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Evolution of U.S.-Vietnam Cooperation on the Mekong

Issues & Insights Vol. 21 SR 3, pp. 14-23

Volume Overview

Authors of this volume participated in the inaugural U.S.-Vietnam Next-Generation Leaders Initiative. With backgrounds in academia, public policy, military and industry, the cohort brings rich insights on the past, present, and future of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship. Between October 2020 and April 2021, cohort members engaged with senior experts and practitioners as they developed research papers addressing various aspects of the bilateral relationship.

The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organizations and affiliations. For questions, please email maritime@pacforum.org.

Chapter Excerpt

Over the past 25 years, U.S.-Vietnam relations have seen growth across nearly every facet of engagement. Complementary forces have driven this expansion: Washington’s desire to build new partnerships and enhance its influence in the Indo-Pacific and Hanoi’s interest in securing a strategic and economic hedge vis-à-vis Beijing. Now, less than 50 years after the conclusion of the Second Indochina War, Vietnam has become one of the United States’ most vital partners and a critical element of Washington’s calculus concerning growing strategic competition with Beijing.

Among the many areas of increased cooperation, the sustainable management of the Mekong River and its resources has become an increasingly salient feature over the past decade. Though issues related to the river are regional in nature, they carry special importance to Hanoi given the unique vulnerabilities Vietnam faces as the downstream riparian. The river and its associated ecosystems provide tens of millions of Vietnamese with food, water, and livelihoods, and its health and survival are vital to the country’s future. Developments impacting the Mekong have also taken on a strategic character for Hanoi, as the accelerating pace of Chinese-led projects on and around the river is seen as a potential threat to Vietnam’s “Western front.”

The United States has had a long history of supporting development along the Mekong, from early support for the nascent Mekong Committee in the late 1950s through its evolution into the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in 1995, to the creation of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) in 2009 and its expansion into the Mekong-U.S. Partnership (MUSP or the Partnership) in late 2020. While the river has not always been a focal point of bilateral engagement, the existential nature of the challenges facing Vietnam’s Mekong Delta and the fact that a number of these challenges emanate from Chinese actions upstream have led to increasing awareness and alignment of interests.

This paper will assess the history of U.S. engagement with Vietnam on issues related to the Mekong, focusing on the last twenty-five years of cooperation since normalization. Against this historical backdrop, it will evaluate recent announcements associated with the Partnership and provide recommendations for how enhanced engagement and strategic diplomacy can be leveraged to expand and strengthen cooperation on the Mekong in the Biden administration, amid increasing climatic, environ- mental, and geopolitical pressures.

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John Lichtefeld is a Nonresident Fellow with Stimson’s Southeast Asia program and is engaged in research involving environmental security and political adaptation to climate change in mainland Southeast Asia. His key areas of focus include mechanisms for multilateral cooperation, including notably the Mekong River Commission, the food-water-energy nexus, and evolving political dynamics around sustainable development in the region. John is also a Vice President with The Asia Group, a strategic consultancy supporting U.S. investors across the Indo-Pacific, where he provides strategic advice and regulatory analysis for clients operating or considering expansion in markets in mainland Southeast Asia. As part of his work with The Asia Group, he has helped lead the launch of TAG’s Vietnam office in Hanoi.


Photo: Undated photo of the Mekong River. Source: Public domain.