Remarks by Chargé d’Affaires Michael Newbill at the CICP Regional Workshop on the Future Prospects of the Mekong River

Raffle Hotel Phnom Penh
June 13, 2019
(as prepared for delivery)

  • Excellency Pou Sothirak, Executive Director of Cambodia Institute for Peace and Cooperation (CICP).
  • Excellency Sim Vireak, Advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation
  • Department of State Deputy Assistant Secretary Mr. Walter Douglas

Good morning everyone!  It is my pleasure to join you today.

As our Senior Bureau Official (and nominee to be Ambassador to Cambodia) Patrick Murphy recently said, 2019 is a real milestone in our engagement with the Mekong region.  This year marks the 10th Anniversary of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), which was launched in Phuket in 2009.  We see our engagement with the Mekong as an integral part of our Indo-Pacific Strategy, and of our broad efforts to support ASEAN, including through the Initiative for ASEAN integration, which aims to close the development gap between countries and bolster regional unity.  I’d like to thank CICP for hosting this important regional workshop, and providing an open forum for regional thinkers to exchange ideas on how to best maintain and manage the wonderful resource that is the “mighty” Mekong river.

Today’s focus on the Mekong is both timely and relevant.  The Mekong region is strategically important to the United States.  It is home to U.S. treaty ally Thailand, and our increasingly vital partner Vietnam – countries that together are the 2019 and 2020 Chairs of ASEAN.  With Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia, it is also a neighborhood of fast-growing economies that face challenges of governance, and vulnerability to external economic pressures.

We approach the Mekong guided by the principles that have underpinned prosperity across the Indo-Pacific for decades, and which are at the core of our regional strategy:  a commitment to sovereignty, transparency, good governance, ASEAN centrality, and a rules-based order with respect for international law.

U.S. economic ties run deep in the Mekong region, with total investment of $17 billion in 2017.  Two-way trade stood at $109 billion in 2018.  Millions of Americans derive their heritage from these countries, and make up an invaluable part of our society.  Over the last 10 years, U.S. agencies have also provided over $3.8 billion in assistance to the countries of the Mekong.  Over 33,000 students from the five Mekong countries were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities last year – a rise of 16 percent.  And over 72,000 of the region’s brightest youth are now part of our Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI).

In the last two years, shifting geo-political dynamics have begun to pose major new challenges.  We have seen the growth of debt dependency; disproportionate control over dozens of upstream dams by a single nation; plans to blast and dredge riverbeds; the erosion of existing river governance; extraterritorial river patrols; and the spread of transnational crime and trafficking – in narcotics, people, and wildlife.  All these trends pose risks to the autonomy, economic independence, and water, energy, and food security across the Mekong region.

The United States, along with many other nations, is concerned about this situation.  We see our engagement with the Mekong region as an integral part of our Indo-Pacific Strategy, and part of our broader efforts to support ASEAN, including through the Initiative for ASEAN Integration, which aims to close the development gap and bolster regional unity.

We sincerely hope that this workshop will provide a forum to discuss these issues openly and critically—because they are critically important for the livelihoods of the populations of these five countries.

I believe that Walter will talk about the larger view of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, but I would like to talk about how the United States government is looking at these issues with regards to the Mekong River, and about some of our initiatives in Cambodia.  We want our collaboration under the LMI to help address transboundary challenges and support our Mekong partners in making a meaningful, positive impact on the livelihoods of their people.  We do not seek for the LMI to be in competition with other Mekong cooperation mechanisms.  The added value of the LMI — and by extension the Friends of the Lower Mekong — is to be open, responsive, and complementary to other sub-regional frameworks based on similar principles and focused on our comparative advantages.

On transboundary water resources management, our collaborative efforts under the Mekong Water Data Initiative, for which Secretary Pompeo announced $2 million last year, are making great progress.  We expect to have a pilot version of the data access platform available for testing and use within the coming months.   In fact, just a few weeks ago, a team from the Army Corps of Engineers was here in Phnom Penh and held a workshop with the Mekong River Committee to train them on this data access platform.

In addition to LMI, we plan a range of other initiatives to expand U.S. engagement with your countries, and partner in addressing trans-boundary challenges.  These include an Indo-Pacific Conference on Strengthening Governance of Transboundary Rivers that draws on global best practices; and applying our various economic Indo-Pacific initiatives to energy, infrastructure, and the digital economy of the Mekong region.  We are also working to align our efforts in the Mekong more closely with our allies and partners, including Japan, Australia, the ROK, and the EU.

Finally, let me reiterate: in this 10th year of the Lower Mekong Initiative, our efforts in the Mekong are at the heart of our support for a unified ASEAN, and of our principled approach to the Indo-Pacific.  And our support of this conference is therefore part of our broader engagement with the five countries of the Lower Mekong, and our effort to promote transparency, sustainability and accountability through our Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.  With that, I will let Walter address this strategy further, and one again, I thank you all for attending today.