When the next round of Asian summitry kicks off later this month in Bangkok, one of the key areas that will be in the spotlight within U.S. policy will be the Washington’s approach to the Mekong subregion – a shorthand for the area in mainland Southeast Asia through which the Mekong River, one of the world’s longest and largest rivers, runs. While U.S. interest in the Mekong has been longstanding, the subregion’s role will be important to watch within the context of broader developments in U.S. policy, including heightened U.S.-China competition and the Trump administration’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.
The Mekong’s significance has long been recognized in U.S. policy. The Mekong River, which runs through China (where it’s known as the Lancang) and into mainland Southeast Asian countries Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, is a critical resource that provides more than 60 million people in the region with food, water, and transportation. And at various points of history, the Mekong has served as a point of either connectivity or conflict between mainland Southeast Asian countries and among major powers engaged there, including the United States during the height of the Vietnam War. The Mekong’s importance in U.S. Asia policy has only been increasing in recent years, with Mekong countries strengthening their economies but grappling with governance challenges and growing Chinese assertiveness. Meanwhile, the Mekong River itself is in peril due to a range of development, demographic, and climate change-related pressures, including the proliferation of hydropower dams.