By John Ruwitch
HANOI, Nov 5 (Reuters) - A jostle for influence in Southeast Asia’s emerging Mekong River region moves up a notch this week when Japan hosts leaders from five countries where China and other players have ramped up aid and investment.
The two-day event in Tokyo will focus on sustainable development and climate change in a region that includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
The Mekong River snakes through a last frontier of emerging Asia, scarred by war and anti-colonial struggles, a region viewed as strategic for its proximity to shipping lanes and abundant natural resources.
In recent decades, Tokyo has been the biggest outside source of aid to the sub-region, whose combined population exceeds 220 million and with a total GDP of more than $400 billion. Japanese companies were also among the earliest foreign investors.
But China’s global quest for resources, and its outward investment drive of the past decade or so, have enlarged its presence in Southeast Asia.
"The Japanese realise — they’ve realised for a long time — that they are just being totally outmanoeuvred by the Chinese," said Richard Cronin, Director of the Southeast Asia programme at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
One of the world’s major river systems, the Mekong starts in the Tibetan plateau and runs 4,800 km through China and Southeast Asia. China will not be present at the summit.
The summit will discuss promoting development, while tackling environment and climate change, cross-border problems such as infectious disease, and promoting tourism, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official told reporters on Wednesday.
He downplayed the notion of competition. "We don’t need to compete with others. If the region is developed, it will be beneficial to them as well as to us."
Japan’s new government has been keen to tackle climate change issues and at a meeting of Japan-Mekong foreign ministers last month, they discussed developing hydropower in a way that would protect the environment and biodiversity.
Scientists say a cascade of dams on the upper Mekong in China and further downstream, some being funded by China, threaten to alter the waterway that directly sustains some 60 million people through agriculture and fishing.
Since the early 1990s, Japan has led the way in funding the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Greater Mekong sub-region programme, which has built roads and other infrastructure. This, analysts say, has laid the groundwork for cross-border economic corridors linking the capitals and major cities.
Lately, China has gotten into the act. In Cambodia, for instance, Japan remains the biggest donor but China has become the largest foreign investor. Prime Minister Hun Sen recently hailed China as his country’s best friend.
Chinese companies have been investing aggressively in Laos and Myanmar, as well, building dams, harvesting timber, and participating in mining projects. It is the third biggest investor in Laos and the fourth in Myanmar, Xinhua reported.
Chinese government aid generally has come without strings attached, making it an attractive choice for some governments in the region, analysts say.
Beyond the economics, Cronin believes "it’s about the issue of Asian regionalism. Is it a real thing? Is it going to happen? And if it happens, who is going to be in charge of it, or who’s got the advantage?" (Additional reporting by Yoko Nishikawa, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Ek Madra in Cambodia; Editing by Bill Tarrant)