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China Targets Beibu Gulf as Next Development Driver
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China has launched an initiative to transform the area around the South China Sea into a regional development hub, a move that will deepen ties with its ASEAN neighbors.

Called the "Pan-Beibu Gulf Rim Cooperation Plan," the initiative includes port cluster construction, joint resource exploration, and economic and trade integration, said Liu Qibao, the newly appointed secretary of the CPC committee of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

The Beibu Gulf area includes five ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries -- Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore -- and China's Guangdong and Hainan provinces as well as Guangxi.

Jiang Zhenghua, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), said the initiative is of importance to the overall development of China's coastal areas.

"If this great potential is realized, the gulf area can become China's fourth economic powerhouse along its coastal regions," Jiang said yesterday at a forum on regional economic cooperation in Nanning, capital of Guangxi.

Contributing more than 60 percent to the country's overall economy, the Pearl River Delta in south China, the Yangtze River Delta in east China and north China's Bohai Sea Rim area are China's three economic engines fuelling growth.

Appointed as Party secretary last month, Liu said he expected the initiative to be discussed by China's leadership at the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which will be held in the second half of 2007.

"We can start cooperation with infrastructure construction," Liu said. "That will facilitate trade and other flows."

He proposed that the region build an expressway linking Nanning and Singapore. "The plan is feasible because we only need to build about 300 kilometers of new road although the total distance to be covered exceeds 3,000 kilometers."

International communities and domestic officials applauded the initiative, saying it shows China's commitment to speeding up construction of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area.

"I agree that infrastructure should be the priority as the region's development is not even," Rita Nangia, an Asian Development Bank official in charge of major infrastructure investment, told China Daily.

She said the expressway would become another planned link between China and ASEAN members. Under the previous initiative called "Cooperation in the Greater Mekong Sub-region," also part of the China-ASEAN framework, an expressway linking Kunming in Yunnan Province and Singapore was planned in 2004. The Mekong River runs through China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

"Both links are big projects consisting of parts of the Asian expressway network, and our goal is to link Beijing and Singapore by road," Nangia said.

Sudrajat, Indonesian ambassador to China, said the initiative could help deepen economic ties between the two countries. He said coastal areas in China, including Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi and Hainan, are already major investment targets for Indonesians, and the new development plan would expand economic and trade activities between the two sides.

Cao Yushu, deputy director of the Office of the Leading Group for Western Region Development of the State Council, said the blueprint could help China's western regions reach markets in the Beibu Gulf.

"It's a plan indicating China's increased commitment to opening up to the world, especially through cooperative relations with the 10 ASEAN member countries," said Cao. "It's a landmark event aimed at promoting the construction of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area."

With the establishment of the strategic partnership, the two sides have made substantial progress in many fields, including trade.

In 2005, trade volume between China and ASEAN member countries reached US$130.4 billion, increasing 23 percent year-on-year. Trade is expected to reach US$200 billion by 2010.

(China Daily July 21, 2006)

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