After a five-year break because of the Asian financial crisis, China and its neighbors have restarted their multinational program in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS).
At the port of Guanlei in southwest China's Yunnan Province, bordering China, Myanmar and Thailand, a dozen Chinese workers are busy loading garlic on to ships anchored in the Lancang River. They will take it to Thailand, where garlic is uncommon.
China has declared at a recent ASEAN 10+1 meeting that it will invest US$5 million to dredge the upper Mekong River, oncenotorious for its scattered hidden reefs.
China will also build one third of a 1,855-km trans-national road from Kunming to Bangkok and the Chinese section of a railway that links Kunming and Singapore.
Chen Qingtai, deputy director of the Development Research Center under the State Council, a think-tank of the Chinese cabinet council, said this shows Southeast Asian countries have overcome their fears caused by the 1997 Asian financial crisis and have come together with a new impetus in a new century.
China proved itself a responsible friend in the crisis and won the trust of Southeast Asian countries, Chen said.
The GMS program, proposed by the Asian Bank in 1992, has six members: China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The GMS region covers 2.3 million square kilometers, with a populationof 230 million. In the past 10 years the program has attracted US$1 billion of investment for close to 100 projects.
The program committee has put communications first. Yunnan government statistics show the number of international airlines flying from Kunming to Southeast Asian countries has reached 8. Schedules for the 1,855-kilometer-long Kunming-Bangkok road and the Pan-Asian railway have also been set.
United Nations Development Program (UNDP) figures show that the Mekong River after dredging can handle 300-ton ships, whose annualcargo capacity may reach 2 million tons and which can transport 400,000 people per year.
The GMS program reportedly also includes substituting drug crops with harmless plants, human resources training, and hydro-electric dams.
Chen Qingtai said: "The GMS program is one of the five key areas in economic cooperation between China and ASEAN countries."
Chen said the GMS is an important corridor linking China with Southeast Asia and South Asia. It will serve as a model for a future China and ASEAN free economic zone.
When the China and ASEAN free economic zone is established, it will have 1.7 billion consumers, US$2,000 billion worth of GDP and total trade worth US$1,200 billion. It will be the world's biggest free economic zone in terms of population.
Southeast Asian countries and China are complementary in terms of natural and human resources, industry and technology.
Furthermore, the economic zone can extend its influence to Pacific and Indian Ocean countries. It will not only create new markets, but also prompt China to upgrade its industrial structure,Chen said.
Cargo ship owner Zhang Yong, aged 45, has been a major contributor to the Lancang River dredging, pinpointing almost every hidden reef. He was also the first to carry cargo to Thailand when navigation between the two countries opened for the first time in November 1991.
Zhang said: "Before the dredging, it would normally take three or four days for a ship to travel from Qingsheng in Thailand to Guanlei. And now it takes two days at most, even ice from Thailandwon't melt."
Besides shipping cargo, Zhang also raises gamecocks for Thailand policemen. Zhang's daughter has married a jade dealer from Myanmar.
Zhang said he earned himself a villa last year thanks to booming business across the border.
Thailand and China together will build within 10 years an economic trade zone intended for Southeast Asian countries, according to sources with the Yunnan Bureau of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation.
The zone will include a commodity center and a tax-free industrial center, attracting total investment of 5 billion yuan (US$600 million).
Wang Qiming, State Development Planning Commission expert, saidthe differing economic strength of GMS countries has led to a development strategy in two phases.
The first is to develop labor-intensive small and medium-sized enterprises in rural areas.
The second phase is to make full use of the rich biological resources in the area by developing bio, information and ecological technologies.
The Asia Development Bank (ADB) will provide US$300 million for the GMS countries in the fields of human resources, infrastructure and tourism.
ADB President Chino Tadao said, "Regional cooperation is an important way for developing countries to get into the world economic community and reduce the risks of globalization.
"The GMS program will help create new markets, promote globalization and multi-polarization."
(Xinhua News Agency June 28, 2002)