Stimson’s Southeast Asia Program: Sustained And Evolving Efforts

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When Stimson’s Southeast Asia Program (SEAP) was created in July 2005, the Association of Southeast Asia (ASEAN) and Southeast Asia had already undergone several major geopolitical and financial-economic changes since its founding in 1967. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia began the transformation of what had long been mainly a political-security relationship between the U.S. and ASEAN into something that was both more multi-faceted and more substantive. 

With a combined population of 620 million, ASEAN remains a large and growing U.S. economic partner.  ASEAN’s total GDP has grown ten-fold since 1984 to a total of $2.4 trillion. With two-way trade growing at an average of 20 percent per year since 1995, China has emerged as ASEAN’s number one trade partner, but the United States is still ASEAN’s fourth largest trade partner and ASEAN is our third largest. More important, ASEAN is collectively the largest recipient of U.S. direct investment in Asia — four to five times that of China.

The region’s transformation accelerated in 1992 with the beginning of the Japanese-backed Greater Mekong Subregion infrastructure program led by the Asian Development Bank, which began to build roads and bridges to link Myanmar and the four former war-torn countries of the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – to each other and with China’s southwestern Yunnan Province.   

At the July 2009 ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Phuket, Secretary of State Clinton signed the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a fundamental ASEAN document that the U.S. had previously opposed, and announced the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. The LMI provides a new framework for U.S. aid programs and broader engagement with the member countries on cross-cutting issues such as the nexus of food, water, and energy security; increased communications connectivity within the of the LMB and with ASEAN via training, technical assistance, and private sector trade and investment; and empowerment and gender equality for women in the development process. Periodic working group meetings bring together line ministry officials from all of the LMI countries to address specific issue “pillars” related to their responsibilities including education, health, energy security and the environment, and climate change adaptation.  Essentially the LMI has become the main non-military aspect of the Obama administrations “rebalance” towards the Asia-Pacific. 

The construction of a massive cascade of dams in China’s Yunnan Province and plans by Laos, Thailand and Cambodia for up to 11 dams on the mainstream of the Lower Mekong have become far and away the most important threats the environment, food security (fisheries and agriculture), livelihoods, and regional stability.

From the beginning, Stimson’s Mekong Policy Project has consistently approached the hydropower issue from a basin-wide perspective.  We have focused on the energy-food-water nexus and the potential that the transboundary impacts of shortsighted and environmentally unsustainable mainstream dams have for undoing the hard won peace in Southeast Asia. 

Stimson’s Mekong work has evolved steadily, moving from recognition of the threat the dams pose to tens of millions of people whose lives still depend on the natural flow and bounty of the river to pragmatic ways to resolve differing national priorities on a river shared by six countries. We approach this problem through research and writing based on our frequent field visits and interaction with all of the stakeholders, including regional governments, the Mekong River Commission, the Asian Development Bank, fisheries and hydrological experts, environmental organizations, local civil society and NGOs, developers, and the U.S., and other donor governments. Our deep engagement with stakeholders of varying perspectives and interests gives us high credibility with all of them.

The program currently features two related approaches:  first, our own concept of an agreed “Mekong Standard” for maximum transboundary impacts from dam projects, as validated by best practice transboundary Environmental and Socioeconomic Impact Assessments (EIAs and SIAs); and second, our proposal for the construction of a national power grid for Laos, which would facilitate a basin-wide approach to optimizing the nexus tradeoffs on a basin-wide scale.

Stimson’s work on this issue over the last eight years has been publicly applauded on several occasions by the State Department for alerting the U.S. government to the issue and stimulating thinking on how to address it. Stimson’s Southeast Asia program was unofficially involved in discussions with officials from the State Department in early 2009 that later helped inspire the Obama administration’s Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI). In August 2014, the State Department announced my appointment as one of two American representatives to a new six-country LMI Eminent and Expert Persons Group, which will meet twice in 2015 and make recommendations on how the LMI can best address a number of regional issues.

The Southeast Asia Program is particularly proud for having played a small role in 180-degree turn in U.S.-Vietnam relations during the past decade as a result of our Mekong work. Vietnam is greatly concerned with the impact of upstream dam projects on the Mekong Delta, the country’s “rice bowl” and home to 19 million people.  In 2010 in Hanoi, at the first public forum that the government had allowed, we co-hosted the release of the Vietnamese version of our video “Mekong Tipping Point” which had been produced by our NGO partner PanNature. Our credibility with both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments and work with respected local NGOs have, we believe, helped to give Vietnam more confidence about pursuing closer engagement with the United States. 

At the same time, the Southeast Asia Program has continued to track, analyze, and report on other vital regional issues concerning development, human security, and regional stability, including the evolution of ASEAN and the impending start of the ASEAN Community in 2015, South China Sea maritime disputes and other aspects of China-Southeast relations, political crises and coups in Thailand, and transboundary haze from clearing forests and peat bogs in Indonesia to make room for palm oil and rubber plantations.

None of this could have been accomplished without initial funding from the Chino Cienega Foundation, a small family foundation that has long been active in health and education projects in Vietnam and Laos, including continuing severe legacy of the U.S. use of Agent Orange during what the Vietnamese call the “American war.” Chino Cienega’s support kept the Mekong Policy Project alive until we were able to obtain significantly larger support from the MacArthur Foundation, along with supplements from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and the McKnight Foundation.  We feel a deep debt of gratitude for this generous support as well as the opportunity to engage substantively with them on our plans and initiatives to find practical and sustaining outcomes.

Follow Stimson’s Southeast Asia program and Stimson on Twitter

Photo credit: Courtney Weatherby

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