ACMECS: The Power of Working Together
Date:3 October 2023
By Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Communications Advisor: Amid great geopolitical realignment and unpredictability, existing and new mini-lateral groups throughout the world have been revitalised or created. Their common objective is a simple one -- finding their own niche to augment their bargaining power for national and regional preservation. Mainland Southeast Asia is no exception. To survive in a multipolar world, every nation, big or small, must be on full alert 24/7.
It is pure coincidence that the 20th anniversary of the Mekong's first homegrown subregion framework, known as the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (Acmecs), has come around just as members of the new government, who initiated the idea back in 2003 under the Thai Rak Thai administration, the predecessor of the Pheu Thai Party, take the reins.
Today, the frequently asked question is whether the new Pheu Thai-led government will continue to support this framework. Like it or not, kudos must go to the Prayut Chan-o-cha government. In the past few years, it boosted the Acmecs cooperation in every way it can to ensure that the Mekong riparian countries are working together for their common interests. So far, the Srettha Thavisin government has said very little about the Mekong subregion.
Speedy economic recovery in the post-pandemic era and promoting economic growth is the present government's highest priority for the time being. As such, moving ahead, it is pivotal to have clear strategies for strengthening Thailand's agency.
Now that a new foreign policy team has taken over, this subregional cooperation, comprising Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand, should be placed at the top of the agenda.
The Acmecs presents Thailand with the opportunity to pull available resources from other countries the mighty Mekong runs through. In recent years, there has been a surge of enthusiasm among the lower riparian countries for better consolidation and cooperation as the Mekong has now become a new battlefield for competition between great powers. If they fail to act collectively, they will certainly fall prey to outside powers that will use the Mekong as bait.
At its inception, the main purpose of the Acmecs was to promote economic cooperation to improve the standard of living of their people. At the time, the strategic landscape was more stable with friendly cooperation among the great powers. The Mekong subregion remained a backwater, and it has seldomly made the news headlines since the end of the Indochina War.
However, once China launched its Mekong-Lancang Cooperation (MLC) in 2015, the whole dynamics of Mekong River-related cooperation and programmes changed dramatically. The MLC has moved quickly to establish footholds in all areas related to social and economic development in the region.
A US$300 million (11 billion baht) special fund was set up to support projects from member countries. As an upper riparian country, the lower partners welcomed China's comprehensive approaches. At present, at least 500 projects of various sizes and scales are covered by the fund.
It is interesting to note it was not until early 2020 that the US-China rivalry finally crept into the Mekong's arena in tangible ways. Former US president Donald Trump postponed the plan to have a special summit with ASEAN leaders in Las Vegas, which was supposed to be the high point of his Indo-Pacific strategy.
Mr Trump wanted to use the Mekong as a new tool to counter China's growing influence in the region, in particular the mainland of Southeast Asia. That same year, the decade-old but benign Lower Mekong Initiative was renamed and reincarnated as the Mekong-US Partnership with a bigger fund and comprehensive approaches.
Since then, the US has been trying to team up with friends and allies, in particular Japan and Australia, to increase their collaboration and cooperation to compete with the myriad of China's development plans in the Mekong region.
It is an open secret that with the growing interests of all donor countries, the lower riparian countries have realised that they needed to be more active in pushing through various agreed programmes and action plans in both traditional and non-traditional areas. Most of all, they have to come up with rule-based governance and a code of conduct; otherwise, outside powers will be able to override their conduct.
Now that they have agreed to set up Acmecs Interim Secretariat in Bangkok, they are likely to coordinate better. The top priorities are to improve their connectivity and synchronise their development plans in sustainable ways to ensure they have control over the overall developments in their subregion. Bimstec will serve as the hub and streamline overlapping programmes and activities.
As such, the $500 million Acmecs Development Fund was set up so that all members would have common ownership. First of all, the fund would come from the Acmecs members and later on from the dialogue partners. Thailand has already committed to contribute $200 million, and Cambodia did the same with $7 million. The remaining three -- Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar -- have yet to decide on their contributions. The fund will comprise loans and grants.
To further engage with donor countries, Acmecs has invited China, the US, Japan, India, South Korea and Australia as the first batch of so-called development partners. The second batch will include more Western donors, such as New Zealand, Switzerland and Israel. Currently, senior Acmecs officials are drafting a new five-year action plan (2024-2029) that will be more holistic in its approach in terms of sustainability and strategic imperatives.
The Srettha government, as the offshoot of the Thai Rak Thai Party, now has a unique opportunity to further add strategic values and solidify its original plan. The recalibrated Acmecs will also augur well for the current Thai chair of member countries from the Bay of Bengal, known as the Bimstec. This is part and parcel of the emerging regional architecture. Thailand will host a Bimstec summit on Nov 30.
In a nutshell, given the current geopolitical landscape, the Mekong subregion still has an ecosystem where donor countries, especially from the West, can up their strategic ante. That helps explain why there are at least 13 cooperative frameworks currently at work, or rather competing with one another.
The world is now witnessing the rise of mini-lateral organisations in Asia made up of developing countries, some very big and others very small, which do not want to align with the quarrelsome great powers.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.