Beijing can be disdainful and bullying toward smaller countries when it comes to its own interests, as observers of Mekong River politics will confirm. But China's approach in much of Asia is basically a hearts-and-minds one. It is a major distributor of cheap, no-strings-attached loans to other Asian governments, especially to those countries, such as the Philippines and Thailand, that are occasionally drifting away from Washington's embrace. Its diplomats are the most numerous and hardworking in all of Asia, spreading a form of regionalist "Asian values" that is specifically designed to exclude American influence. Political officials and strategists in Beijing increasingly talk about a bottom-up approach to regional supremacy, using economic and cultural arguments to persuade Asian elites that Chinese leadership is the sure and benign path to regional prosperity in the future -- not American partnership.
Because of this, Washington's willingness to get involved in the Mekong River dispute could create an almost perfect counterweight to China's strategy among the tens of millions of people dependent on the river for sustenance. Political elites in almost every Asian country (exceptions include North Korea and Burma) are predisposed to prefer American power over China. However, these days people are increasingly wondering what's in it for them. While there have been over 40 bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements signed between Asian states, including a China-ASEAN pact that was activated this year, America has concluded and ratified only one, with Singapore. This is why America's ability to keep Beijing in check over the Mekong River could remind millions of ordinary Asians that U.S. primacy in the region still matters, that American diplomatic clout and military presence has maintained the peace in Asia and kept vital sea lanes safe and open for commerce for decades.
Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage often counseled that "getting China right means getting Asia right." Strengthening alliances with countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia is still the most important part of this strategy. Establishing new security partnerships with countries such as India, Vietnam, and Indonesia is also critical. But economic development and future prosperity is the region's top priority. For the tens of millions of Asians in these countries that depend on the Mekong River for their survival and livelihood, nothing matters more than a policy that addresses water rights.
It is still too early to say whether Barack Obama's administration will pursue wholeheartedly its newfound interests in the Mekong. But lending America's weight to local "bread and butter" issues is a clever way for Washington to win millions of new friends in the region -- and keep one very eager competitor at bay.