chapter  4
28 Pages

History of Mekong cooperation: From exclusion to inclusion via the China–Vietnam dichotomy

This chapter is devoted to a history of the Mekong basin through the lens of the China-Vietnam antagonism. The history of the institution of the Mekong Committee, the predecessor of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), is considered first. It is then put into historical perspective in the following section on the history of China-Vietnam relations in the border area, which today is part of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) process. In particular, we will look at the situation of the Chinese-Vietnamese border during the ideological split between China, Vietnam and the Soviet Union, which influenced the strategic relations between China and the Indochinese states. Today, the Sino-Vietnamese border areas constitute busy, developing regions within the GMS framework. The history of Mekong basin cooperation cannot be seen detached from the ideological division between Beijing and Hanoi. The first formal cooperation in the area dates back to French colonial rule,

when treaties between Thailand and France were concluded to regulate the navigational use of the Mekong in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century (Than and Abonyi 2001: 130). Then the region became torn between independence and civil wars and the overarching Cold War structure. As a result, ‘the non-navigational utilization of the transboundary water resources of the Mekong basin has been characterised throughout by a virtual absence of hard and fast rules derived from international law’ (Than and Abonyi 2001: 130, citing Prachoon Chomchai 1995). Grundy-Warr, Peachey and Perry stated that the history of Mekong

cooperation ‘has hitherto been bedevilled by ideological differences, regional geopolitics and the absence of China in formal institutional arrangements’ (Grundy-Warr et al. 1999: 306). When French Indochina was dissolved under the Geneva agreements of

1954, Vietnam split into two parts: the southern Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and the northern Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). While the RVN government was supported by the United States, the DRV was supported by China and the Soviet Union.1 After the ostensible pacification of the region, the Mekong basin became busy with national and cross-national projects, each designed to enhance the influence of communist versus capitalist countries and to limit the influence of the other. Adding the activity of various communist insurgencies and bitter fights between communist and non-communist parties in Cambodia, a strict anti-communist stance of Thailand and a civil war in Laos with North Vietnam and the United States on the side of the communists and non-communists, respectively, the Cold War split effectively destablized the region, thus putting reconstruction at risk. Kao Kim Hourn and Sisowath D. Chanto explain that historically the

countries of the region were not strong enough to claim ownership over the resources in their area. Occupied with defending their territorial integrity, the bountiful natural resources of the Mekong region were left to non-regional entities for exploitation. As a result, the ‘lack of co-operation among the states of Southeast Asia has made the region vulnerable to external shocks’ and prevented ownership of the development processes of the region (Kao Kim Hourn and Chanto 2001: 165-66). In this respect, the Mekong Committee of 1957, comprising Laos, Thai-

land, Cambodia and South Vietnam, could have been seen as a positive development, as it was the first institutionalized cross-country cooperation in mainland Southeast Asia to emerge after the end of the Second World War. It was created under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE, the predecessor of today’s United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, ESCAP), an organization founded in 1947. In 1949, ECAFE created a subsidiary body, the Bureau for Flood Control (later the Bureau for Flood Control and Water Resources Development). In 1951, ECAFE began to explore opportunities for exploiting the resources of the lower Mekong basin for irrigation and energy production. To that purpose, ECAFE requested the Bureau for Flood Control to carry out a ‘study of technical problems of international rivers, defined as rivers passing through two or more countries or forming a common border’ (Schaaf and Fifield 1963: 82-83). The resulting study of May 1952 – Preliminary Report on Technical Problems Relating to Flood Control and Water Resources Development of the Mekong: An International River – triggered a series of events, which eventually led to the establishment of the Mekong Committee on 17 September 1957, formally set up by the Statute of the Committee for Co-ordination of Investigations of the Lower Mekong Basin.2 A report by the United States Corps of Engineers formed the

basis for large-scale engineering works on the Mekong and its tributaries; and a study for the Ford Foundation considered non-engineering aspects of Basin development (Hirsch and Cheong 1996: 4.2.1). By the late 1950s, the region became subject to a run for influence between

China and the USSR. At the ECAFE meeting in Kuala Lumpur in March 1958, both the USSR and China made trade offers to ECAFE countries to gain greater cooperation from them and expand their respective influence in the non-aligned countries. Apart from trade offers, the USSR also offered aid for the Mekong development plan. Channelling aid for Mekong development through ECAFE would have meant, however, that US-backed South Vietnam would have been among the beneficiaries, which is one of the reasons why the Soviet offer was imprecise (Far Eastern Economic Review 1958). Both Moscow and Beijing channelled aid to individual countries, which was possible outside the central ECAFE framework. This not only put mainland Southeast Asia at the interface of competition between capitalist and socialist countries, but the area also became a target for competition between the Soviet Union and China, the more differences between Moscow and Beijing grew. Writing in 1963, Schaaf and Fifield list a variety of projects and organiza-

tions outside the scope of the Mekong Committee, although some of them were associated with it: the UN and its Specialized Agencies extend technical assistance to all of the four countries; the UN Special Fund supports projects ‘in some of them’; all four countries are ‘included within the work of enquiry and recommendation’ of ECAFE; France ‘operates a mission for economic and technical assistance in Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam’; the United States extends technical cooperation to all of the four countries; Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom extend aid through the Colombo Plan; Belgium, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and the USSR are involved in technical assistance ‘in one or more of the riparian states’; the Philippines maintain the Operation Brotherhood in Laos; the Asia Foundation, the Ford Foundation and Medico provide aid (Schaaf and Fifield 1963: 73-74). The Mekong Project itself, however, ‘although considerable funds have been pledged, and much work is now under way, [ … ] is only beginning’ (Schaaf and Fifield 1963: 74).

Between 1954 and 1978, the government in Hanoi had depended ideologically, financially and militarily on China. China served as a gateway to the wider world and a transit country for aid (weaponry, food, medicine, military and economic advisors) for the DRV. After some time of caution, the Soviet Union stepped up its military, economic and technical support in 1964 at a time when the split between Moscow and Beijing had become advanced (Olsen 2006; Shen 2006: 355-59, 364; Zhang 2006: 264-74. For the relations between Chinese and Vietnamese communists from 1945-54, see Yang 2006: 55-63. For details on the Sino-Soviet split and the repercussions for aid

transfers to Vietnam, see Li 2006). Hanoi, however, while receiving Chinese (and Soviet) support and advice, pursued an independent policy as to Vietnam’s unification and acquired a hardened approach towards the South when it became clear that the elections scheduled for 1956 would not be held (Morris 2006; Olsen 2006). Therefore, even though the Vietnamese question was braced in communist ideology, ideology provided only a thin layer over national interests. The common vision of putting an end to the colonial era obliterated deeper traditional and geopolitical considerations thinly and for a short time only (Niu 2006: 334-41). During this time, Hanoi’s alignments with Moscow and Beijing shifted depending on its interpretations of the two countries’ policies. By way of outlining the broad alignments of Hanoi, Morris establishes that Hanoi kept a position of neutrality between Moscow and Beijing during the Sino-Soviet solidarity in the 1950s. With the start of the Sino-Soviet split, it first tilted towards Beijing; then after the ouster of Khrushchev in 1964, acquired a neutralist stance between both; and in 1968, instituted a pro-Soviet tilt (Morris 2006), which grew stronger the more Hanoi perceived Beijing’s actions as menacing to its security. Womack argues that after the founding of the People’s Republic of China

(PRC) in 1949, the relationship between Chinese and Vietnamese communists remained ‘intimate, but it shifted from one of fellow suffering to a stratified relationship’. China gave resources and expertise, Vietnam praised China’s socialist internationalism (Womack 2006: 25-26). China was the first country to recognize the DRV in January 1950, when both were ‘close as lips and teeth’. Both sides famously became ‘comrades and brothers’, a phrase used by Ho Chi Minh: ‘Profound is the friendship between Vietnam and China, who are both comrades and brothers’ (quoted by Chen 1972: 806). The cooperation turned the border areas of Guangxi into a region of intensive exchange between both communist parties. The Friendship Pass (Youyi Guan), which starts from Kafeng Village in Pingxiang County and then leads into Vietnam, was used as supply line in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s to support Vietnam’s struggle against France and the United States. The friendship railway connecting Vietnam and Guangxi was built in 1952.3