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U.S. to give $153 million to Mekong countries for collaborative projects

HANOI (Reuters) - The United States said it would provide at least $153 million (119.43 million pounds) to Mekong countries for collaborative projects in the region, Vietnamese state television (VTV) reported on Friday, citing U.S. State Department officials.

FILE PHOTO: Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh chairs a video meeting with foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Nations ASEAN countries in Hanoi, Vietnam September 9, 2020. Asean Vietnam 2020 via REUTERS

The pledges, made at the first Mekong-U.S. Partnership ministerial meeting, will be for enhancing water resource data-sharing, disaster management projects and cross-border crime prevention projects, VTV said.

Foreign ministers of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries also met at a virtual summit hosted by Vietnam.

The Mekong River has become a new front in U.S.-China rivalry, environmentalists and officials have said, with Beijing overtaking Washington in spending and influence over downstream countries at the mercy of its control of the river’s waters.

The Mekong-U.S. Partnership, a U.S.-led, multilateral forum that focuses exclusively on the lower Mekong region, “can contribute to the sustainable development of the Mekong sub-region and help Mekong countries narrow the development gap, seize new opportunities and overcome challenges,” Vietnam’s foreign minister Pham Binh Minh said at the meeting.

The 4,350 km (2,700-mile) waterway, known as the Lancang in its upper reaches, flows from China’s Tibetan Plateau along the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, through Cambodia and finally Vietnam, where it forms the delta known in Vietnam as the “Nine Dragons”.

Upstream damming by China has given Beijing extensive control of waters upon which 60 million people depend for downstream farming and fishing.

Last year saw a record drought, with Lower Mekong river levels the lowest in decades. Fewer and smaller fish catches have been reported for years.

Both Washington and Beijing recently touted conflicting scientific reports about whether China’s 11 dams on the river were harming nations downstream.

In July, China’s foreign ministry told Reuters that countries outside the region should “refrain from stirring up trouble out of nothing”.

Reporting by Phuong Nguyen; Writing by James Pearson; Editing by Catherine Evans