The Mekong Matters for America and America Matters for the Mekong

This report explores the trade, investment, business, diplomacy, security, education, and people-to-people connections between the United States and the five countries of mainland Southeast Asia referred to as the Mekong region.

By Brian Eyler Co-Author ·  Courtney Weatherby Co-Author
  • April 28, 2020

Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam are bound together and geographically defined by the Mekong River, which has historically provided a rich, natural bounty of fish, agricultural productivity, physical connectivity, and key environmental services to more than 60 million people living in the river basin. The Mekong’s importance has only grown as the region’s social, economic, and diplomatic ties export the river’s bounty to the rest of the world. As the region develops, urbanization, infrastructure development, and climate change—among other changes—are all impacting the river, its resources, and the millions who depend on the mighty Mekong.

Part of the East-West Center’s Asia Matters for America initiative, this publication and the website are resources for understanding the robust and dynamic US relationship with the Mekong region.

Part of the Mekong Policy Project
Southeast Asia


The Mekong in Profile

With 240 million people, the Mekong countries of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam form a rapidly developing, resource-rich region still healing from the wounds of conflict. China’s influence as a northern neighbor looms large, once again transforming the Mekong into a zone of great power competition in the Indo-Pacific. United States engagement in the Mekong is on the rise.

Mekong Economy

Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos continue to grow at rates greater than 7%. With 40% of the Mekong’s population younger than 25, the rapidly urbanizing region will emerge as a hub of innovation. Expansion in light manufacturing industries, with most significant growth in Vietnam and Cambodia due to relatively low wages, is pulling the Mekong closer to the center of the global manufacturing supply chain.

Mekong Trade

US total trade with the Mekong countries is $116.6 billion. America exports $26.72 billion in goods and services to the Mekong region and imports $89.94 billion. Thailand and Vietnam are two of America’s top 20 trading partners. However, the United States has significant trade deficits with each Mekong country which create economic and political tensions.

The Mekong in America

As of 2017, approximately 3.5 million Americans are immigrants or descendants
of immigrants from the Mekong countries, and most (2.1 million) are Vietnamese.
Many retain close connections with family in the Mekong countries: Remittances from the United States make up half of all remittances to Vietnam, and approximately one-fifth of all remittances to Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.

Legacies of War

The United States has allocated over $500 million in foreign assistance to programs in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to remove mines and unexploded ordnance left over from the war and to remediate land contaminated by dioxin, commonly known as Agent Orange. In April 2019, nine US Senators and high-level Vietnamese officials launched a $181 million cleanup campaign to clear the Bien Hoa airbase of Agent Orange contamination.

Mekong Investment

More than 1,000 US companies are active in the five Mekong countries. US FDI to Vietnam and Cambodia has increased at a rate higher than 10% per year in recent years. The United States has pledged its support to Thailand’s ACMECS initiative for investment in regional infrastructure.

Mekong Power Sector Needs

The International Energy Agency estimates Southeast Asia needs at least $2.7 trillion invested in electricity transmission, power generation, and energy efficiency measures through 2040. China is involved in the development of 18% of all existing, planned, and under construction energy projects in the Mekong region, with Thailand at a close second at 15% and Japan at 8%. The investment gap is large with significant opportunity for high-quality US projects.

Mekong Resources

The Mekong Basin is the world’s largest inland fishery with a haul of 2.6 million tons of fish per year. The Mekong ranks second globally for fish biodiversity just behind the Amazon. Plans for more than 400 dams in the Mekong Basin threaten fisheries and agricultural practices of tens of millions of people.

U.S. – Mekong Partnership

Mekong countries are key diplomatic, economic, and security partners for the United States. The US has allocated more than $2 billion in development assistance to bilateral and regional initiatives in the Mekong over the last decade. In 2009, the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) was established by the US Department of State to promote regionalism and sustainable development in the Mekong region. To date, the US government has provided more than $120 million for LMI programming. These and other ongoing programs in the Mekong countries are listed in the table below.

Japan – US Mekong Power Partnership ($29.5 million)Smart Infrastructure for the Mekong ($30 million)
Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership ($25 million)Asia Enhancing Development and Growth through Energy (Asia EDGE) ($250 million)
Indo-Pacific Transparency Initiative ($600 million)US – ASEAN Smart Cities Partnership ($10 million)
Asia Counter Trafficking in Persons (CTIP) ($35 million)USAID Clean Power Asia ($16.3 million)
USAID Green Invest Asia ($19 million)Young Southeast Asia Leadership Initiative (YSEALI) ($68.8 million)

This report explores the highlights above and profiles the actions of several US government agency programs and the efforts of US-based individuals and non- government organizations active in the water, energy, and conservation sectors in the Mekong.

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