/2009,
acting on an American request, a sideline meeting was held for the U.S. Secretary
of State Hillary Clinton to meet with her counterparts from the four nations
of the Lower Mekong region: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Representing
Vietnam, at the time, was Mr. Phạm Gia Khiêm, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister
of Foreign Affairs.
The American Secretary of State stressed the importance her country holds in
regards to the Lower Mekong Basin and each of the countries in question. At
the same time, she also reiterated the American commitment to work toward the
peace and prosperity of the ASEAN region as a whole. On their part, the four
foreign ministers from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam welcomed a closer
cooperation of the United States with the four countries of the Mekong Basin
in the areas of mutual interests in order to secure a lasting development for
At the conclusion of the meeting, an unprecedented declaration was issued covering
the areas of common concern especially in the fields of Environment, Health,
Education, and Infrastructure Development in the region.
In addition, the U.S. Department of State expressed its concerns about the
negative impacts caused by the dams on the region’s “Food Security” including
the important fish source of the Mekong which also represents the main protein
intake of the local inhabitants.
It is worth mentioning here that China is the first country to build the first
of the 15 hydroelectric dams on the main current of the Lancang-Mekong and still
continues to do so to the present time. Besides, it also claims ownership of
4 of the 11 mainstream dam projects in the Lower Mekong.
The five foreign ministers discussed among other things the issue of climate
change and how to deal with it, prevention of contagious diseases, technological
application to education particularly in the rural areas, and development of
infra-structures. They also reviewed the common efforts being undertaken and
agreed to open up new avenues for cooperation. They particularly applauded the
initiative of “The Mekong River Commission and Mississippi River Commission
Sister-River Partnership” allowing for the sharing of technical experience and
know-how in areas like: adaptation to climate change, coping with floods and
droughts, development and impact evaluation of hydroelectricity, management
of water resources, and food security.
The Lower Mekong Initiative advocated by the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton aims at the facilitation and coordination of the various efforts to
cope with the challenges posed by the development of the region through the
exchange of technical information, training workshops, and observation trips.
The Mekong countries unanimously embrace the Lower Mekong Initiative.
[Picture I] _ At the ASEAN Summit held at Phuket, Thailand in July of 2009,
the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed that “The United
States is back in South East Asia” [Source: AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong ]
The sum of US$ 22 million earmarked for ecological programs in the 4 countries
of the Lower Mekong is intended partly to finance the “The Mekong River Commission
and Mississippi River Commission Sister-River Partnership” in order to improve
the management of trans-boundary water resources capitalizing on the lessons
learned from the Mississippi River. Some of the money goes to the US Agency
for International Development (USAID) to fund the study of the impacts of climate
change on the water sources, food security and livelihood of the people in the
As suggested by Aviva Imhof, Campaigns Director of the International Rivers
Network, the US Geological Survey (USGS) can offer its technical assistance
in the gathering of information on hydrology, ecology, sediment flows, and water
quality with the assurance that the knowledge thus gained would be widely disseminated
to the public at large. 
The Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) is expected to inject more dynamics into
the region’s development and turn the spotlight on the geopolitical issues that
The U.S. State Department has established the “Friends of the Mekong Group”
to work with the financial institutions such as ADB and WB. In its initial stage,
LMI has succeeded in combining of “both ‘soft’ and ‘smart’ power”. 
Even though the jury is still out on the initial impacts caused by the recent
American commitment to the Mekong countries and ASEAN, it has undeniably forced
China to become more mindful of the voices of the local population and the governments
in the Lower Mekong. Not long ago, the Chinese have agreed to share their “operational
data” with the Mekong River Commission and also symbolically invited a group
of its officials to visit the Xiaowan [4,200 MW] and Jinhong [1,350 MW] hydroelectric
dams that are operating with others upstream in Yunnan Province.
TO THE LEGISLATIVE BRANCH
Members of the U.S. Congress, particularly of the Senate, have voiced their
support for the policy being adopted by the White House. In his capacity as
Chairman of the Senate’s East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, Senator
Jim Webb has been quite active over the past years in his efforts to stem the
irreversible damages emanating from the hydroelectric dams on the Mekong.
This Democratic Senator from Virginia since 2006 graduated from the Navy Academy
in 1968 and served with distinction in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam
War until 1972. After a short stint working as a lawyer, he joined the Reagan
administration in the capacity of Undersecretary of Defense then moved on to
become the Secretary of the Navy. He also is the author of nine books, an Emmy
winning journalist, and a film-maker. Fluent in the Vietnamese language, Jim
Webb is hailed as a “rising star” in the American Senate by the Washingtonian
[Picture II]_ Prime Minister Hun Sen with Senator Jim Webb, 19/ 08/ 2009,
on his five-country tour in Southeast Asia. [Source: Office of Senator Jim Webb]
In 2009, Senator Webb went on a two-week tour of the five countries in Southeast
Asia to observe the development projects of the Mekong and the management of
trans-boundary water resources. He has garnered the support of numerous officials
at the U.S. State Department, policy setting statesmen, expert environmentalists,
and scholars concerned about the threats to a balanced ecology of the Mekong
and its pivotal role in the economic and social development of Southeast Asia.
At the 18th ministerial level Meeting of the Mekong River Commission held
on December 8, 2011 in Siem Reap a decision was reached to temporarily suspend
the implementation of the Xayaburi Project which is also the first mainstream
dam to be constructed on the Lower Mekong Basin outside of China. The official
reason was to give more time to further investigate the detrimental impacts
caused by the dams. This decision did not come about with the unanimous support
of the member countries. On the exact same day, in Washington D.C., Senator
Webb observed that this is “an important step toward a responsible policy
that will protect the economic and environmental conditions of more than 60
million people.” He added: “The Mekong River Commission’s efforts to
preserve the ecological and economic stability of the Lower Mekong region demonstrate
a willingness to respect the riparian water rights of other river basin countries
and to take into account proper environmental standards when considering construction
Prior to that event, Senator Jim Webb had scheduled a hearing of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee on 9/23/2010 on the topic of “Challenge to Water
and Security in Southeast Asia”. Along with the testimony of Joseph Yun, Deputy
Assistant Secretary Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs of the U.S. Department
of State, representing the executive branch we also have the authoritative and
respected depositions of Richard Cronin [The Stimson Center], Aviva Imhof [International
Rivers Network], Dekila Chungyalpa [Greater Mekong Program World Wildlife Fund
for Nature] 
At the close of the hearing, the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate
passed a resolution submitted by Senator Webb calling for the American representatives
at the multilateral development banks to observe “strict adherence” to the “internationally
approved standards on the environment” in the funding of all hydroelectric dam
projects on the Mekong. This resolution serves as a show of support for the
Mekong River Commission (MRC) in its enforcement of the “prior consultation
process” with each dam construction project and its call for China and Myanmar
to increase their cooperation with the MRC.
The resolution endorses a hiatus on the building of dams on the Mekong’s mainstream.
At the same time, it also issues a call for president Obama to increase the
funding for the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), bolster the support for “infrastructure-building
projects” and search for long-lasting alternatives to the construction of hydroelectric
dams on the Mekong.
In a letter addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dated 10/27/2010,
Senator Webb urged her Department to take stronger measures to further and strengthen
its cooperation in the implementation of the hydroelectric dams on the Mekong.
Senator Webb asserted: “As a donor to the Mekong River Commission, the
U.S. should be prepared to consider withdrawing that contribution if the plans
for this dam fail to meet internationally accepted environmental standards for
hydropower dams,” He also suggested to the Secretary of State that all
pertinent issues should be raised at all government levels of the member countries
including Thailand and China – the two leading funding sources of the dam projects
on the Lower Mekong mainstream.
Senator Webb added: “The United States and the global community all have
a strategic interest in averting regional conflict by preserving the health
and well-being of the more than 60 million people who depend on the Mekong River,”
The author would like to note here that the fund the United States contributes
each year to the Mekong River Commission is relatively modest in comparison
to that of the other countries. Moreover, the MRC is not a regulatory agency.
It functions mainly as a depository of knowledge and know-how to assist and
advise the member countries.