According to Japanese media sources, China, as a neighbour to the countries that hug the Mekong River in Indochina, has long had an interest in the region, but the United States has recently developed a growing interest in the region as well.
Japan should take this opportunity therefore, to back development of the region in close co-operation with both China and the United States.
The leaders of Japan and Southeast Asia’s five Mekong River nations—Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam—met in Tokyo for their first-ever “Japan-Mekong Summit” meeting on November 6-7.
The Tokyo Declaration adopted at the summit incorporates Japan’s support measures, including the development of a distribution network linking production sites and industrial centres that are scattered across the region, as well as the expansion of assistance in the field of environmental protection.
Japan and China have found themselves competing for influence, when it comes to development of the Mekong area, implementing their own plans regarding the building of transport corridors via the construction of roads, bridges and tunnels.
China has provided assistance for the North-South Economic Corridor programme, which covers an area stretching from China’s Yunnan Province in the North to Thailand in the south.
Japan, on the other hand, has provided official development assistance for the construction of both the East-West Economic Corridor program, which covers the Indochina area, and the Southern Economic Corridor programme, which connects Bangkok with Ho Chi Minh City.
The use of land routes, such as the East-West Economic Corridor, could greatly reduce the time taken to transport goods compared with sending them by sea via the Malacca Straits.
However, there are hurdles to be overcome to realise a smoothly functioning transport corridor, most notably that customs and quarantine procedures at borders will need to be unified and streamlined.
Therefore, the joint statement reached at the summit notes the importance of improving the basic infrastructure of the Mekong states, not only in terms of hardware such as roads, but software such as border controls.
Japan should emphasise its support for the reshaping of such institutions and the training of customs and quarantine personnel.
Japan and China have provided development assistance to Mekong nations within their own frameworks. But to ensure goods can be transported and people can travel without problems along the three key corridors, it is necessary to establish common rules covering their use.
To that end, it is important that the “Japan-China Mekong Policy Dialogue Forum” set up by Tokyo and Beijing in 2008, be used to enable the exchange of opinions on future policies for the Mekong region to safeguard the region’s development and stability.
Also of importance is co-operation with the United States. The administration of US President Barack Obama has placed importance on strengthening its ties with Asian nations.
In July, the United States held its first-ever ministerial meeting with four Mekong nations in Thailand – Myanmar being the only nation excluded from the forum.
To address the situation in Myanmar, the Obama administration has revised the previous administration’s economic sanctions-only policy and told the junta it is ready to improve relations with the country.
China has been increasing its influence over Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, using economic aid as a strategic tool.
Washington’s apprehension over Beijing’s moves is thought to be a key reason the United States has adopted a policy of engagement with Myanmar.
As Japan builds a co-operative relationship with China, it must also work with the United States in a way that promotes a favourable outcome for all parties.