Power Play with China and the BRICS: The USA at Lower Mekong

By Caleb Newton

    The Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) held its Eighth Ministerial Meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in early August 2015. The LMI is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to addressing "transnational development and policy challenges" in the Lower Mekong region in Southeast Asia. The LMI is comprised of the following 6 countries: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United States. The question is: Why is the United States involved in a regional issue forum in Asia? What does the US have to do with the Mekong River, after which the geographical area is named? The answer at hand seems to be that the USA is after retaining its power in a secondhand confrontation with China. The Mekong River flows right through China and into Southeast Asia, and if the United States can assert its authority in an issue so close to the Chinese, then it stands to assert its overall position as "leader of the world”.

    The United States leadership has perceived, since the demise of the Soviet Union, that it is the locus of power in a power centralized world. Although the accuracy of that perception is open to debate, retaining such a position has for the past decades been a key feature of United States foreign policy. In Realist thought, conflict occurs when the locus of power is threatened. Power, for our purposes, is defined as the status of possessing the ability to compel others to do as one pleases. With the definition of power as including status, China with its economic prowess has grown to perceptually possess significant power that the United States feels as threatening.

    Naturally, the previous focus of power in the United States acts as though it feels threatened, and it seeks to thwart confrontations that could result in losing perceptual hegemonic status, i.e., war. Acting as such, the LMI presents a productive opportunity for the US to assert authority over China without direct confrontation and is primarily focused in areas that support the general United States agenda. The focus areas of the Eighth Ministerial Meeting included the programs "Connect Mekong" and "Smart Infrastructure for the Mekong (SIM)."

    Connect Mekong, as described by the US Department of State, is a program "promoting regional economic integration." The irony of the goal to establish forced free trade gives it away as a plan to push American goals. Just a short while earlier, the US helped push through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, otherwise known as the TPP, a huge "free" trade zone. "Free" trade zones represent the effort to encourage populations to be free by the force of law, an effort which reeks of power centralization. 

    SIM is a program pushing for environmental sustainability in the Lower Mekong Region. The goal is again transparently Americanized, since although the United States has put out many times the amount of carbon dioxide of the Lower Mekong it is pushing for reforms in Southeast Asia. Reforms in SE Asia mean that the US can keep it in submission, since if it produced anywhere near the amount of carbon emissions of the West than it would develop like the West. Development like the West would mean consumption of goods like the West and a threat to no longer have economies that serve the West.  

    Since China is not actually present at the LMI, being a part bodes well for the US to avoid conflict that could result in the US being unseated. Where China is present is in the BRICS forum of nations, another manifestation of the fear that the USA and the West feel over potentially losing their status as head of the world. The BRICS, 5 nations including Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, are an increasingly formal coalition of developing countries that in 2014 announced their organization of a development bank. First grouped together by an investment analyst in the early 2000's, the nations of the BRICS represent the force of rising power and make the West very uncomfortable. The United States' involvement in the Lower Mekong Initiative is an important step towards the Western goal of no power to China and the developing world.

(Image: originally from Google Images)

[The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dissecting Society]


  1. BRICS was coined by a financial analyst from either Goldman Sachs or Merryl Lynch don't remember which one exactly now but the entity was coined cause there was an interest in investing in those countries and making money off them. But are they really powerful? Are the really a threat to America? Not sure they are when we look at their human development on the ground. In spite of that, I think America is right to sit in the middle of Asia to control the Chinese cause they are a load of problems, NK for example. Good read, Caleb.

  2. Hi Caleb,

    It's true, participating in the LMI is a way for the US to challenge China without causing a direct conflict. It's also a way of getting intelligence. They are also probably in LMI because they couldn't join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation?
    I like the definition of Power: it's exactly that. And that's why I often ask if most deemed powerful are really so, or if they are only...a front, since they don't get things done and they don't seem to have the ability to have them done either.

    Very good post, Caleb. I really enjoyed it, thank you.


  3. Thank you for reading, Max!


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