chapter  1
5 Pages


Interest in the economic development of the Mekong River can be traced back to the year 1866, when a French-headed group left Saigon for a Mekong expedition to survey the river and use it as a trade route into south-western China in order to connect Indochina with China. The Mekong expedition, which lasted until 1868, is reported by Louis de Carné, one of its members.1

In the end, the expedition failed. The next attempt at Mekong cooperation was the inauguration of the Mekong Committee in 1957. Member states were Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam.2 The aim of the Committee was to promote the economic development of the region, with the help of the United Nations and the United States, in order to stabilize the fragile noncommunist governments against communist China. However, as this was a Cold War exercise in a region suffering intra-regional problems exacerbated by outside Cold War interference, the Mekong Committee quickly became dysfunctional. In 1975, when Pol Pot seized power, Cambodia withdrew from the Committee. It did not fail altogether, however, but continued to exist as an Interim Mekong Committee from 1978. In 1991, the year of the peace agreements to settle the Cambodia conflict, Cambodia rejoined. In 1995, the Interim Mekong Committee emerged as the Mekong River Commission. Three years earlier, in 1992, the Asian Development Bank had initiated the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS; see Map 1.1). The 2001 Agreement on Commercial Navigation on the Mekong between China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand – the so-called ‘Golden Quadrangle’ or, formally, the Quadripartite Economic Cooperation – was a further step towards reviving the old idea of connecting China with the Indochinese region by making the Mekong a commercial shipping route in order to transform the region into a cohesive economic area. This study is concerned with an analysis of collaboration in the Mekong

region, specifically within the GMS, which is a manifestation of the so-called ‘new regionalism’ in growth triangles in Northeast and Southeast Asia. It explores inter-state cooperation and the role of subnational units (provincial and local governments) and transnational actors (non-governmental organizations, firms) in building and maintaining the subregion. It considers the relationships between actors on three levels: their influences within the

structures of decision-making in the GMS; their policy pronouncements; and their roles in the GMS. The GMS is the only cooperation in the Mekong basin that includes all

riparian states of the Mekong (the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and China’s provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi; Guangxi was admitted to the GMS programme in summer 2005, ADB 2005b: 2). Regarding the creation of a ‘region’, Hettne argues that ‘nationstates typically conceive it as an arena where national interests could be promoted’ (Hettne 1999b: xxiii) before the respective area becomes ‘an actor in its own terms’ (Hettne 1999b: xxiii). Thus, at least in their early stage, regional institutions are dependent on the national interest of their member states. This study explores the historical background of cooperation in the GMS, and discusses how far cooperation in the GMS has developed from the mere promotion of the national interest of individual states towards an institution as an independent actor able to influence relationships between its member states, instead of only being influenced by them. It scrutinizes the nature of GMS cooperation and the character and capabilities of the institution of the GMS, exemplified by the bilateral relations between China and Vietnam. Here, the study combines the analysis of subregionalism and institutionbuilding in the GMS with an analysis of China-Vietnam relations by combining theoretical approaches to regional integration, in the form of the regime approach, with foreign policy analysis. The outcome of regional institutions depends on the foreign policies that

members of this institution try to realize by cooperating in the multilateral institution. This leads to the premise that, with regard to regional institutions, central government policies have two dimensions: one concerned with policies specific to the region; and one concerned with using the regional institution for globally oriented foreign policies, thereby producing a strategic situation in which the lines between foreign and domestic policies become blurred. This situation reflects the ‘new regionalism’, which encompasses new concerns of foreign policy: firstly, in the form of human security or, more broadly, nontraditional security;3 and secondly, localized and transnational dimensions are added to the foreign policies of central governments. Therefore, from central government perspectives, regional institutions not only have the function of tackling problems of traditional security (building confidence in order to acquire problem-solving capacities, which enable member states to settle problems without recourse to military force), but also need to deal with human security, including food security, environmental security, drug trafficking and the development of local economies through transnational integration processes for poverty reduction. The latter point is especially important for cross-border cooperation along the China-Vietnam border. As for Mekong cooperation, the transnational issue of water cooperation as

a source of GMS development (transport, energy and agriculture) enters the scene of multilateral cooperation, with potential tensions between states, as well as between states and NGOs, about how to use the seemingly abundant

water resources. The issue of environmental protection vis-à-vis economic development is central here, as is the involvement or exclusion of NGOs, in particular environmental NGOs, from the formal decision-making processes of the GMS. Conflicts between actors on one level, and between actors of different

levels, are indicated here. It is the premise of this study that the GMS is an institution representing an international system in which nation states and their central governments, in a Westphalian state system, form the dominant decision-making bodies, and are therefore able to set the parameters for the actions of subnational units and non-state actors. However, the GMS also shows signs of a post-Westphalian system, in which the central government is not a unitary actor, and subnational units as well as transnational non-state actors become increasingly able to challenge the sole authority of the nation state. Following from this, the study holds that China’s and Vietnam’s foreign

policy strategies translate directly into foreign policies towards the GMS. Furthermore, the study argues that the traditional antagonism between China and Vietnam translates into opposed foreign policy strategies towards the GMS. Thus the imperatives of China’s and Vietnam’s foreign policies affect the nature of the GMS. Consequently, they are able to showcase if and how the GMS might be able to structure the traditionally antagonistic relationship between the two countries. This enables us to generalize on, and draw conclusions regarding, the institutional capacity of the GMS. Therefore Hettne’s mention of a region moving from an area to promote the national interest towards a coherent region, which has an independent capacity to act, can be exemplified by an examination of China’s and Vietnam’s policies towards subregional cooperation in the GMS. It is important to emphasize that, although the GMS is only one of a

multitude of cooperation schemes in the Mekong basin, it is the only one that includes both Vietnam and China. It therefore provides the only option for Vietnam to work with China in a multilateral forum in the subregion. Although wider regional cooperation also involves both countries, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (CAFTA), the ASEAN+3 process, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) suffer from their inclusiveness: the political diversity of member states, their disparate levels of economic development, and the difficulty in negotiating a consensus among all the member states. The GMS thus provides a chance for Vietnam to deal with China in a forum that is not only multilateral, but also restricted regarding its membership. The cooperation structure of the GMS will be analysed along the lines of

the regime approach, a strand of the literature on regional cooperation that started with the work of Ruggie (1975). The purpose of this is to judge the nature of Mekong cooperation, analyse its organizational structure, assess the relevance of non-state actors within this structure, including the system of intra-GMS governance that emerges from it, and evaluate the implications of

the institutional set-up for the policies of the member states, exemplified by the bilateral relations between China and Vietnam. The regime approach is of importance to the GMS because subregional cooperation in Southeast Asia often does not establish strong physical organizations (Dosch 1997: 65). The usefulness of the regime approach is therefore the ability to analyse loose cooperation structures. This is the more important for the GMS as it is not based on a founding document. The present study argues that the concept of ‘soft regionalism’ of non-intervention and non-binding rules, created by ASEAN and transferred to APEC, has also been moved to the GMS. By doing so, Southeast Asian cooperation schemes embody the particular kind of cooperation that allows member countries to adapt economically at their own individual pace. While neither realist nor neoliberal institutional paradigms alone can explain GMS cooperation, the moulding of both theories to the regime approach offers a means of examining the validity of the concept for the GMS. As the GMS is part of the foreign and security policy strategies of China

and Vietnam, this study analyses the strategic relevance of the GMS within the foreign policy conceptions of China and Vietnam. It further considers whether the GMS has an impact on the foreign policy conduct of China and Vietnam towards each other when dealing with conflicting issues within the GMS framework, and whether they are willing ‘to accept obligations that restrain one’s own freedom of action in unknown future situations if others also accept responsibilities, since the effect of these reciprocal actions is to reduce uncertainty’ (Keohane 1984: 17). China-Vietnam relations are hence viewed in the context of regional

cooperation. The GMS is analysed at first independently, then as a function of Vietnam-China relations. There are therefore two steps: firstly, historical examination of the conditions for cooperation, followed by an analysis of the GMS; secondly, the institution’s strategic relevance, that is, how states make use of it to realize their foreign policy agendas, as exemplified by ChinaVietnam relations and cooperation in the China-Vietnam border regions, which are part of the GMS process. Specifically, the study addresses the following questions.