Twenty-three countries pledged on Monday to continue modifying their domestic roadways to accommodate international trade and exchanges when they signed an intergovernmental agreement on the Asian Highway Network.
The agreement and its three annexes map out a road transportation network in Asia, setting down basic technical standards for the roads and their route signs.
"What we are trying to do through the Asian Highway Network is to create the same types of opportunities that exist in the coastal areas for the wide hinterland countries, particularly to provide opportunities for landlocked countries and their neighbors to be able to trade more effectively," said Barry Cable, chief of the Transport and Tourism Division of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).
"Not only will it provide opportunities for the landlocked Central Asian countries to share in the prosperity of the rest of the region, it will also create opportunities for the highway to pass through Central Asian countries to reach the European market," Cable said.
He added the road network will also create opportunities for people to travel more easily, enhancing their understanding of foreign culture and society and contributing to peaceful development.
However, although the highway link is largely a question of infrastructure construction, countries still need to enter into bilateral or multilateral pacts to settle such details as permission for entry, quotas and the permitted distance of travel by foreign vehicles.
Initiated in 1959 by the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East, the predecessor of UNESCAP, the Asian Highway project now extends to 32 countries with a total length of 140,000 kilometers.
The open-ended network, still inviting more countries and highways to join, links capital cities, major harbors, tourist attractions, and industrial and commercial centers across Asia.
Yesterday's agreement is significant in that it establishes minimum standards for the development of highways, which will be conducive to the overall improvement of highway conditions in Asia.
According to the agreement, if one country wants to change the linkage, it needs to reach a bilateral agreement with the other country involved and then send a proposal to a working group of the Asian Highway Network established by the agreement.
Some analysts also regard the signing of the agreement, which clarifies the rights and duties of the signatory countries in the form of a legal document, as a renewal of a pledge by member countries to further facilitate exchanges in the region through road transportation.
"Now countries have a consensus that the construction of the Asian Highway Network is for the facilitation of economic cooperation, trade and tourism, and in the long run, the formation of a free-trade zone," said Ju Chengzhi, director-general of the Department of International Cooperation under China's Ministry of Communications.
Western region to be linked
With 26,000 kilometers of China's highways already connected with or planned to link to the Asian Highway Network, this nation accounts for nearly one-fifth of the network's entire length.
According to Ju, China has already completed the construction of 11,000 kilometers of roads in the network, and the remaining 15,000 kilometers will be ready by 2010.
These roads connect 130 cities in China and lead to 65 famous tourist attractions.
Most of those sections go through China's western regions, which are economically depressed compared with the country's prosperous coastal provinces.
The network will help enhance economic and technical cooperation between these regions and neighboring countries as well as promoting trade, said Ju.
China has already signed 12 bilateral and multilateral road transportation agreements with 10 countries in the region.
Demand is growing for cross-border road transportation, particularly in China's northeast, northwest and southwest regions.
China is currently working with Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand for an agreement to facilitate road transportation in the greater Mekong River region. Another multilateral road transportation pact is being negotiated with the other five members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, all in Central Asia.
Railway network vital to integration
While savoring the milestone signing of the intergovernmental agreement on the Asian Highway Network, Asian nations are already exploring the possibility of taking the idea a step further with a trans-Asian railway network.
"The work immediately following the signing of the Asian Highway agreement is to begin negotiations now over a similar agreement with respect to trans-Asian railways," said Barry Cable.
Cable said that a substantial amount of negotiations will take place between countries over the next two years to agree on a railway network similar to the highway link.
Presently, UNESCAP's Transport and Tourism Division is working on a draft agreement on the railway project, which will be presented next November.
"The critical element of the trans-Asian railway agreement will be with respect to the interoperability of the railways, the operation of the management organizations which are in the government, in terms of how to schedule trains and where the gauges of the trains are different, (how) to collaborate together to change the cargo," said Cable.
He added that the agreement will also identify particular stations of international importance along the trans-Asian railways.
The agreement has a good chance of being signed at the end of 2006, Cable said.
During the opening ceremony for the senior officials segment of the UNESCAP 60th Commission Session last Thursday, Executive Secretary Kim Hak-su pledged more effort on infrastructure development in the Asia-Pacific region, mentioning the Asian Highway Network and a railway network that may follow.
Cable said the countries that signed the highway agreement are the major sponsors behind the concept of trans-Asian railways.
Wang Yuzhu, of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies Department of Economic Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that trans-Asian railways would be a significant propelling force for the integration process in Asia.
"The railways will bring enhanced flow of goods and personnel, which is a concrete change much more useful than officials' talks during forums," said Wang.
Wang said that the railways are superior to the highway network in their much larger transportation capacity and easier management.
In some regions in Asia, road transportation has already become a major route for cross-border crime, such as drug trafficking. The steady growth in vehicle flow has put increasing pressure on border checks to guard against such crimes.
A railway is currently under construction between Kunming, capital of southwest China's Yunnan Province, and Bangkok, Thailand. The railway is expected to greatly facilitate trade and transportation.
Transnational railways have been an important method of transportation in Europe.
However, Cable was cautious in comparing the trans-Asian railway system in the making to the railway network already in operation in Europe.
He noted that in Asia, the railways play a much more important role in transportation than in Europe, adding that their operation is also different from Europe, where private companies run the system.
"The agreement in Asia needs to reflect the specific requirements of the countries," said Cable.
"The idea is not to just look at what has happened in Europe and try to replicate it here. We expect the intergovernmental agreement, when it is negotiated by the countries (in Asia), will reflect the differences," Cable added.
(China Daily April 27, 2004)