By Hazen Williams
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused energy costs to skyrocket globally, including in Southeast Asia. Thailand, for one, has already released a plan to subsidize as much as 50
percent of the recent increase in fuel costs to shield the country’s low-income earners. During this time of global energy instability, the United States, which has energy partnerships across the Mekong region—encompassing Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar—is uniquely positioned to provide critical assistance. The mechanisms for doing this already exist, including the Japan-U.S.-Mekong Power Partnership (JUMPP).
Programs like JUMPP afford the United States the opportunity to link its soft power initiatives with likeminded countries—in this case Japan—to achieve its objectives in the region. A soft-power federation, similar to the concept of federated defense
, is an opportunity for the United States to maneuver relative to China in Southeast Asia by combining its own soft power with those of its partners in the region. Because neither the United States nor China holds a monopoly on soft power in Southeast Asia, conceptualizing soft power as a binary of U.S.- or China-dominated countries is inaccurate. Other countries like Japan, India, Australia, and South Korea also have their own objectives in the region and have developed their own soft power.
Soft power, or the ability for one government to influence the decision-making of another government without the use of military means, is best measured through the perceptions of government officials in terms of economic and strategic partners. The Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index for 2021
ranks the United States as the “largest power” in Southeast Asia in terms of military, cultural, and diplomatic influence. However, the index indicates that China leads in the economic indicators. Similarly, ISEAS’ State of Southeast Asia Report for 2021
shows that 76.3 percent of survey respondents see China as the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia, compared with 7.4 percent who answered the United States. Likewise, 49.1 percent identified China as having the most political and strategic influence in the region compared with 30.4 percent who answered the United States. However, 88.6 percent of survey respondents showed concern about China’s increasing regional influence (compared to 36.9 percent concerned about the United States).
If the United States wants to offset China’s influence, it could collaborate with other likeminded countries to combine and coordinate their collective soft power as leverage against China without placing Southeast Asian countries in a position of having to choose between one or the other. ISEAS’ report shows that if Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states were to broaden their strategic options, they would prefer to work with either the European Union (40.8 percent) or Japan (39.3 percent). ASEAN’s preferred strategic partner excepting the United States was also Japan (36.9 percent). 67.1 percent of survey respondents said they had confidence in Japan’s likelihood to “do the right thing” to contribute to Southeast Asia’s regional security compared with the United States at 48.3 percent. Lowy’s Asia Power Index also recognized Japan as the third largest power in 2021. Japan, in this light, is a valuable partner for federating U.S. soft power in Southeast Asia.
JUMPP, which supports the Mekong region to improve its energy security and encourages regional power trade and integration, is one initiative where this partnership could be readily applied. The United States put forward a $29.5 million commitment
to JUMPP in 2020 to support programs
providing technical training, increasing transparency, and improving the sustainability of energy production. Current
JUMPP programs concentrate in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, including technology upgrades in Thailand, solar power initiatives in Vietnam, and grid code quality improvements in Laos.
Japan and the United States met with representatives of the Thai, Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian governments in November 2021
to identify future areas of collaboration. The programs, however, still largely concentrate on Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos, emphasizing electric vehicles and battery storage. Although Phnom Penh participates in conversations about JUMPP initiatives, U.S. government documentation of programs
supported by JUMPP in 2019-2020 do not list any programs based in Cambodia. This lack of engagement may reflect the United States’ inconsistent funding requirements for development projects in Cambodia. Of the Mekong countries, only Cambodia and Myanmar have Country Notification Requirements in the Consolidated Appropriations Act
in Fiscal Year (FY) 2022, meaning any funding used in Cambodia for objectives not already specified in the act requires congressional approval. Between FY2017 and FY2022, the specific restrictions on funding in Cambodia vary, but largely are focused on war legacy issues. The way this funding is designated leaves little left over for JUMPP’s power-oriented projects, which would need congressional approval under this act. Japan, which does not share these funding restrictions, has become a work-around to maintain the JUMPP program’s presence in Cambodia. Some of Japan’s recent support for the program includes
the expansion of transmission lines and constructing substations in Cambodia.
Although JUMPP joint ministerial statements list various projects occurring across the Mekong, some programs are not new but have simply been rebranded as JUMPP projects. One example of this is the Japan International Cooperation Agency’s (JICA) longstanding Myanmar Technical Cooperation Projects
, which were referenced in the most recent JUMPP statement. JUMPP’s engagement with Myanmar, according to its program lists, all seems to have begun prior to the 2021 coup. Given that Japan has not cut
ties with the Myanmar junta, it is unsurprising that JICA lists ongoing projects
in the country as of July 2021. This further supports the role Japan has as a funding work-around for maintaining JUMPP programming across the entire Mekong region despite congressional restrictions for U.S. funding in certain Mekong countries.
That said, JUMPP faces publicity issues. Despite joint ministerial statements about JUMPP and its programs, there is little publicly available information about the actual trainings that JUMPP does in the Mekong countries because many of these programs happen behind closed doors. Partner agencies in Mekong countries, like the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand
, Electricity Vietnam
, and Laos’s Ministry of Energy and Mining
, make no reference to JUMPP on their websites. Although this is likely due to domestic factors, such as a lack of information-sharing between government agencies, rather than JUMPP’s own shortcomings, the partnership’s lack of visibility among the broader public hinders the soft-power benefits that the United States and Japan might accrue from financing such training programs.
Despite their publicity issues, JUMPP trainings are expected to improve these countries’ energy capacities. The Stimson Center’s Lower Mekong Power Developments Report
emphasizes JUMPP’s potential to provide resources to support the Mekong region’s renewable energy transition. In countries like Laos, where the government has begun to support renewable energy sources
, programs like JUMPP’s renewable energy initiatives could play a critical role. Overall, JUMPP shows that Southeast Asian countries have a demonstrated interest in the United States collaborating with like-minded countries on soft power initiatives. By working with Japan to offer trainings in the energy sector, the United States has shown that it can collaborate on infrastructure development and federate its soft power with Japan to achieve mutually held objectives in the Mekong region.
Moving forward, the United States should continue to utilize these sorts of arrangements. The Third Country Training Program
with Singapore, the treaty for which was renewed
in 2021, is another example of a trilateral program through which the United States and Singapore train Mekong region countries to improve their performance in various sectors. Additionally, the United States and Republic of Korea launched a power partnership
similar to JUMPP last year. JUMPP, despite its shortcomings, sets a precedent for federating soft power with likeminded countries in the region. From this launchpad, such collaborative initiatives have the potential to improve conditions in Southeast Asia and bolster the soft power of the United States and its partners in the region.
Hazen Williams is a research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.