Driving out of the Wattay International Airport in Vientiane one sees a large billboard featuring the overseas campus of Suzhou University in China. In a coffee shop in Vientiane two Chinese businessmen talked about the prospect of a new venture to extract copper in northern Laos. Just across the border from China in Boten, a local Lao driver talks in Chinese about the trucks full of fruit from Thailand parked minutes away from the border checkpoint near the a Chinese-built casino ghost town that once ruled the area. And on the outskirts of Yunnan’s capital city of Kunming, China’s fourth largest airport behind Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, Changshui International Airport, was opened in mid-2012.
While seemingly disparate, these anecdotes reveal the ambition of China’s “Go Southwest” strategy to politically and economically connect Southeast Asia to the PRC.
Integrating with Southeast Asia
Integrating with Southeast Asia is a key component of the PRC’s approach to multi-pronged regionalization. PRC-instigated globalization and regionalization unleashes a dual process of de-bordering and re-bordering in which the traditional barrier role of borders is yielding more to that of bridges.
As a result, once small, marginal, and remote border cities and towns have become larger and lively centers of trade, tourism, and other flows. China’s effort to engage Southeast Asia leaves many local footprints within and beyond the cities of the greater Mekong sub-region, which was launched in 1992 and consists of Yunnan Province, with the later addition of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
China’s trade with each of the subregion’s countries has grown since 1990, most rapidly since 2000. Yunnan’s advantageous geographic location has helped the province’s GDP skyrocket from US$31 billion in 2000 to US$165 billion in 2012, and even stronger cross-border economic and trade ties will promote the province’s goal of doubling that to US$329 billion by 2017.
Urban development is playing a leading role in stimulating this growth, and it is emerging as a polity priority in the next phase of development. On 6 May 2011, the PRC’s State Council issued the document entitled, “Supporting the Accelerated Construction of Yunnan as the Important Outpost for the Southwest Region.” This is a critical part of a broader ambitious plan to build up Kunming as a comprehensive center of trade, transportation, tourism, education, and R&D that reaches the bordering countries of Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and beyond.
Policies and projects to strengthen ties with GMS
Yunnan provincial and Kunming municipal governments have introduced a variety of related policies and projects with important connections to and implications. One such project aims to build a central Yunnan regional economic circle knitted together by the four cities of Kunming, Qujing, Yuxi, and Chuxiong, with Kunming as the core—thus creating a four-city cluster.
Another project, approved in May 2012, aims to extend Kunming’s influence in the direction of the Mekong countries south and west of the border by establishing six border economic cooperation zones, augmenting the central government’s approval of opening three border economic cooperation zones in the cities of Ruili, Wanding, and Hekou in 1992.
Having grown rapidly since 1992, Ruili is now Yunnan’s largest border port, accounting for more than 30 percent of China’s trade with Myanmar and more than 60 percent of Yunnan province’s trade with Myanmar. In the first half of 2013, Ruili’s imports and exports totaled US$1.4 billion, with exports making up US$1 billion of that amount.
According to official statistics, an estimated 30,000 Myanmarese either come through the border daily or take up a long-term presence in Ruili. This is roughly equivalent to 17 percent of the city’s total population of 180,627 in 2012. Not limited to Myanmar, over one-third of the urban population in Ruili is foreign, the highest proportion in the country.
Not long ago, we talked with two young Myanmarese women of Chinese descent from the border town of Muse working as migrants in two different bookstores in Ruili. At the same time, we interacted with many migrants from Myanmar who have become more settled residents in Ruili and formed a distinctive local community, with its own grocery stores, coffee shops, hair salons, and long-distance telephone service. China even provides electricity and mobile phone service to Muse, allowing the Myanmarese in Ruili to phone their family and relatives in Muse as local calls.
PRC’s growing influence
To facilitate trade along and beyond the long border with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, China has been extending its tentacles of transport infrastructure to the Mekong subregion and has also intensified its varied efforts to secure the region’s rich natural resources. It has stirred up controversy in generating more hydropower by building dams on the Lancang River in Yunnan, which forms the upper reaches of the Mekong River.
China has also begun to extend its sphere of political influence. When a Myanmarese drug lord massacred 13 PRC sailors on the Mekong River, the PRC worked closely with Myanmar and Laos police to capture and later execute Naw Kham, the alleged mastermind. And despite having run into some resistance by local farmers in northern Myanmar living near the route of the PRC–Myanmar oil and gas pipeline, which starts at Kyaukpyu port on Myanmar’s coast and enters China at the city of Ruili, the pipeline started to deliver natural gas to the PRC in July.
China’s growing engagement in the region is motivated by how state policy and market forces have intersected with and reinforced each other, with Beijing playing a larger role. As the PRC has pushed its national “Go West” development strategy forward, Yunnan has become the focal region for accelerating southwestern development, and Kunming emerged as its most important hub for generating and spreading regional development benefits.
Strengthening economic and physical ties became an extension of China’s regional and international development strategy for securing more market opportunities in trade, investment, infrastructure, and energy. This process is fueled by the more active market processes of cross-border trade, migration, commuting, and tourist activities.
China appears to be benefiting more from its growing relationship with the Mekong subregion, in two ways. First, due to its sheer economic size and political influence, the PRC has spread its presence and footprint widely in the Mekong subregion and thus has been a key driving force of the subregion’s development and integration.
Second, China occupies the higher end of the development spectrum and thus can gain more value added through setting more self-favoring terms for trade and infrastructure projects. While the Mekong countries may benefit from new economic opportunities, they (except for Thailand) are generally in a less advantaged position in dealing with China due to their weaker political position and less developed status.
Given its favorable position in relation to the Mekong subregion countries, China’s central, provincial and local governments need to cooperate and coordinate more effectively with each other in developing and sustaining a broadly balanced and equitable relationship based on mutual political trust, complementarities in economic development, and the advantages of geographic contiguity and proximity.
This calls on the key stakeholders in relation to the Mekong subregion, the region as a whole, but especially Laos, Myanmar, and Viet Nam, to consider the following policy approaches: Create city clusters or circles within and across boundaries that make them collectively more competitive and synergistic by enhancing inter-city cooperation within the subregion. Encourage the national governments to use targeted policies and other leverages to empower these connected and clustered cities to work together horizontally by means of inter-local institutional and informal ties.
Further strengthen and enlarge the geographic scope of existing trade and other economic connections between any pair of or other linked border cities. Scale up and out the related and complementary nature of the above by completing the major and multi-modal transportation networks that can link city clusters and border trade dyads into urban development corridors and eventually elevate their converged benefits to the Mekong subregion level. No doubt China’s rapidly growing economic and political muscles in the region attract the world’s attention, but the other five countries, specifically Cambodia and Laos, are also growing rapidly by catching up to and learning some lessons from the PRC’s development experience and trajectory. The Mekong subregion countries will continue to perform well, but can do even better by being more strategic and selective in dealing with China across their northern borders.
Ultimately it is up to all six member countries of the Mekong subregion, and not just China, to determine how to compete and yet cooperate to achieve greater sustainable development. If a win-win relationship between China and the other five countries can be developed and sustained, the economic and political landscape of the Mekong Region will be forever reshaped with benefits for all.
(Xiangming Chen and Curtis Stone are officials of the Asian Development Bank. This article was first published in Asia Pathways, the blog of the Asian Development Bank Institute (www.asiapathways-adbi.org). Asia Pathways is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Some names of countries have been modified to reflect Asia Sentinel’s style)