The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) initiative could allow China to earn the goodwill that has proven elusive in the South China Sea disputes, academics have said.
For that to happen, the Asian giant must first be transparent about the way it manages its dams upstream as well as genuinely consult its downstream neighbours now grappling with drought, they said at a forum in Bangkok yesterday.
Lancang is the Chinese name for the upper reaches of the Mekong river, which has its source in the Tibetan Plateau and flows over 4,000km through China's Yunnan province, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before reaching the sea.
At the inaugural LMC leaders' meeting in Hainan island last month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged preferential loans of up to 10 billion yuan (S$2 billion) and credit lines of up to US$10 billion (S$13 billion) for projects in the region.
But the most pressing issue was water, given how independent operations of Chinese hydropower dams upstream were seen to have upset water flows and impacted the lives of fishermen and farmers in other countries downstream.
To that end, the declaration at the meeting pledged to enhance cooperation in water management by establishing a centre within China for technical exchanges, capacity building, drought and flood management and information-sharing.
At yesterday's forum organised by Thailand's Institute of Security and International Studies, Mr Pou Sothirak, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, called the LMC initiative "an important model of diplomacy". He explained that it could help take the edge off criticism heaped on China for its construction of large dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong river.
The framework, noted Thai academic and columnist Kavi Chongkittavorn, gives China the room to create a positive image, quite unlike the reputation it has acquired for its handling of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
China claims almost all of the vital waterway, which is also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia. It recently installed military facilities on artificial islands it has reclaimed in the sea.
In contrast, China could build trust with the Mekong countries by making its water management data accessible and consultations more frequent, said the academics.
If such progress is seen within a year, it "would prove that the LMC would be sort of a complementary mechanism that would accelerate cooperation", said Mr Kavi.
In the meantime, Mr Pou Sothirak asked "if China could be so kind to continuously release water", in reference to its announcement last month to speed up the release of water from a dam to ease the drought downstream.