Ambassador Atul Keshap, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
The Mekong Matters
It is an honor to speak at this event, the first in this important Dialogue series, where we hear from voices in the region about strengthening transparent, responsive governance. Gatherings like this exemplify President Biden’s view that we can only meet today’s accelerating global challenges by working together.
It is also my pleasure to be among the first Biden administration officials to talk about the Mekong region’s importance to the United States. In one of his first public speeches, Secretary of State Blinken committed the United States to deepening our partnerships, modernizing our relationships, and developing common responses to shared threats, such as climate change and COVID-19.
Our focus is on helping our Mekong partners strengthen good governance, economic independence, and sustainable development by promoting a transparent, rules-based approach to transboundary challenges.
This approach is evident in our response to the military coup in Burma and our calls on the Burmese military to restore the democratically elected government, release all those who have been unjustly detained, lift the restrictions on telecommunications, and refrain from violence. We believe ASEAN can play an important role in bringing an end to this crisis.
The Indo-Pacific, and particularly Southeast Asia, is dynamic, and enhancing the United States’ economic ties with this region is a Biden administration priority. Over 3.5 million Americans are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Mekong-region countries, and over 1,000 U.S. companies are active in the Mekong region. We advance our partnership with Mekong-region countries with America’s working families in mind and with the belief that we can all share in greater prosperity.
As many of you know, the United States, foreign ministers from the Mekong region, and the ASEAN Secretary-General launched the Mekong-U.S. Partnership last September. Since then, we have made exciting progress. I look forward to telling you about it today.
The Mekong-U.S. Partnership puts coordination with Mekong governments and like-minded partners front and center. We are working with the Mekong River Commission to improve river governance and water data sharing. We are harnessing technology with the Republic of Korea to enhance flood and drought forecasting. We are investing in regional energy connectivity and renewable energy deployment through the Japan-U.S.-Mekong Power Partnership. We are fighting cross-border trafficking in coordination with Mekong governments and Australia. We are exploring Mekong infrastructure coordination with India and looking to harness the combined efforts of the Quad.
We are also strengthening the Friends of the Mekong—a group of 17 countries and institutions committed to a free and open Mekong region. I am proud that India, the Mekong River Commission, and ASEAN Chair Brunei joined our last Friends meeting in January.
Much of what we do in the Mekong builds on the efforts of local governments. For example, Vietnam continued the work of previous ASEAN Chairs by raising the profile of the Mekong region in 2020. ASEAN should go further and develop a common position on Mekong issues, because what happens in the Mekong has implications for ASEAN unity and centrality.
Stability, Prosperity, and Climate
At its core, the Mekong-U.S. Partnership aims to strengthen the foundations of stability and prosperity, including good governance, transparency, economic connectivity, human capital, and health and security. Let me explain how.
Few challenges to a stable and prosperous future are more urgent than climate change. Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam were all ranked in the top 20 countries most impacted by climate change in the last 20 years in the Global Climate Risk Index.
Reuters recently reported that fishermen on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake were seeing daily catches as small as one kilogram, a fraction of the traditional amount. Lives and livelihoods are literally at stake.
The Biden administration rejoined the Paris Agreement and has made climate considerations an essential element of our foreign policy and national security. Climate and the environment will be a theme throughout this dialogue series and for the Mekong-U.S. Partnership going forward.
The Mekong-U.S. Partnership will continue to promote economic connectivity, especially east-west infrastructure.
The Biden administration supports the BUILD Act that established the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation. We have increased the number of DFC representatives in the Mekong region as we continue to improve our public-private cooperation and help to develop high quality, sustainable infrastructure projects, especially in clean energy.
The work of the Japan-U.S.-Mekong Power Partnership to enhance opportunities for regional power trade is also key to these efforts.
The Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Development Finance Corporation recently stressed our commitment to the development of ASEAN and the Mekong region in a meeting with ASEAN Ambassadors. Coordination with partners like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia will make DFC’s investments more efficient and impactful.
Our U.S.-ASEAN Digital Economy Series is also helping foster economic connectivity in the region with projects such as the Digital Integration Framework Action Plan, and support for financial inclusion through the E-Payments Readiness Index.
The Partnership is also ensuring stability by expanding our work on non-traditional security.
This includes our efforts to fight COVID and prevent the next outbreak. President Biden recently announced an initial $2 billion contribution to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance for the COVAX Advance Market Commitment to support access to safe and effective vaccines for 92 low- and middle-income economies. These vaccines are already arriving in the Mekong. The United States plans to provide additional contributions totaling $2 billion in 2021 and 2022. The United States is now the single largest contributor to the international response to COVID-19.
Under the Mekong-U.S. Partnership, we will also advance health security to save lives, promote economic recovery, and build better resilience against future zoonotic diseases and other biological threats.
We are helping Mekong-region governments address the growing challenge of transnational crime, including the trafficking in narcotics, wildlife, timber, and persons. Authorities in Thailand and Laos have made significant drug seizures in recent weeks with U.S. assistance. We will continue to strengthen the capacity of Mekong-region countries to stop cross-border crime in coordination with Mekong law-enforcement partners and Australia.
The Mekong-U.S. Partnership is also building human capital and helping our citizens share best practices.
This year we will celebrate the tenth anniversary of our work with Singapore, through the Third Country Training Program, to train hundreds of Southeast Asian officials on a range of issues, from cybersecurity to preventing the spread of infectious disease to intellectual property protection.
In addition, six cities in the Mekong region are part of the U.S.-ASEAN Smart Cities Partnership. For example, Ho Chi Minh City and San Francisco, and Vientiane and Hillsboro, Oregon, are some of the partner cities exchanging expertise and technology on smart water management. Phnom Penh and Boston are jointly enhancing policy, planning, and technology for smart transportation solutions.
Good Governance and Transparency
The Mekong-U.S. Partnership is also strengthening the knowledge, skills, and transparency vital to good governance and community engagement.
We believe that regional stability is built on mutual trust between people and their governments through respect for human rights, effective civil society, and rule of law.
Water data sharing, for example, helps to ensure accountability and provides the basis for informed decision making. We are working with our partners in the Friends of the Mekong group to strengthen natural resource management through the Mekong Water Data Initiative (MWDI) , which helps Mekong-region countries and the Mekong River Commission improve transboundary management of the Mekong River.
In just the past few hours, we’ve seen the power of data transparency. On March 16th, the Mekong Dam Monitor alerted local communities in Thailand and Laos of an impending 1.3 meter drop in river levels due to restrictions by the Jinghong dam in China’s Yunnan province. That dramatic change in water levels hit these communities today – only with advanced warning can they protect their livelihoods.
The calls of Mekong governments, citizens, and the Mekong River Commission make clear that the PRC is not responding adequately to downstream concerns. Beijing should provide the accurate, timely, and essential data that Mekong-region countries are calling for, and should consult with its neighbors on PRC dam operations that so severely impact water quantity and quality downstream.
The United States will continue to shine a light on these and other activities that undermine the autonomy and stability of Mekong states. The region has a right to know about predatory lending, weapons smuggling, trafficking of precursor chemicals that fuel the illicit drug trade in the Golden Triangle, and special economic zones with worrying links to crime and trafficking.
Friends, as you can see, the Mekong-U.S. Partnership is busy. It’s busy because there’s much work to be done, but also because of the dynamism and opportunity in this region.
Let me close by briefly introducing a few individuals the Mekong-U.S. Partnership will be saluting over the next few months. They are Mekong heroes—citizens working every day to improve the environment and lives of the people in the region.
First, there’s Ma Sokhak, who is working with USAID’s Wonders of the Mekong, which promotes a healthy Mekong River, to organize his community to stop illegal fishing in his home village in Cambodia. Committed to protecting fish stocks for future generations, he is a hero of the Mekong.
In Thailand, Dr. Supaporn Wacharapluesadee worked closely with U.S. scientists and USAID to lead the team that identified human-to-human transmission of COVID-19 in the country. She is a hero of the Mekong.
Ngoc Tuyet, a chemical engineer from Vietnam, worked with Arizona State University to create innovative products like a safe pesticide sprayer and a clothes dryer for the rainy season in the Mekong. She also invented a natural product to treat symptoms of diabetes. Tuyet, her inventions, and her entrepreneurship are now contributing to the Mekong’s prosperity. She, too, is a Mekong hero.
There are many Mekong heroes. We are proud of the role the Mekong-U.S. Partnership plays in supporting them. They demonstrate that our work is most effective and most enduring when we connect our citizens and demonstrate how our efforts benefit all of our societies.
Thank you again for the opportunity to kick off this important event and to address such a distinguished audience.