Leaders of nations along Southeast Asia's Mekong River met Wednesday in Cambodia's capital amid a push by China to build more dams that are altering the water flow and raising environmental concerns.
Originating in Tibet, the Mekong, known as the Lancang in Chinese, flows for 4,300 kilometers to drain into the South China Sea.
The world's 12th-longest river, the Mekong runs almost 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) from the Tibetan Plateau down into mainland Southeast Asia before emptying into the South China Sea in Vietnam.
Cambodia, as a member country of groups like the Greater Mekong Subregion, plays "a major role in these regional and subregional organisations, and is therefore important in China's strategic interest", said Dr Deth Sok Udom, a Phnom Penh-based associate professor of worldwide relations.
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Lesser known than another Chinese worldwide development effort, the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing introduced the LMC in 2015, identifying it as "a new type of sub-regional cooperation mechanism" en route to a joint objective of "building a community of shared future among Lancang-Mekong countries".
The slew of deals comes weeks after the USA and European Union condemned the Cambodian government's targeting of the opposition ahead of a general election scheduled for July this year, which they said had called the legitimacy of the vote into question, withdrawing electoral support and placing trade agreements with the Southeast Asian nation under review.
China is increasing its investment along the river through building dams and a navigation channel.
Within Asean, Cambodia has been known to support China's position by blocking mention of an global tribunal ruling on the South China Sea, a large part of which China claims. "But we just demand a foundation of no discrimination, no interference in our internal affairs", Eysan said.
A spokesman for the Cambodian government could not be reached for comment on Thursday afternoon.
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Against the backdrop of a lackluster world economy and a growing trend of anti-globalization, the LMC mechanism has been radiating a unique charm since its establishment only less than two years ago, with many fruits having been made, and many speed records having been set. Trade between China and the Mekong countries hit $17.5 billion in the first 10 months of 2017, up by 15.6% for the same period year on year, according to Chinese government reports.
"We want to properly address the relationship between up- and downstream countries and accommodate the interests of all countries along the river", he said.
By excluding China and Vietnam, the other LMC member states are not the claimants in the South China Sea conflict that in the past decade has had impacts on China's soft power engagement, analysts say.
"The LMC will [also] serve as a jumping off point for excess capacity in China's industries such as hydropower, coal, highways, rail, and port development and seek to add a layer of political legitimacy to the offloading of this excess capacity through the Belt and Road Initiative", he added. In 2016, when downstream countries faced their worst drought in years, environmentalists said the intensity of the drought was caused, in part, by the dams.
China has also been the main supporter of the increasingly authoritarian rule of long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen amid an intensifying crackdown on dissent, including the dissolution of the country's main opposition party and arrest of its leader, Kem Sokha.
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