The Japan-Mekong Connectivity Initiative, started in 2016, is a multilateral development co-op consisting of the countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion (Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam), and Japan.

Since 1992, the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Program has adopted the 3 Cs strategy for regional development:

  • Strengthening connectivity through physical infrastructure and the development of economic corridors.
  • Improving competitiveness through market integration and the facilitation of cross-border trade and travel.
  • Building a sense of community by addressing shared social and environmental concerns.

The initiative with Japan has been implementing infrastructural projects across a wide variety of critical sectors: commercial facilities, communications, critical manufacturing, energy, food and agriculture, health care and public health, information technology, transportation, and water systems, as well as urban development, human resource development, and tourism development.

Japan itself has been critical to the development of both hard and soft critical infrastructure. The 10th Mekong-Japan Summit will take place in Tokyo next month. The priority for this summit will be transport and institutional infrastructure. Specifically, transport and institutional infrastructure development in both the Southern Economic Corridor (centering around Cambodia), and the East-West Economic Corridor (which runs from Vietnam, through Laos and Thailand, to Myanmar).

The hard infrastructure projects this Japan-GMS partnership have completed include updating Cambodia’s Sihanoukville deep seaport, construction of several national highways and roads, and construction of the Mekong-spanning Tsubasa Bridge. Soft infrastructure includes updating or initiating automated cargo systems, advising on private sector human resources, and establishing the Sustainable Future City Initiative in Thailand.

Japan, being the outsider, has been explicit in its desire to maintain transparency in all aspects of these projects. Furthermore, Japan and the GMS place great value on long-term sustainability through economic impact, financial viability, job creation, safety, as well as social and environmental impact.

These projects and developments also directly affect the broader Asean Economic Community.  Indeed, all GMS members, save China, are also members of Asean. Asean Plus Three includes China, Japan, and South Korea. Japan, also, has its own individual development and assistance contracts and arrangements with specific nations in this region.

Japan, more so than China and South Korea, has also been involved in significant investment in this region since the 1990s. In some cases, they are the largest foreign investor in the GMS member nation.

Even beyond the Greater Mekong Subregion, Asean, and Asean Plus Three, though, Japan has its eyes on a broader and longer-term goal: The Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s special adviser, Kentaro Sonoura, recently asked, “How can we realise this strategy without the cooperation of Asean that connects the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean?”

The GMS—Cambodia, in particular—is at the heart of the crossroads between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. And while Japan has certainly held true to its end of this partnership, understanding the larger politics of the region would show you that Japan does have its own aims at play here. Sonoura also emphasized that this partnership strategy does not aim to exclude or limit any country in the region, but instead aims to be inclusive with any nation that supports the principles of the partnership. Clearly, Sonoura was referring to China, and its open and overt expansionism in the region.

Japan—and by extension, the United States—has much to gain by creating and maintaining cooperative partnerships in this region. And thus far, the inclusive partnerships are slowly starting to outmaneuver the exclusive expansionists.