The ninth Mekong-Ganga Cooperation Meeting was held in Singapore on August 2. The conference was preceded by the 10th MGC Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) on August 1.

The meeting was co-chaired by Don Pramudwinai, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand and Gen V.K. Singh (Retd.), Minister of State for External Affairs. Senior ministers from Cambodia, Laos PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam also attended the meeting.

The Mekong-Ganga Cooperation was established on November 10, 2000, at Vientiane, Laos, at the First MGC Ministerial meeting. It comprises six member-countries ~ India, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

The four areas of cooperation are tourism, culture, education, and transportation. The organisation takes its name from the Ganga and the Mekong, two large rivers in the region.

Since its inception as a subregional group of six countries, India has attached the greatest importance, and this has achieved tremendous success and resonance. The Mekong and the Ganga river basins share close civilizational and cultural links, which provide a strong basis for cooperation in the present times.

The joint ministerial statement for the 9th MGC meeting in Singapore appreciated the progress made towards the successful implementation of the Plan of Action 2016-18.

As a logical extension of its Act East policy, India has been providing assistance in capacity-building in the SME and MSME sectors to the Mekong countries and is ready to share expertise in setting up regional value chains in sectors such as automobile components.

At the first MGC meeting in November 2017, the joint declaration had called for cooperation in malaria and dengue management. It was proposed that the JWG meetings may be held in the MGC countries on a rotational basis. At the same time, the MGC Business Forum has been trying to promote trade and investment among MGC countries.

Cooperation in the education sector is another thrust area in which the leaders of the member- countries are committed. In particular, India being the largest nation endowed with high quality human resources has a special responsibility in helping the small member-nations of the GMC.

India is aware of its responsibility and has been extending assistance in the education sector and contributed towards capacity building and human resource development in CLMV countries. The plan envisages 900 scholarships annually and the setting up of physical infrastructure.

Further deepening its commitments, India agreed to offer five more scholarships to Mekong countries in museology and conservation techniques, which could significantly benefit the MGC Asian Traditional Textile Museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The other sphere in which India has been offering assistance is in the setting up physical IT infrastructure, digital connectivity and ICT infrastructure development in Mekong countries.

Following India’s lead, Thailand has been organising training courses in tourism management, food security, climate change, SDGs, and Sufficient Economy Philosophy (SEP). Indeed, there is a greater need for better coordination to reap maximum benefits if the MGC countries cooperate sincerely through their respective ministries.

Many of the MGC countries are endowed with rich cultural heritage and preserving these assets requires shared efforts. It is a matter of pride that the Common Archival Resource Centre (CARC) will be established at Nalanda University.

The MGC countries are sharing with India information and materials on areas such as archaeological sites, world heritage, settlement history, history of trade, population, data on religious distribution, and historical linkage.

All such information will be preserved at the CARC for the benefit of humanity. India proposed and others welcomed its suggestion to hold a meeting on Rice Germplasm in the second week of November, besides cooperating in fisheries and animal husbandry.

Underscoring the importance of promoting tourism among MGC countries, the ministers supported the idea to organise MGC Tourism Week in four metropolitan cities of India in 2019. Establishing the trail of Buddhism could boost tourism.

India’s proposal to organise activities such as celebrating India- ASEAN Year of Tourism 2019 with training programmes for chefs from MGC countries in Indian cuisine and hotel management, inviting craftsmen from MGC countries to participate in the Surajkund Craft Mela in February 2019, organising photography competition on tourism in India found favour. Such initiatives shall further contribute to India’s Act East policy.

Other areas of cultural cooperation among MGC countries could be a photography competition on tourism in India, conducting media programmes on Buddhist and North-East circuits, and organising tourism markets of MGC countries in India. Gen Singh highlighted the importance of tourism in secondary cities in order to expand the industry.

Earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the establishment of digital villages in Mekong countries as part of India’s efforts to promote digital connectivity. India organised the 1st MGC Policy Dialogue, a track 1.5 event, on the theme “Stronger Connectivity, Enhancing Ties” on 8 April 2017 in New Delhi.

It would be meaningful if this is converted into an annual event that could transform the dialogue into a think-tank to carry out research and provide policy recommendations on specific subjects for the governments of the MGC countries to consider.

There is immense trade and investment potential in the Mekong countries. Closer collaboration between India and the Mekong region in trade promotion activities, Customs inspections, sanitary and photo-sanitary support, clearance regulations to address trade bottlenecks and regional supply chains can create a win-win situation for all stakeholders.

Economic development being the priority, the six MGC countries along the Mekong River adopted in April 2018 an ambitious investment plan worth $ 66 billion over the next five years, $7 billion of which is expected to come from the Asian Development Bank and the rest from governments and the private sector.

Indeed, the Greater Mekong Sub-regional (GMS) economic cooperation programme was initiated by the ADB in 1992 and has since mobilised $21 billion, with the bulk going to infrastructure projects.

The five countries along with China’s Yunnan province and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous region with a population of 340 million and combined gross domestic product of $1.3 trillion have recorded one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

The 10th MGC Ministerial Meeting shall be held in 2019 in Thailand on the margins of ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ conference. The date and venue shall be notified through diplomatic channels in due course of time.

The writer is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. The views expressed are personal and do not represent either that of the ICCR or the Government of India.