Mekong Ganga Cooperation: Historical Linkages and Future Collaborations
Keywords: Mekong-Ganga Corporation, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Vietnam, Act East Policy , ASEAN, Cooperation, History, Culture, Economy, Infrasrtucture, Tourism, Education, Transporation, Communication, China
The Mekong-Ganga Corporation is a multilateral initiative of 5 ASEAN countries along with India, namely Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. It’s an initiative that has connected India with mainland Southeast Asia for over 20 years now and has been one of the prime focuses of the “Act East Policy'' of India. The Mekong-Ganga cooperation was first launched in Vientiane, Lao PDR in the year 2000 with the objective of cooperation in the fields of culture, economy, infrastructure, tourism, education as well as transport and communications. It emphasizes a focus on a normative interaction between states, especially the significance of shared civilization linkages between the people residing at these two major river basins. Thus, the Mekong Ganga Cooperation members could cultivate and deepen their relationships based on shared culture and heritage such as language, religion, art, traditional industries, literature, and the diaspora. The major achievement of cultural connectivity is the establishment of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation Traditional Textile Museum (MGCATTM) in Siem Reap to display similarities in the people's way of life.
Nature does not follow rules and boundaries so the rivers originate from one part of the landmass and fly on to another and in many cases from one country to another and with the flow of these rivers flows ideas, people, and culture. The cultural linkages between Southeast Asia and India date back centuries. India’s shared heritage and socio-culture with the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation members enables us to acquire a better understanding of the relations within the corporation. From around the second century onwards, principalities began to appear in Southeast Asia, These principalities are assigned to the historical record by inscriptions using Indian languages and scripts, the stone remains to attest Hindu and Buddhist cults, and foreign accounts, mostly Chinese, indicating various features of Indian culture. In ancient Southeast Asia, cities were settled alongside the banks of rivers such as the Mekong and became centres of civilization brought together by the common rice-growing culture and similar religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. About 500 kilometres from the Indian border inside Myanmar Lies old Bagan which is known as one of the first Indianized kingdoms of Southeast Asia amongst many. In the past Indian Brahmins taught them Indian scriptures such as Sanskrit and Pali, traces of which can still be found in the written and spoken languages of Southeast Asian countries.
Buddhism was one of the key elements that connected India to Southeast Asian countries. Kings from far southeastern kingdoms sent their scholars and academicians to India to study Buddhism and likewise, scholars from India travelled to these southeastern kingdoms on invitations. Such people-to-people connection not only influenced the culture but also started a trade route between these nations. The routes of ancient kingdoms may once again become a reality with Mekong-Ganga cooperation where India, Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia, and Vietnam, all the countries that share a common landmass work towards building an East-West Corridor. Today, the civilisational linkages play a primary role in the formation of key principles in Foreign Policy and in the case of the Mekong-Ganga cooperation where historical events such as ancient trade scenes and Buddhist philosophy gave birth to the “Look East policy” of Indian foreign policy during the former Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao and later came with a complete plan and action during Prime Minister Narendra Modi, reincarnated as the “Act East Policy'' of Indian foreign policy which follows the same set of principles as Look East Policy and takes it further.
The Mekong-Ganga cooperation has shown its belief in the concept that a decent road, rail, and air infrastructure could help in promoting tourism and strengthening cultural ties between members resulting in the plan to leverage old civilizational links between these countries as the Cornerstone of the recent inked the Mekong-Ganga cooperation. Lowering barriers to trade and travel with access to each other's market and facilitating cross-country movement could not only help in their economic development but also in building people-to-people connections. The idea is that if free movement and free trade could work in ancient times then it should work now as well. The Mekong-Ganga cooperation seeks to replicate in the modern context the same free environment that allowed close religious, cultural, and economic interaction between India and other ancient kingdoms of this region. Hinduism and Buddhism would not have reached that civilizational apogee if they had not been exposed to the indigenous cultures and faiths of people living in Southeast Asia. The Mekong-Ganga cooperation serves as a perfect opportunity to revive the old cultural and historic ties between these countries with a unique blend of foreign policy endeavours of each nation for the further development of peace and harmony within the region along with economic, infrastructure development.
How can the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) contribute to the development of the Mekong region? The Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) was initiated to cooperate on several fonts like Cultural Cooperation, Tourism Cooperation, Cooperation in Education, Cooperation in Public Health and Traditional Medicine, Cooperation in Agriculture and Allied Sectors, Cooperation in Water Resources Management, Cooperation in Science and Technology, Cooperation in Science and Technology, Cooperation in MSMEs, Skill Development and Capacity Building, and Quick Impact Projects Scheme. Amongst these fields, one of the most essential ones is the corporation in the field of Water Resources Management. India promised to conduct training programs and workshops to exchange experiences and best practices in community farming and water resource management under this field and Undertake collaborative projects in the areas of sustainable water management, water harvesting, water data collection, climate change adaptation and mitigation, integrated water resources management, groundwater management, transboundary basin management, water quality monitoring, flood and drought management, and disaster reduction, etc.
Mekong-Ganga Cooperation as a Means of a Balance of Power
The Mekong-Ganga cooperation was a cooperation initiated out of shared culture and history between these nations. The first focus given in the Mekong-Ganga cooperation is the tourism sector under which the Buddhist circuit in India plays an important role. The free and easy follow of tourists serves as a key element in building people-to-people connections and understanding along with the economic development of the region. Another sector in which the Mekong-Ganga cooperation has been working for the past two decades is the capacity-building sector. The capacity building is from the point of view of human resource development under which Implementation of the ASEAN Initiative - the CELTs (Centre for English Language Training) has been established in Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. In terms of the education sector, the Mekong-Ganga cooperation would provide scholarships to 900 students annually through ICCR (Indian Council Cultural Relations). One of the main projects of Mekong-Ganga cooperation would be the Trilateral Highway through India, Myanmar and Thailand which is soon to be completed and the talks of its extension through Cambodia, Lao and Vietnam are on the discussion table. Another important project is the joint working group on Maritime connectivity between India, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam to explore Maritime cargo routes and coastal shipping services. The combination of land connectivity along with water and air connectivity will increase not only the trade between these nations but also people-to-people connections. Such connectivity will increase socio-cultural development along with economic development with deep and shared understanding. It would be difficult to estimate the capacity of the Mekong-Ganga cooperation to create a balance of power in the religion not only as a means of deterrence to China from an Indian point of view but also to resolve any conflict of power play amongst the Mekong region as one might notice that largely most of the initiatives of the Mekong-Ganga cooperation are concerned with just cultural and economic development and to create people to people connection. Contrary to the MGC, China also has its cooperation known as the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation with countries like China, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam and has been active cooperation since its inception but it also has the potential to be a source of regional tensions due to an increasing number of hydroelectric projects that are altering the flow and raising concerns of ecological damage. This article would like to argue that the Mekong-Ganga cooperation is beyond just people-to-people connections as this project also aims to create awareness and address the increasing disparities in the region. The Mekong-Ganga cooperation strives to create awareness amongst the international community of its political determination and inclination to coagulate the dynamics of cooperation among the member countries through soft power. At the same time though the Mekong-Ganga cooperation has not stretched its arms of hard power yet in the region but that does not mean that it will continue to play its game through soft power. For instance when one looks into the development of the QUAD which was also created purely as a means of exercising open and free trade in the Indian Ocean is now taking the shape of a joint military exercise amongst the member countries through the Malabar exercise. Therefore one cannot completely neglect the perspective of MGC taking such shapes as well. Even before taking the hard power approach of foreign policy in the region the Mekong-Ganga cooperation is also serving as a means of balance of power in the region through embedding trilateralism into bilateralism in terms of information sharing and security collaborations. Bilateralism not only increases the scope of partnership and collaborations but also serves as a strategy to avoid conflicts and delays in decision-making. The strategic significance of the Mekong region and the international conflicts attached to it are well known, and India has institutional arrangements with almost all countries to deepen relationships in defence and security relations. “In fact, an active collaboration and partnership with extra-regional/major powers on issues of mutual interests, for example, infrastructure development, information sharing, technological cooperation, and growing cooperation between law enforcement agencies to counter transnational threats such as terrorism, narcotics, trafficking, financial and economic fraud, cybercrime, etc. have emerged as an important feature.”
There is no doubt that the Mekong-Ganga Corporation has held significant historical and cultural values since its inception but it is equally important for the corporation to take larger roles and expand its exercises. The cooperation had minimum attention in the past two decades and has recently picked up its phase after the reincarnation of the “Look East Policy” into the “Act East Policy” under the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. The Civilisational linkages play a primary role in the formation of key principles in Foreign Policy as Act East Policy is the result of these shared civilizations that later incorporated into the Mekong-Ganga cooperation. In an address at the 11th Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) meeting, Mr. Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister of India said that India is seeking a multi-dimensional engagement with the Mekong region considering its great importance to India. During his visit to Bangkok for the 12th meeting of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) initiative, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar emphasised the need to speed up connectivity projects across the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) region and sought peace along the India-Myanmar border.  The future of the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation also lies in the land connectivity initiatives as Mr Jaishankar prioritises the implementation of the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral Highway and along with the establishment of Mekong-Ganga Cooperation Business Council, the cooperation is just picking its pace and has a promising future. The Mekong-Ganga cooperation comes across as a philosophical ideology and concept in the modern day and it needs a little more than just a shared culture. It's high time to move the cooperation beyond the people-to-people connectivity towards something bigger where its true strength and meaning lie.
 I. W. Mabbett, The 'Indianization' of Southeast Asia: Reflections on the Historical Sources, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies , Sep., 1977, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Sep., 1977), pp. 143-161
 Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, “Two Decades of Mekong-Ganga Cooperation: Odyssey of Friendship and Prosperity”. Research and Information systems for developing countries. No.03, March 2020.
 Keshav Padmanabhan, “Connectivity, Peace At India-Myanmar Border: What Jaishankar Discussed At Mekong Ganga Cooperation Meet”. The Print. 17 July, 2023.
" Written By Ms. Ngawang Gamtso Hardy"
Economic Analyst, Deputy Editor-in-Chief
Royal Thai Embassy