Sumernet

"China takes an adaptive approach to dialogue": An interview about the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation with Prof. Lu Xing, Yunnan University

At the recently concluded "2016 Greater Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy" held in Bangkok, SUMERNET talked to Prof. Lu Xing, Institute of Southeast Asia Studies, Yunnan University to obtain his insights into the working of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Framework and China’s aspirations for greater dialogue and cooperation with downstream Mekong countries.

In November 2015, China initiated the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Framework for regional dialogue and cooperation involving China and the five other Mekong Basin countries.

Now exactly one year since its inception, there is still debate about the LMC’s aspirations, and whether it can help bring China and its Mekong neighbours closer together in the five priority areas: connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources, agriculture and poverty reduction.

Meanwhile, it is not clear whether and how the LMC would help alleviate ongoing tensions between China and its downstream neighbours over controversial hydropower projects and water resources.

Q: In your view what is the LMC’s role and how is it fulfilling that role?

Prof. Lu Xing: The LMC was initiated with the aim of expanding dialogue among the Mekong Basin governments. In that respect, it is set up mainly for inter-governmental dialogue and meetings to discuss regional cooperation.  Now there is a need to open up the LMC for more dialogue beyond just the governments.

For example, our team in Yunnan University organised the LMC think-tank forum in October, and invited the Mekong country neighbours to talk about Lancang-Mekong cooperation. But unfortunately, most of the participants discussed mainly about the economic and political relations. I was the only person to talk about environmental and water issues.

The LMC welcomed our forum. But they want to see if such multiple stakeholder forums are useful. The usefulness of such forums is crucial for our government to consider its further engagement with wider stakeholders. These kinds of forums can help inform the Chinese government on the importance of multi-stakeholder engagement and provide different perspectives from other stakeholders. We will be inviting LMC officials to participate in such forums in the future. Academics and civil society across the Mekong region can really engage in this kind of process.

Q:  Is the LMC a competitor with the Mekong River Commission (MRC) (of which China is not a member) especially since the MRC seems to be a waning force in intergovernmental cooperation and dialogue in the Lower Mekong Basin. What is your view?

Prof. Lu Xing: I think China is very clear that the LMC is not competing with the MRC. I think the LMC is intended to supplement and collaborate with the MRC. On issues of water, there are already now two working group meetings in LMC with China and the other five countries in which the MRC is a participant. In my view, China feels that the MRC has its own legitimacy and role and China will supplement MRC’s role. But the LMC's scope is wider as it can really cover the entire basin not just the Lower Mekong area and look at issues of floods, droughts, pollution, etc.

Q: It seems more clarity is needed about what the LMC intends to do and what it wants to achieve. For example, during the drought last year as tensions rose between upstream and downtream water-use, there were questions if the LMC could help through dialogue? What are your insights?

Prof. Lu Xing: I think to understand the LMC, we have to understand our government and the way China does things. China works on the principle of “Lets discuss together, build together, and share the benefits together”.

We have "early harvest" projects to get people to work together. Then they take the experiences gained to the next step. This is the Chinese way. We always do things with pilot projects and take the learning experience to further develop the project. China uses this as a way to deal with uncertainties and surprises. This can explain the behaviour of many of the government’s projects and initiatives.

For China, LMC is an idea, so they say lets talk about how we can proceed. China thus takes an adaptive approach, rather than trying to get everything done and then begin negotiations. China negotiates during the process.

The second insight is to make the LMC more inclusive of multiple stakeholders. How can we inform the Chinese government that the multiple stakeholder approach can really benefit the LMC framework? How can we really show the benefits of a multistakeholder process to all the six governments not just China? Yunnan University has already initiated this process to further dialogue among various stakeholders with the LMC.

Prof. Lu Xing is with the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies, Yunnan University. He started his career with community development and introduced concepts of community forestry and participatory approaches to China and undertook may action research on rurual development. Since 2006, he has been working on Mekong water governance issues including with M-POWER, a regional research network. He has been actively engaged in dialogue efforts in the Mekong region and is currently undertaking a research project on transboundary water issues in Yunnan University.