The theme of the Second Summit of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) Economic Cooperation Program "a stronger GMS partnership for common prosperity" is a reflection of the member nations' determination to promote sub-regional economic dynamism through pragmatic collaboration.
The two-day meeting which concluded in Kunming, Yunnan Province on Tuesday, brought together the six nations through which the 4,688-kilometre-long Lancang-Mekong River, the longest in Southeast Asia, flows.
The spirit enshrined in the Kunming Declaration issued by leaders from China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam evinces their unremitting efforts to provide direction to the GMS's wide-ranging activities in support of trade and investment, poverty alleviation and sustainable growth.
The benefits of the summit for the sub-region are significant, as evidenced by the piles of signed agreements covering cooperation on transportation, information, superhighway construction, energy and animal disease prevention.
The summit is without doubt a positive step towards deepening cooperation in the region.
With a total area of 810,000 square kilometers and a population of 260 million, the region is prime for cultivation, endowed with rich natural resources, yet currently characterized by low-level economic development.
The past years have witnessed great progress in the cooperation and development in the GMS.
In fact, four of the GMS nations Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam began their cooperation in as early as the 1950s and 1960s, which was suspended due to the outbreak of the Vietnam war, according to Lu Jianren, an expert of Asia Pacific affairs with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Since the early 1990s, the economy of the Southeast Asian nations has grown rapidly and China has normalized its relations with all the Southeast Asian nations, promoting the launch of various cooperation mechanisms for developing the GMS.
Initiated by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the GMS program came into being in 1992.
Member states have so far jointly launched 119 projects in transportation, energy, telecommunications, trade and investment, tourism, environment, human resources and agriculture, which benefited tens of thousands of people, particularly the poor.
Three years ago in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at the first summit meeting, the six nations articulated a joint commitment to drive forward the GMS economic cooperation.
Nourished by the same river, the six GMS partners are geographically connected and economically integrated. They share similar cultures and have developed sound political ties and close people-to-people contacts, which necessitated mutually beneficial cooperation.
Chai Yu, director of the Institute of Economics with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said: "The five GMS nations have reached a consensus, while cooperating with China in recent years, that the growth of China is an opportunity rather than a threat."
It is the strategic choice of the underdeveloped ASEAN members to seek economic integration with China so as to realize economic development in this region and to reduce the gap between rich and poor within ASEAN.
Participation in the GMS cooperation is also of strategic significance to China.
Developing friendly, cooperative relations with neighboring countries is a crucial external condition for China's modernization and peaceful growth. The GMS is key to China's strategy of developing its vast western areas.
Ever since the inception of the GMS Program, China has been both a beneficiary of, and a contributor to it and has made large investments in infrastructure construction within the region.
Premier Wen Jiabao said at Tuesday's summit that China has funded the Kunming-Bangkok Highway project and the navigation channel improvement project on the upper Mekong River and provided training programs for over 500 people on agriculture, customs affairs and telecommunications.
In 2004, China set up a special US$20 million fund under the ADB on human resources development and poverty alleviation.
Premier Wen also pledged that China will unilaterally expand the range of products eligible for preferential tariffs from Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar as of January 1, 2006 to boost intra-regional trade cooperation.
Lu noted that as a practical action for promoting the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area, China's ardent participation in the GMS cooperation is of both pioneering and exemplary significance. It has fully demonstrated the country's sincerity to the GMS nations as well as all ASEAN nations.
Admittedly, the GMS cooperation poses challenges that need a coordinated response.
Cai Yu said that as differences in interests exist among the nations and many kinds of mechanisms are playing a part in the GMS cooperation, coordination becomes difficult due to various national conditions.
Lack of capital also poses a serious challenge to the GMS cooperation. Most of the capital comes from international investment, which is subject to changing political and economic conditions.
Rajat M. Nag, director of the Mekong Department of the ADB, revealed that there will be at minimum a financial shortfall of around US$10 billion for sub-regional infrastructure construction over the next 10 years, and a lot of money has to be found from the private sector.
The broadening of partnerships between the public and private sectors is thus crucial to sustainable growth in the region.
Experts pointed out that projects should be chosen that suit the varying development needs of different GMS countries in order to realize practical results.
Efforts in the areas of human resources development, environmental protection and institutional innovation are also needed.
It takes time and wisdom to come up with win-win solutions to the problems.
But one thing is for certain. Cooperation based on pragmatism, diversity and openness will boost mutual trust and inject new vitality into the region and Asia as a whole.
(China Daily July 7, 2005)