VIENTIANE, Mar 31 (Newsmekong) - Cross-border highways were the talk of many at the Mekong Summit that ended here, even as a key link in the North-South corridor linking Kunming to Singapore was opened Monday and Mekong governments pledged to step up regional integration and cooperation over the next five years.
In many ways, the opening of Route 3 highway in Laos reflected the major changes that increased transboundary linkages have brought to the Mekong region, which comprises Cambodia, China, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, over the last decade.
“Having the early infrastructure facilities in place for the subregional economic corridor has rapidly accelerated the integration among GMS (Greater Mekong Subregion) countries, especially in trade and public transport,” said Lao Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh. “Each year the number of tourists doubles.”
The north-south road network from Kunming in China’s south-west Yunnan province to Singapore has been in the works for more than a decade, supported by the region’s governments and the Asian Development Bank (AsDB), which has been facilitating integration in the region of some 320 million people since 1992.
Route 3 was the last remaining stretch of road in the Kunming-Singapore route. The Bank says that the new highway will be open all year round, unlike the past route, and that driving time from Kunming to Singapore would only take “little over one full day”.
“Revitalising this ancient trade route and stimulating new business between these Mekong neighbors will bring more jobs and greater prosperity to the region,” said AsDB President Haruhiko Kuroda said at the opening of Route 3.
The opening of the road was also the backdrop for the Third Mekong Summit, which ended here Monday with approval of a “plan of action” from 2008 to 2012 that would focus on the improvement of remaining sections of transport corridors in the Mekong region, programmes to address poverty, protect the environment, promote rural communication, address cross-border diseases and take more measures to facilitate trade.
“The new GMS (Greater Mekong Subregion) Plan of Action we have adopted today will help us transform the Mekong subregion into a hub of development in Asia,” Lao PDR Deputy Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith said, describing cooperation iover the last 15 years as being instrumental in reducing poverty.
According to the AsDB, the percentage of people living in poverty in the Mekong from 1990 to 2003 has fallen from 46 percent to 36 percent in Cambodia, from 53 percent to 29 percent in Laos, from 51 percent to less than 10 percent in Vietnam.
Growth rates in the region have averaged more than 6 percent in recent years, and tourism has more doubled from 1995 to 2006. Foreign direct investment has more than tripled from 2 billion dollars in 1992 to 7 billion dollars in 2005, according to AsDB figures.
But debates continue on the social effects that come with integration and open borders, as well as equity in the kind of growth in the region.
In attendance at the opening of Route 3 were Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Lao Prime Minister Bouasone and Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.
Their presence reflects the importance that their countries put on the cross-border road, what they expect from it. However, questions have been asked about how much real economic and social benefit Laos could get from being a transit point through which visitors, traders and business people pass through, compared to China or Thailand, rather than a destination.
In Laos, the 228-kilometre stretch of the highway runs through the Boten international border checkpoint, connecting Luang Namtha and Bokeo with Yunnan province, China. Bokeo also shares a border with the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai.
It would make a Laos a transport route from north to south. Because of this, the Lao government tried to make Luang Namtha province a special economic zone to draw investments. Some of the investments that have come up in anticipation of the opportunities that easier transport brings include the construction of entertainment venues and casinos.
The cost of Route 3 in Laos is 97 million dollars. The Manila-based AsDB, the Thai government and China contributed 30 million dollars each, and the Lao government contributed 7 million dollars.
At the same time, there are other plans for other cross-border road connections.
At the just-finished summit, China’s Wen said his country is ready to work with Thailand and the AsDB to speed up construction of the bridge linking Houaysai, Laos and Chiang Khong in Thailand, according to China Central Television.
This would be part of the Kunming-Bangkok Highway with the aim of linking all the sections of the North-South corridor by 2011, said Wen.
There are also plans in the works for the construction of a rail link from Singapore to Kunming. For this, China pledged some 20 million RMB (2.9 million U.S. dollars) to conduct engineering feasibility studies on its eastern route.
Laos has been emerging as a transit route in recent years with the completion of the East-West Corridor in December 2006, marked by the opening of the Second Mekong International Bridge between Mukdahan, Thailand and Savannakhet, Laos.
The 1,500-kilometre corridor links key points in four countries, going through Mawlamyine-Myawaddy provinces in Bunma, Maesot-Phitsanulok-Khonkaen-Kalasin-Mukdahan provinces in Thailand, Savannakhet-Dansavanh in the Laos, and Lao Bao-Dong Ha-Hue-Danang in Vietnam.
The corridor has made travel across southern Laos very convenient. Travel time from the border with Vietnam at Dansavanh, westward to Savannakhet province by bus, takes about three hours currently. In the past, this took 12 hours.
The corridor also encouraged Laos to make use of increased traffic through the country by constructing the Savan-Seno Special Economic Zone for foreign investors. In addition, this zone contains various entertainment complexes and casinos for tourists and passersby to visit. (END/IPSAP/Newsmekong/OSJS/ME/08)