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China’s Water Grab

Forget the South China Sea. If America really cares about strengthening its presence in Asia, it’ll focus on the Mekong River instead.

In recent weeks, the United States has taken some assertive steps in the South China Sea — and Beijing is watching anxiously. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an explicit move away from the administration’s usually conciliatory tone when she declared in late July that it would be in America’s “national interest” to help mediate the disputes among China and several other Asian countries over islands and maritime rights in the sea. Then, on July 22, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the United States would resume ties with Indonesian special forces after a 12-year hiatus, with the aim of eventually restoring full military-to-military relations. He also confirmed other collaboration with China’s maritime rivals, including a series of multilateral military training exercises in Cambodia, joint U.S.-Vietnam naval exercises, and serious discussions with Hanoi on sharing nuclear fuel.




It’s clear that the United States is truly “back in Asia,” as Clinton promised in January. But another, subtler regional push, one that’s flown under the radar in Washington, has an even greater capacity to upset Beijing: America’s interference in the Mekong River region. Clinton recently met with the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam and pledged $187 million to support the Lower Mekong Initiative, which has the stated aim of improving education, health, infrastructure, and the environment in the region. It doesn’t have the same firepower as military training exercises — but privately, several Chinese Ministry of National Defense officials have told me that they believe this new, softer approach in the Mekong has the potential to achieve something that all the naval partnerships in the world cannot.

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