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Sucharit Koontanakulvong: The strategic competition between China and US brings variable

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

Dr.Sucharit Koontanakulvong, Senior Fellow in Climate Security

Sucharit Koontanakulvong currently works at the Department of Water Resources Engineering, Chulalongkorn University and UNESCO Chair on Water, Disaster Management and Climate Change. Sucharit does research in Irrigation and Water Management and Groundwater Science. Their current projects are 'Climate Change Impact and Vulnerability Assessment in Thailand' and "SW-GW intereactions'.

The strategic competition between China and US brings variable

The questions are as follows:

1.According to your research, how do you evaluate Thai water security status?

Based on AWDO of ADB in the year of 2016 and 2020 results, we are still in the rank of 2/5 while PRC is in the rank of 3/5. We are using this AWDO criteria as a framework and target for National Strategic Development Plan in water management sector. Compared with other countries in ASEAN there are three groups: group 1 : Singapore Brunei, group 2: Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia and group 3 : Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Timor-Leste and Myanmar.

It seemed that there is a need to learn from other countries including PRC to improve our water security and water /governance in the socio economic development process in order to move the country in saver and faster ways.

(source: ADB’s Asian Water Development Outlook 2020)

2.Which variable is the most important one when it comes to the evaluation of water security?

Based on the AWDO criteria, we still need to improve the area of water disaster (KD 5 in floods), urban water (KD3, urban drainage), and environment water (KD4, catchment management and groundwater). We should try to minimize disaster loss and upgrade water productivity to use water more effectively and efficiently via new social tools and technology to improve water security status. Besides, water governance enhancement will link to various aspects of socio economical developments and to multi level management alignment too.

3.What’s the role of Lancang-Mekong Cooperation within ASEAN water governance?

Due to the ASEAN Community Framework, the three pillars (economic, politics and social) are the principles for regional joint development and collaborations and with other main countries in the world. Up to now, Mekong River plays an important roles in the regional socio development especially in peninsular countries with long history.

There are many recent developments mainly focused on energy, water transport development with quite speedy compared with the past and seemed to create issues of drought, resources sharing and how to handle these issues not to bring mistrust among members.

Recent studies suggested that there should develop a mechanism to allocate, share and use water resources for mutual benefits in the region. ASEAN and Southeast Asian countries should have strong integration for increasing jointly development power to cope with China who might become major role and a direction-initiator of this regional economic development.

Internationally, we can also learn from other good cases from international communities like ICDPR in Europe. Good practice is often achieved through the presence of enabling factors which, upon identification, can be used to create opportunities for cooperation. An analysis of those enabling factors of good practice revealed 8 emerging commonalities (UN-Water Transboundary, 2015), i.e.,

1. Multi-level involvement of stakeholders;

2. Data and information sharing and dialogue is imperative and forms a basis for co-operation;

3. A basin level organization is needed in order to implement IWRM;

4. Human right to water is key in addressing access to drinking water;

5. Trust between countries and organizations is an important factor in co-operation;

6. Common problems create windows of opportunity for co-operation;

7. Full stakeholder inclusion is a necessary factor; and

8. Capacity building of stakeholders is vital.

These components may need to be assessed to create new approach of collaborations.

4. To what extent may the Sino-U.S. strategic competition bring new securitization to the water cooperation between ASEAN members?

The first Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) leaders’ meeting co-chaired by the prime minister and premier Li Keqiang and Thai Prime Minister was held in Sanya, China last month (March) – it marked the official launch of the LMC. The LMC is a historical moment that will promote the close relationship among all six countries in the region. The declaration identifies 5 areas of priority including: 1) Regional connectivity, 2) Industrial cooperation (production capacity), 3) Cross-border economic cooperation, 4) Water resources management, and 5) Agriculture cooperation and poverty reduction. Since the initiation of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation(LMC) in 2016, the LMC Special Fund, funded by China, has supported 5 commercial projects led by Thailand, with a total funding of over US$2.1 million (approximately 65 million baht) and covering the joint development of special economic zones, the upgrading of regional logistics system and the development of rural e-commerce in Lancang-Mekong countries. Lancang-Mekong business projects demonstrate the good will of the countries in the region to build an open world economy, conducive to tapping regional cooperation potentials, narrowing the development gap between countries and urban and rural areas, and promoting sustainable regional development.

On the other hands, the U.S. State Department launched the Mekong Water Data Initiative (MWDI) in 2017 as an umbrella initiative that consists of numerous efforts and programs with the goal of building the capacity of riparian countries and the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to improve the transboundary management of the Mekong River. The collaborations focus on sustainable infrastructure partnership, agriculture, energy, environment, water and Mekong Water Data Initiative (MWDI). The MWDI aims to strengthen the capacity of Lower Mekong countries to collect, analyze, and manage water and water-related data (e.g., land, weather, socio-economic data) and information products for the purposes of reducing water-related risks, improving regional responses to environmental emergencies, and promoting sustainable economic development across the water, food, energy, and environment nexus. The United States worked closely with LMI countries, the MRC, the Friends of the Lower Mekong, and more than 60 private, academic, and non-profit stakeholders to design and launch, a clearinghouse for data and tools to empower LMI countries and the MRC to sustainably manage their shared natural resources. The platform incentivizes peer-to-peer connections among regional researchers and the U.S. scientific community.

To bring new securitization to the water cooperation between ASEAN members, since water issue is a common resources and links to various aspect/level of development, up to now the problem is big but only limited actions were done. Under present situations, it seemed that we need more time to learn more from good practices in international level and to redefine Common Overall goals and approach in multi level and aspects in order to earn common rules and trust so that we can draw new norm of development, new share of resources and wealth and new management scheme for reginal development under security and governance in the near future. Then we will set good sample to innovate pathway for Actions with bigger pictures and move from “problem solving” stage to “joint innovative development stage” with new wealth creation and distribution and new technology. Those who can lead and pursue these joint engagements will gain the leadership.

Associate Professor Dr. Sucharit Koontanakulvong

Chulalongkorn University

Bangkok, Thailand

Apr 21, 2021.

Interviewer: CAI Hongze

Interview Date:Apr 21, 2021



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