PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc arrives in Cambodia for Mekong-Lancang summit

Power stacked against SE Asia's poor as China dams Mekong

Drinking from the same Lancang-Mekong river, the six riparian countries have a common aspiration for development and prosperity.

Li met with his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen Thursday to mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between their two nations and oversaw the signing of 19 agreements that included funding for a new global airport in Phnom Penh, the construction of a national transmission line connecting Cambodia to Laos' power grid, and a hospital.

The biennial event is organised in rotation among the member countries.

"The cooperation on Mekong/Lancang is not merely paying lip service", he said at press gathering in which questions were forbidden.

"We depend on the Mekong river", he said.

The actual submitted plan is so broad - covering nearly every area of governance - that it is hard to point to a specific objective and no concrete steps appear to have been taken to address the growing number of man-made threats to the river system.

They have also implemented projects like those dealing with the exchange of officials, free eye surgeries, women's cooperation forums and collaboration among tourist cities.

The storied waterway, which twists through parts of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, is the world's largest inland fishery and helps feed around 60 million people across its basin.

While the MRC has been criticized by some as a largely toothless institution that has failed to safeguard the river and its dependents from harmful projects, there is nothing yet to suggest the LMC will fare any better. "A weakness of the current Lancang Mekong Cooperation Framework's approach is that there appears to be little interest by China to develop specific written rules for trans-boundary water sharing".

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But relations between the six countries are historically anything but harmonious and a Chinese strategy of heavily damming the Mekong itself while funding similar projects downstream threatens to inflame tensions between the mutually dependent neighbors.

The MLCG summits are held every two years (the foreign ministers meet every year).

Today's summit will further legitimise China's leadership of the Mekong region.

Beijing has already interrupted the Mekong's upper reaches with six dams, and is investing in more than half of the 11 dams planned further south, according to the nonprofit group International Rivers.

While the action plan focused very much on infrastructure development, leaders were paying less attention to the projects' environmental impacts, said Pianporn, International River's Thailand campaign director.

The slew of deals comes weeks after the USA and European Union condemned the Cambodian government's targeting of the opposition ahead of a general election scheduled for July this year, which they said had called the legitimacy of the vote into question, withdrawing electoral support and placing trade agreements with the Southeast Asian nation under review.

China has pledged billions in financing for more projects on the Mekong through the LMC.

"In the context of rising backlash against globalization and protectionist sentiments as well as lack of momentum in East Asian cooperation, the LMC as a basic component of regional cooperation is not only conducive to narrowing the development gap within ASEAN and advancing ASEAN integration, but also enriches South-South cooperation and efforts to foster a more open, inclusive, and balanced economic globalization that benefits all", Li wrote.

"I think time will tell how nimble China is in setting up a regional mechanism".

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