The 11th Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) Ministerial meeting took place on 21 July. Cambodia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn co-chaired with his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar. Held via video conference, it was attended by other foreign ministers from Mekong countries including Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The foreign ministers reviewed the progress on cooperative efforts since their 10th meeting in Bangkok on 1 August 2019, and chart out its future direction with the aim of strengthening and expanding efforts against COVID-29. The ministers also exchanged views on regional and international issues of common interest and concern.
Despite the importance of this initiative from the perspective of India’s Act East Policy, surprisingly the Indian media virtually blacked out this news of the ministerial meeting. This fact itself makes this commentary important to highlight what transpired in the 11th ministerial meeting of the GMC member countries.
First, what is this MGC? It is a sub-regional organisation established on 10 November 2000 at Vientiane, Laos’ capital, at the First MGC Ministerial meeting. It comprises six member countries: India (Look East connectivity projects), Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The MGC aims at facilitating closer contacts among the people inhabiting these major river basins and enhancing cooperation in tourism, culture, education, transportation and communications. The organisation takes its name from the Ganga and Mekong, two civilizational rivers in Southeast Asia. The MGC initiative aims to facilitate closer contacts among the people inhabiting these two major river basins. The MGC is also indicative of the cultural and commercial linkages among the member countries of the MGC down the centuries.
The 1st MGC Ministerial Meeting was held in Vientiane from 9-13 November 2000. It issued the Vientiane Declaration on MGC covering cooperation in the 4 traditional areas. The 2nd MGC Ministerial Meeting was held in Hanoi on 28 July 2001, and adopted the Hanoi Programme of Action (HPA), a detailed Work Programme for six years (July 2001 to July 2007), providing specific actions for cooperation, in the 4 traditional areas. The 3rd MGC Ministerial Meeting was held in Phnom Penh on 20 June 2003 and provided additional political impetus to the MGC initiative. It adopted the Phnom Penh Roadmap. After the 5th meeting chaired by India took place at Manila, the Philippines, on 1 August 2007, the Ministerial Meetings remained suspended for the next five years from 2007 to 2012 for unknown reasons.
The meetings resumed when India hosted the 6th MGC Ministerial Meeting on 4 September 2012, in New Delhi chaired by the then EAM, S.M. Krishna, and saw active participation from all the MGC partner countries in which beyond the four existing traditional areas of cooperation, viz. tourism, culture, education, and transport & communications, the ministers agreed to widen collaboration into newer areas, such as SME cooperation, conservation of Rice Germplasm, setting up a Working Group on Health, establishment of a Common Archival Resource Centre (CARC) at the Nalanda University, and finally, India–Cambodia Laos Myanmar Vietnam Quick Impact Projects.
From India’s point of view, the 6th meeting was extremely important as it defined and fine-tuned its Look East policy to reach out to the ASEAN through the Myanmar corridor its connectivity projects. The larger aim of India-ASEAN connectivity was aimed to be realised by developing India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway project. With a view to reap larger benefits, the MGC countries agreed to take forward matters related to the extension of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway to Cambodia and Laos PDR. The proposal for the development of an India-Myanmar-Laos PDR-Vietnam-Cambodia highway was also discussed.
The 7th MGC Ministerial meeting held in Vientiane and attended by Minister of State of External Affairs, Gen V.K. Singh (Retd) reinforced the cultural connect through history between the six countries. This was demonstrated through the screening of a short film “The Power of Six” and the decision on a MGC Traditional Asian Textiles Museum to be built at Siam Reap, Cambodia, testifying to the historical cultural connect with the modern times.
India’s pro-active stance
Backed by historical experiences, modern India realised the importance of engaging with the ASEAN economically backed by its historical cultural connect. The civilizational links with most of the ASEAN member countries are extremely strong. Even in the modern times, the Indian diaspora has played a crucial role in bridging ties between India and the ASEAN. With a view to give this connect a stronger spine, India announced 50 new ITEC scholarships for MGC countries in areas of culture, tourism, engineering, management, teachers training, film directing, sound, light and stage management in addition to 900 scholarships already on offer every year. Taking its pro-activism further, India announced new centres of excellence in software development and training, besides augmenting existing capacity building programs in law enforcement, financial markets, ICT and space, to supplement the requirements of MGC partners. There are also 3 Quick Impact Projects in Laos PDR and 2 in Myanmar under consideration in addition to 9 in Cambodia and 5 in Vietnam already under implementation.
Outcome of the 11th Meeting
What transpired at the 11th Ministerial meeting was that Cambodia sought support from member countries to help rehabilitate the MGC Asian Traditional Textile Museum (MGCATTM) in Siem Peap province, where operations suffered due to COVID-19. The MGCATTM was established in 2014, reflecting the importance and sustainability of the MGC. In view of the COVID-19, tourism has fallen, thereby affecting the museum’s daily operations. Indeed cultural cooperation is one of the key areas of the MGC, and the MGCATTM is a landmark in that cooperation.
For India, its engagement with the MGC needs to be understood from the perspective of being as another route to execute its Act East Policy by connectivity projects where the historical cultural connect plays a significant role. It is indeed an important diplomatic gateway for strengthening bilateral relations with the MGC member countries. India’s strength in the IT and pharmaceutical sectors can unfold huge vista for cooperation with the MGC member countries. Indeed, in an age of multilateral diplomacy, the role of GMC deserves recognition in fostering cooperation and mutual understanding among the member countries.
Prof. Panda is Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.