Connecting the Dots: The Mekong in Viet Nam foreign policy

14/12/2021| 15:30

As a riparian country and the lowest Mekong country, Viet Nam would certainly welcome the constructive and cooperative engagement of all countries and partners in the sub-region. Given the importance of the subject matter, the country has taken an increasingly proactive approach.

With the Mekong example, Viet Nam has clearly contributed to the sub-regional public goods by assuming the roles of a multilateral supporter and partnership connector. That reinforces Viet Nam’s growing diplomatic confidence, and together with partners, enables a more conducive environment in the Mekong sub-region and region of Southeast Asia.

Connecting the Dots: The Mekong in Viet Nam foreign policyPrime Minister Pham Minh Chinh attended Viet Nam-initiated ASEAN high-level forum on sub-regional cooperation for sustainable development and inclusive growth held on November 30, 2021. (Photo: Tuan Anh)

Viet Nam’s approach to the Mekong: A new look

Despite its growing but modest capacity, Viet Nam’s foreign policy behaviours fit the analytical framework of a highly proactive and responsible player in the international arena. The exercise of proactivism is often associated with niche diplomacy. The Mekong sub-region as a niche area proves the pioneering role of Viet Nam’s diplomacy as could be seen in the following activities.

First, Viet Nam’s diplomatic activities have indicated a view favorable towards the constructive roles assumed by other stakeholders in the region. The cooperation between Viet Nam and many partners are not only bilateral but also minilateral. For example, Viet Nam welcomes the roles of other subregional peers, namely Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand as could be seen in the CMLV and ACMECS. Viet Nam is also an active contributor in the Mekong River Commission, Mekong-Lancang, US Mekong Partnership, Mekong-Ganga, Mekong-Japan, and Mekong-Korea cooperation mechanisms. For countries without a separate Mekong agenda such as Australia, Viet Nam would tap into both practical cooperation projects such as bridge building in the Mekong Delta and the former’s cooperative Mekong-related programs in ASEAN.

Second, bringing the Mekong issue to the ASEAN mechanisms, an effort by Viet Nam during its chairmanship of ASEAN in 2020, testifies to the fact that Viet Nam wants to see the issue through the lens of multilateralism (from the sub-regional, or minilateral, to regional level). Raising the issue to the ASEAN level is not a matter of convenience for Viet Nam given the fact that not all ASEAN countries are located in the Mekong sub-region. Hence at the outset Viet Nam approached the issue in a cautious manner, and only took a more assertive position when conditions became more favorable. At the moment, with the Mekong issue on the ASEAN agenda, Viet Nam has demonstrated its political will to act as a bridge between mainland and maritime Southeast Asia.

Third, in terms of behavioral pattern, inclusion, openness, transparency, and ASEAN’s centrality remain Viet Nam’s top governing principles in the construction of regional security architecture and resolution of trans-boundary water issues. It should be noted that Viet Nam is the only Mekong riparian country to join the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UN Watercourses Convention), reflecting its identity as a rule-based order advocate. Viet Nam is also expected to support the equitable and sustainable utilization and protection of the Mekong river leveraging on its comprehensive network of diplomacy with neighbors and middle-to-great powers. In addition, in all the mechanisms that both subregional and external partners devise, Viet Nam has showed its strong support with specific initiatives.

Connecting the Dots: The Mekong in Viet Nam foreign policyFloated market Cái Răng. (Photo:

Viet Nam’s betweeness and connectivity with partners in the Mekong

Subregional countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, major powers, and other development partners would certainly play siginficant roles in the Mekoing. It is, however, necessary to acknowledge the roles of other external partners such as India, Japan, South Korea, Australia. In this regard, Viet Nam’s connections with these partners could be analyzed as follows:

Enhancing engagement in the sub-region is a rational choice because these countries would have more chance to increase their strategic value in their relationship with sub-regional countries and other partners, especially with the US and China and the regional community. Economically, the programs and projects create positive impact on the sub-region and ASEAN, and thereby bring benefits to the donors themselves. ODA funds and aid sources act as a facilitator of investment and trade. Strategically, the involvement of these countries in the sub-region is likely to strengthen their influence in ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific region at large. And as mentioned above, the presence in the sub-region also contributes to the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.

The substance and style of the above-mentioned countries’ sub-regional engagement have fostered both vertical and horizontal cooperation necessary to respond to challenges and issues of common concern such as water security, climate change, pandemics, sustainable development, infrastructure connectivity, trade promotion, investment, and capacity building. The engagement process contributes to a Nash equilibrium, instead of imbalanced forms of power reconfiguration. For instance, Japan has publicly stated that its initiative in the sub-region is not intended to counterbalance China’s Belt and Road Initiative. At the same time, it could be argued that none of these countries want to see a Mekong sub-region being dominated by any single power. In the behavioral sense, they all have sought to uphold a multilateral and rules-based order with respect to relevant mechanisms such as ASEAN and the Mekong Rivers Commission. Many cooperation programs and projects are also linked with UN programs such as SDGs (e.g., Mekong-Japan and Mekong-ROK).

From the niche diplomacy point of view, the areas of cooperation both reflect the interests of the sub-regional countries and demonstrate real capabilities of middle powers in areas that are not unique only to major powers such as capacity building, information technology, digital transformation, and other aspects of the 4th Industrial Revolution. This is not to mention the fact that India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Australia are all technological powerhouses. For example, Japan and Australia are among the leading donors in the sub-region while India emphasizes ITC projects and the Republic of Korea promotes practical cooperation. As mentioned above, albeit not as powerful as great powers in comprehensive terms, middle powers outperform in certain areas compared to smaller countries.

Although there are similarities in their approach to the Mekong sub-region as analyzed, differences still exist amongst these countries. Foreign policy analysis requires a close examination at the unit level where nuances should be respected. This also holds true in the case of the these middle powers’ behavior in the sub-region. In comparison, Japan is the country having the most comprehensive strategy and most significant resource allocation. In terms of resource commitment, Japan surpasses the US and is second only to China. Korea is increasingly interested in multifaceted and high-level engagement in the sub-region with the New Southern Policy. Together with Japan, South Korea are the only two countries outside the sub-region to upgrade the Mekong mechanisms to the summit level. South Korea, however, has to catch up with Japan in terms of financial support for the Mekong countries. Australia has substantively engaged in but has yet to devise a comprehensive mechanism of cooperation with the sub-region and tends to attach the Mekong to the Australia-ASEAN cooperative mechanisms. Meanwhile, India showed an early interest in the Mekong issue and proposed cooperation in various fields. The challenge for India, however, is its ability to execute programs due to the resource and budget constraints. As the lowest Mekong country and an emerging middle power, it is understandable that Viet Nam resorts to a highly proactive diplomacy strategy in this connection.

A deeper analysis reveals that, in terms of behavior, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Viet Nam all have come to realize the need to combine longer-term targets with urgent and immediate problems, or in other words, adopt a holistic view. For example, in the fight against COVID-19, economic recovery requires both short-term projects and far-sighted investment in infrastructure, human capital, and policy (as indicated in Japan-Mekong Cooperation). In this respect, there is obviously still room for further development in these countries’ engagement with the sub-region. For instance, Australia-Mekong cooperation could move towards closer institutionalization while Korea-Mekong partnership could be elevated to a strategic level. For its part, India could propose higher-level exchanges in the future instead of the current ministerial meeting mechanism when cooperation becomes more substantive.

In conclusion, given its unique location and urgent needs in the Mekong sub-region, Viet Nam has naturally become a highly actively stakeholder in both diplomacy and development. Moreover, Viet Nam is more than just a natural partner. The country has worked hard to ensure the sustainable development of the sub-region by virtue of stepping up its own efforts and deeping the network of robust parnership with sub-regional peers and external partners.

Dr. Le Dinh Tinh (*)

Director General, Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies, Diplomatic Academy of Viet Nam

(*) Views expressed here are the author’s only