Vietnam Calls for International Efforts to Respond to the Rising Tide

For the third successive month, Vietnam has flagged at the United Nations issues concerning climate change, sea level rise (SLR) and pollution of the marine environment. Hanoi’s recent initiative on these issues was through the Arria-formula meeting of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Supported by Ireland, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Tunisia and co-sponsored by several non-Council members, Vietnam called for a discussion on the challenges posed by SLR and its implications for international peace and security. Vietnam is currently as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

Earlier in August 2021, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh had raised these issues during the open debate at the UN Security Council (UNSC) on ‘Enhancing Maritime Security: A Case for International Cooperation’ initiated by India. Among other issues Prime Minister Chinh had noted that “Climate change, sea level rise and pollution of the marine environment, especially by plastic debris and degradation of the marine ecosystem, have caused serious and long-term consequences”.

Soon thereafter, in September 2021, President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, in his statement delivered at the high-level open debate of the UN Security Council on Climate Security had stated that “Viet Nam is one of the countries hardest hit by climate change. Successive natural disasters have caused us great losses in life and property. The Mekong Delta, the heart of Viet Nam's agricultural production, is witnessing a record episode of droughts and saline intrusion, jeopardizing the livelihood and everyday life of 20 million people, as well as food security of the entire country and region”. President Phuc also urged that, among other steps, the United Nations “establish a comprehensive database system on the multidimensional impacts of sea-level rise, in support of global response policy formulation.”

The above Vietnamese concerns over climate change, global warming, SLR, saline intrusion, inundation and erosion are substantiated by the fact that the World Bank has pegged Vietnam among five countries most likely to be affected by global warming in the future. Furthermore, these could potentially result in reducing area under cultivation that has direct impact on food supply forcing migration and thereby causing social pressures particularly in urban areas.

It is feared that agricultural production in the Mekong and Red River Deltas could drop by nearly 24% and about 12% respectively. Furthermore, rising sea levels have led to higher salinity levels in the Mekong Delta region; however, the flip side is that this has “supercharged the country’s seafood industry” and this could more than double shrimp exports from current levels to $10 billion by 2025.  

At another level, there are fears that Mekong sub-region could turn into climate-development contestation between the US and China. Also, Mekong River water has been a contentious issue between China and the five Mekong lower riparian States.

At the recent Mekong-US Partnership (MUSP) Track 1.5 Policy Dialogue series for 2021-2023 whose focus is on sustainability challenges facing Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, Ambassador of Vietnam to the US Ha Kim Ngoc had argued that “a strong resilient and prosperous Mekong Sub-region will greatly benefit ASEAN and the region as a whole.” Ngoc also pitched for instituting mechanisms under which the MUSP and other Mekong frameworks such as the Mekong-Japan, Mekong-Republic of Korea, Mekong-Ganga, and the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation could work together which would help in avoiding overlaps and maximize benefits to the people.

Close on the heels of the MUSP 1.5 Policy Dialogue, China hosted the 7th Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Summit on September 9, 2021 via video link. The event was chaired by Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen, and attended by Lao Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh, Chairman of Myanmar's State Administration Council Min Aung Hlaing, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and President of Asian Development Bank Masatsugu Asakawa. In his speech, Premier Li Keqiang stated that “China is willing to work with the Mekong River countries to promote regional economic integration, safeguard regional peace and stability, and make new contributions to sub-regional integrated development and common prosperity”. Although China has assured that it will “strengthen solidarity and cooperation between upstream and downstream countries” through Ministerial level consultation and help in integrated river basin water resource management.

Vietnam prefers an inclusive approach to the development of the Mekong River region and does not encourage contestation involving the US and China that could impact the Mekong sub-region. It is not in Hanoi’s interest that the region turns into yet another South China Sea where the great powers exert influence creating divides among the lower riparian States.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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