PM Li says China economy grew 6.9% in 2017

Eyeing Mekong dams, China lavishes cash on ally Cambodia

China's Ambassador to Cambodia Xiong Bo (left) and Cambodia's Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn sign a new Chinese aid deal worth some 225 million baht for 16 projects as part of the Lancang-Mekong cooperation special fund, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Dec 21, 2017.

Leaders of nations along Southeast Asia's Mekong River met Wednesday in Cambodia's capital amid a push by China to build more dams that are altering the water flow and raising environmental concerns.

Known as the Lancang in China, the Mekong River is vital to Southeast Asia, where more than 60 million people rely on it and its tributaries for food, water and transport. The river's basin is home to up to 1,700 fish species, making it the most diverse basin after the Amazon and Congo.

China is increasing its investment along the river through building dams and a navigation channel. Laos is home to most of the dams planned for the river's lower stretch.

Chaired by Prime Ministers Hun Sen (Cambodia) and Li Keqiang (China), the 2nd Summit of the Mekong- Lancang Cooperation Group (MLCG) is also attended by their peers from Laos, Thongloun Sisoulith; Thailand, Prayut Chan-o-Cha; and Vietnam, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, as well as Myanmar's vice-president, Myint Swe.

With the theme "Peaceful river and our sustainable development", the summit will review cooperation among the countries over the last two years, discuss future cooperation orientations, and hear reports from working groups. The body was seen as a rival to the long-standing Mekong River Commission, which has been around for more than 60 years but whose membership does not include China and Myanmar.

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Since the official launch of the LMC mechanism in March 2016, it has established a "3+5" mechanism of cooperation, referring to the three cooperation pillars - political and security issues, economic and sustainable development, and cultural and people-to-people exchanges - and the five key priority areas of connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources, and agriculture and poverty reduction.

Is China chipping away at the Asean bloc?

China plans to blast open the sections of the Mekong between Thailand and Laos to allow bigger cargo ships of up to 500 tonnes to pass through.

Li is officially visiting Cambodia after the summit. Cambodian Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol said the Southeast Asian nation needs around US$500 million a year for transport infrastructure development.

In return, Cambodia supports China in global forums, including Beijing's ongoing dispute with Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea.

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