Japan’s Connectivity with Mekong, Developing the Region or Shadowing China?
By Reni Juwitasari
Japan Program Analyst, ARCID, Mae Fah Luang University
source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, ( )
The Japanese cooperation in Mekong Region has a long history. In term of strengthening the cooperation, Japanese government has been officially contributing to the transformation of the Mekong Region into global growth center under initiative of “Mekong-Japan Cooperation” since 2009. The cooperation represents Japan’s increasingly proactive foreign policy towards five countries along the Mekong River. It aims to support the people in the Mekong Region in term of boosting prosperity through assistance from ODA and maintaining its influence in the Mekong Region. As Mekong Region faces trans-boundary water management, Japan‘s presence is also to promote peace, security and stability among countries in the region.
Under the platform of Mekong – Japan Cooperation, Japan and countries in the Mekong Region have been gathering in the annual summit every three-year in Tokyo, hosted by Japanese government. The three-year summit results about an action plan, called “Tokyo Strategy”. Principally, the Tokyo Strategy has been focused mostly on economic development, infrastructure development, human resource and environment. For instance, the tenth Mekong-Japan Summit in 2018 has conducted the action plan of “New Tokyo Strategy 2018” which is focused on three pillars: 1) the vibrant and effective connectivity, 2) on people-center society, and 3) the realization of a Green Mekong. As a result, the heads of states agreed to enhance their relationship into strategic partnership to balance the influence from major power, especially from China.
The first pillar of “effective connectivity” is expressed through Japan’s involvement in three type connectivity, such as hard-, soft- and industry connectivity. The hard connectivity is related to Japan’s support on quality infrastructure, for instance expanding airport facilities in Laos and road construction in Myanmar. The soft connectivity of Japan’s agenda is to support cooperation in the field of ICT with economic advancement, for instance E-commerce. It is important to enhance modernization of postal and services in Mekong Region. The last, industry connectivity supports both Japan and Mekong Region in term of supply chain, SME and innovative Start-ups, as well as the development of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), for example Japan involves supporting the idea of smart cities.
The second pillar of “people-centered society” is important for Japan’s agenda in the cooperation because it aims to transform Mekong countries into a diverse and inclusive society with “no one left behind”. In this dimension, Japan supports human resource development through assistance of healthcare, education as well as legal and judicial cooperation. For decade, Japan invested for as many as 700 billion yen or 7.7 billion US dollars which has been allocated for basic education, agriculture and rural development as well as healthcare service, in particular in Myanmar for the expansion of HIV/AIDS prevention programs and Anti-Drug measures.
The third pillar of “Green Mekong” makes Japan’s cooperation different from other cooperation. In the Green Mekong pillar, Japan is not only recognized as major power that gives the aids, but it focuses on the exchange of views and best practices to promote balanced approach towards economic development, environmental protection and sustainable growth. For instance, the Mekong Region faces the challenges such as natural problems including disaster and climate change, and man-made problems, including hydropower development. Japan steps in solving these problems by sending Japanese experts for the purpose of sustainable development and management of the Mekong River.
All over the Cooperation’s action plans, Japan’s presence in the Mekong Region is seen to balance and counter the power of China in Southeast Asia, in particular in the Mekong Region. China has pledged 10 billion US dollars to Mekong riparian states under its platform of “Lancang-Mekong Cooperation” since 2015. Its scheme of the cooperation is part of the commitment for the “Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)”. China’s presence is inescapable; it is building a rail line through Laos, ports (and casinos) in Cambodia and dams in Myanmar. The presence of China is a large extent “politicized” in the Mekong Region. Moreover, China has been expanding its military presence and reinforcing its claims to disputed islands and maritime rights. Regarding to the issue, Japan and the Mekong Region leaders have discussed issues related to Chinese military installations in South China Sea in the summit. Even though, Japan is a country outside the South China Sea, but it always tosses out statements that are harmful to regional stability because there was an innuendo that China has been expanding its military clout for “war game” which the main theater is the Indian Ocean. Therefore, to challenge the dominance of Chinese presence, Japan also promotes the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP)”, launched by Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe and supported by the United States. Japan created “Maritime Security and Safety Capacity Improvement Project” in Viet Nam with aiding patrols per year expecting 72 times until 2023.
Japan and Mekong region cooperation has started around the 8th Century, contact with Viet Nam began when a ship carrying Japanese envoys to China was caught in raging storm and washed up on the Indochina Peninsula. From 600 years ago, lively trade was conducted with the countries of Southeast Asia. Many Japanese immigrated to the Mekong Region after Japanese shogunate government started issuing trade licenses (shogunate-authorized overseas travel permits) to trading vessels during the Edo era in the 1600s. The system of authorizing trading vessels later fell into disuse due to Edo shoganate government’s isolationist policies, but trade recommendation in the late 19th century during the Meiji period. Furthermore, the cooperation between Japan and Southeast Asia was started by establishing the bilateral diplomatic relations with Thailand in 1887, following other Mekong regions after the Second World War with Cambodia in 1953, Myanmar and Lao PDR in 1955, and Viet Nam in 1973.
According to the Khmertimes, the continuity of Japanese presence in the Mekong Region makes local people satisfied. For the local people, Japanese development project in the Mekong Region, especially the infrastructure project is transparent. Another point of satisfaction is high quality standard of infrastructure. Moreover, the satisfaction of local people that Japan affords to involve the expert on developing infrastructure. It is acknowledged as a sign of the inclusiveness especially people living in the rural community in Mekong region who directly get affected from development.
In conclusion, Mekong Region is directly under China’s shadow that it is a challenge for Japan’s presence in the Mekong Region. The Japan’s geopolitical effort in Mekong Region is able to balance the power of China because China’s power in Mekong Region is dominant. In this case, Japan cannot ignore the China’s role in the Mekong Region. The platform of “Mekong – Japan Cooperation” is in fact sharing similar broad prospects with China in the economic aspect. Therefore, both major powers have to admit that the five riparian states in the Mekong Region are not able to take side, even though Japan has a clearly strong point on providing excellent quality infrastructure and transparency with its commitment to help local people by pillar of people-society centered and focusing more on protecting the environment through “Green Mekong”.
Thanks to Dr. Yuki Miyake, Deputy Director of Asian Research Center for International Development (ARCID), School of Social Innovation, Mae Fah Luang University for editing this article.
Japan and Mekong nations to push 150 Southeast Asia Projects. (2018, October 9). Nikkei Asian Review. Retrieved from: .
Japan’s Foreign Policy in the Mekong Region. (2018, November 21). The Diplomat. Retrieved from: .
Mekong-Japan Cooperation enters a new dimension. (2018, October 16). Khmer Times. Retrieved from: .
Japan strengthens its Mekong ties. (2018, October 2012). The Japan Times. Retrieved from: .
Japan vows quality infrastructure in Mekong Region in push for Free and Open Indo-Pacific. (2018, October 2018). The Straitstimes. Retrieved from:
Promoting Mekong – Japan cooperation for prosperity and development. (2018, October 10). Nhan Dan. Retrieved from:
Tokyo Strategy 2018 not meant to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. (2018, October 10). Global Times. Retrieved from:
What does the Indo – Pacific Strategy Mean?. (2019, March 11). The Japan Times. Retrieved from:
Vireak, S. (2019). Japan’s Strategy in the Mekong Region. Mekong Connect 1(2), 19-21.