Thank you very much, Mr. Minister, and again, we all thank you for your hospitality in convening us here and for your leadership. And we particularly are grateful for the efforts of your meeting through ASEAN as well as your efforts with the Lower Mekong Initiative. I also want to thank all of the foreign ministers of the LMI countries and the Secretary General of ASEAN for participating in this meeting.
This is, in my judgment, a very important initiative because this is an extraordinary river, which provides livelihood, movement of goods, commercial traffic, food, sustenance to millions of people. And it's a river that I got to know very well years ago. And I saw not only the natural beauty, but I got to see the remarkable amount of commerce and movement and importance of this river to the entire framework of the region. It is central to the economic lifeblood of the entire region. It sustains the lives of more than 70 million people.
So last winter, I had a chance to revisit the Ca Mau Peninsula, and I've spent some time on the Delta. In small boats, we were traveling around, looking at some of the impacts of the environment. It was very, very clear to me that the communities that I passed through are as connected and tied to that body of water as they ever have been. These are for understandable reasons. Vietnam is among the top rice exporters of the world, and 90 percent of their rice comes straight from the Mekong Delta.
Obviously, the waters of the Mekong Delta also provide a lot of other benefits, some of which like hydropower could even conflict with the other benefits. So you have this tension between the purposes, unless they're approached thoughtfully and correctly. We all know that the short-term economic gains, no matter how promising they are, cannot come at the expense of the long-term economic stability and ecosystem of the river.
I believe that all of us together have a responsibility and the ability to be able to find a way to build on the economic growth that this region is seeing and to increase the access to both energy and food at the same time. But we can only do that if we continue to make ourselves the thoughtful stewards of the Lower Mekong Basin, and it has to be a priority.
The United States sees the Lower Mekong Initiative as one primary means to promote prosperity among all five of the partner countries: Myanmar, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam. And we also see it as a critical means of achieving ASEAN's own goal of narrowing the development gap between ASEAN countries. That's part of the integrated economic zone that ASEAN seeks, or as it has been called, the ASEAN Economic Community.
So as we look to the next five years, we're prepared to pursue a path that is focused on the cross-cutting challenges that face all of the LMI partners, including the intersection of water, energy, and food security. We think we're already on our way with the recent success of signature programs like the Smart Infrastructure for the Mekong Program, the SIM Program, which connects U.S. Government officials to partners who need technical and scientific assistance pursuing sustainable development along the Mekong. We launched them last year, and we've already received a dozen requests for assistance from LMI-member countries. And progress on several of these requests is already underway.
With LMI's newly focused approach, we hope to even pool more resources to achieve clear concrete policy objectives. A big part of that will be the new LMI Eminent and Expert Persons Group, the EEPG, which we're very pleased to announce here today. This group will include government and nongovernment specialists from a wide range of nations. Together, they will serve as a sort of intellectual steering committee. They can help us find new ways to promote a sustainable future for the Mekong.
So we're very optimistic, and I believe we have reason to be. And that's why I'm asking the Counselor of the United States State Department, Tom Shannon, to travel to the region this fall to discuss these issues and to build on the work that we are doing here today.
I very much look forward to the conversation that we're about to have, as well as the meeting a little later on with the Friends of the Lower Mekong. And I think it's possible for my co-chair to maybe streamline this a bit because I know we're running behind, and we could probably bring them in sooner. But I don't want to shorten anybody's ability to make the comments we need to make now.
Thank you, sir.