“The Inaugural Lancang-Mekong Summit: The Beginning of Charm Diplomacy Part 2?”, by Termsak Chalermpalanupap

Commentary 2016/3, 28 March 2016.


Chinese Premier Li Keqiang hosted the First Lancang-Mekong Summit in Sanya, Hainan Island, on 23 March 2016. It was attended by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, Myanmar Vice President Sai Mauk Kham, Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, representing all the countries who stand to benefit from any action on this mainland Southeast Asia lifeblood. 

China calls the upstream part of the river Lancang, and treats it as an internal Chinese river. To the ire of the mainland Southeast Asian countries, China has built five dams on the Lancang to generate electricity for its southern provinces, threatening the steady stream of water for people who depend on the river for not only transport but also its fisheries sector and irrigation for the all-important agriculture sector. 


China has not joined the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Like Myanmar, China is only a special observer in the MRC.  However, the Summit represented a new Chinese approach to collaborate with the five downstream countries of the Mekong River in sharing the water resources of Southeast Asia’s most important international river. More importantly, this Summit may be a deliberate Chinese attempt to soften its erstwhile-tough image on the shared management of the River. Through this Summit, China will have the opportunity to replay its charm diplomacy on these five countries in order to build a more cooperative relationship with regards to policymaking on the Mekong. 


Premier Li said China considers the Lancang-Mekong forum yet another channel for foster closer ties between China and ASEAN as a whole. 


In the wake of the serious droughts in the five downstream countries this year, China has released additional water to help the other Mekong countries cope with the water shortage.  In the Sanya Summit, China has pledged to increase development cooperation with the five downstream countries.  China has even offered a credit line of US$11.5 billion for the five to fund their national development projects. Despite these olive branches, China’s actions only serve to reinforce its growing influence in mainland Southeast Asia through controlling the lever, for better or worse, that supplies water to the region. 


For more details on the Sanya Declaration, please visit here

Termsak Chalermpalanupap is  Lead Researcher, Political & Security Affairs, at the ASEAN Studies Centre (ASC), ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute; email: termsak@iseas.edu.sg

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