In this webinar, Dr Pham Tuan Phan assessed the performance of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), highlighted the challenges and constraints faced by the MRC, and explained how the MRC complements and/or competes with the other Mekong-related initiatives such as the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) and the Mekong-US Partnership.
VIETNAM STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Friday, 4 December 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, with support from Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, organised a webinar on “Working Together to Make a Brighter Day for the Mekong” on Friday, delivered by Dr Pham Tuan Phan. Dr Phan was the first riparian CEO of the MRC during his tenure from 2016-2019. As the CEO of the MRC, Dr Phan oversaw the reorganisation of the MRC and delivered the noteworthy five-year Council Study on sustainable management and development of the Mekong River. Prior to joining the MRC, Dr Phan also worked for the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and the United Nations in New York.
Dr Phan noted that as chair of ASEAN for 2020, Vietnam has made special efforts to introduce Mekong issues into the ASEAN agenda and highlight the importance of the subregion at the association, stressing the territorial, resource, and strategic interests at play in the subregion.
On the increasing interest of the extra-regional powers in Mekong affairs, Dr Phan pointed out that there are now up to 14 cooperation frameworks for the Mekong subregion, including the MRC, the US-Mekong Partnership, the Japan-Mekong Cooperation, the Mekong-ROK Comprehensive Partnership, the Greater Mekong Sub-region and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation. The MRC’s European development partners, Dr Phan noted, have been the key driving force behind the commission for the last 25 years. The Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), which the MRC had a cooperative relationship with, was upgraded to the Mekong-US Partnership this year. The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, on the other hand, attracts significant international attention due to China’s involvement, but has minimal ties with the MRC. Of the many Mekong cooperation frameworks, only the MRC, Mekong-US Partnership, and Lancang-Mekong Cooperation deal with Mekong water issues.
The MRC’s establishment in 1995, Dr Phan noted, was the culmination of decades of planning since the 1957 UN Mekong Committee was established. The commission’s establishment represented a key shift from planning to implementation. Dr Phan argued that the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which established the MRC, remains as the subregion’s “best deal” thus far and “the only game in town”. Other cooperation frameworks like the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, Dr Phan pointed out, are not treaty-based frameworks. Dr Phan, for instance, noted that a key accomplishment during his tenure as CEO of the MRC was the breakthrough joint statement on Pak Beng, a hydropower project in Laos.
Dr Phan also outlined some key challenges and constraints for the MRC, moving forward. Firstly, the MRC will have to continue to stay relevant to the region. The MRC will need to addressess criticisms that it is toothless, and strike a balance between the public expectations for the MRC to do more and what the commission’s legal mandate actually allows it to do. Secondly, the MRC will have to continue to meet developmental needs on the one hand and environmental considerations on the other. The MRC’s weak legal framework and the low level of economic development in the Mekong basin were also other constraints highlighted by Dr Phan.