Lancang-Mekong 'soft connectivity'
Challenges in the first five-year action plan and future prospects
China has collectively consulted, contributed to and shared in the development of the Lancang-Mekong region with the five Mekong countries -- Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam -- over the past five years, helping to promote economic sustainability and connectivity.
The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) framework is outlined in a five-year action plan that the region's leaders adopted in 2018. As it draws to a close this year, discussions have been held about a new five-year plan that will address both hard and soft connectivity in the region.
Hard connectivity took a major step forward in December last year with the opening of the China-Laos Railway, which has three goals. First, it helps fulfil the strategic vision of Laos to transform itself from a landlocked to a land-linked state. Second, it promotes the aims of the Master Plan on Asean Connectivity 2025 and opens a new channel for China-Asean economic and trade cooperation. Third, it will strengthen industrial cooperation between western regions of China and the Mekong countries.
At the LMC and Regional Connectivity Symposium held in Kunming, China in April, participants affirmed the positive contribution that the new rail line had made to "hard connectivity" in the Lancang-Mekong region. But they also pointed out the problems and challenges that have arisen from the "soft connectivity" perspective.
"Soft connectivity" refers to the interconnections among population mobility, institutions and mechanisms, history and culture, and the awareness of people-to-people bonds. In the Lancang-Mekong region in particular, the challenges can be grouped into four aspects: ensuring a recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, addressing deficiencies in industrial support and institutional development in areas along the railway, tourism cooperation, and the deficit of knowledge about the region.
Looking at the economy of Laos, the value of exports to China was US$1.7 billion in 2019, according to United Nations statistics, with potential for average growth of 20% per year. The dual freight-passenger transport capacity of the new railway offers considerable economic diversification opportunities for both China and Laos.
China is also an important source of tourists for its Southeast Asian neighbour. About 757,000 Chinese tourists visited Laos in 2019, an increase of 26% over 2018. The opening of the railway will make travel more convenient and should lead to an increase in visitors. But how big an increase is impossible to tell in light of China's continuing curbs on outbound travel as it tries to eradicate Covid-19.
With rail passenger revenue limited to domestic travel, and freight the main source of earnings, Laos will struggle to cover railway operating costs in the next few years. This could affect employment and livelihoods of communities along the rail line, and eventually reduce Lao people's confidence in the railway.
CHALLENGES IN YUNNAN
In China's Yunnan province, the industries along the rail line from Kunming to Vientiane are relatively underdeveloped, the strength of market entities is weak, and supporting capacity is inefficient. Yunnan faces the double stresses of competition from more economically advanced provinces and cities in China and marginalisation caused by the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor. The latter is centred in Chongqing, while Kunming lies on a spur line running from the main corridor. There is concern that the status of Yunnan could be reduced to a "stepping-stone economy".
It is hoped that the China-Laos Railway will spur the establishment of industrial parks along the route, but institutional and cultural factors, along with weak connectivity in terms of norms and laws make regional cooperation on such ventures difficult.
Tourism, meanwhile, is a double-edged sword. Once China opens up again, large numbers of Chinese tourists are expected to start travelling through Mekong countries once more, with the new railway through Laos opening up an additional channel. Nevertheless, two potential hidden perils should be noted:
First, while China has positively promoted the creation of a Lancang-Mekong Tourist Cities Cooperation Alliance, mass tourism from China has not always been viewed positively by its Southeast Asian neighbours. Rude or culturally insensitive behaviour by some Chinese tourists tends to attract a lot of negative publicity, and such sentiment is easy to manipulate by Western anti-China media, undermining the work China has done to strengthen people-to-people bonds in the region.
Second, comparatively low costs in Laos and its high novelty value for many Chinese tourists could draw travellers away and cause a shock to regions with similar tourism resources along the railway, such as Pu'er and Sipsongpanna.
In the end, one of the big underlying reasons for the "soft connectivity" challenge is that China mainly offers public goods like hard infrastructure in the region, while the West dominates the public consensus and ideology in many subregional activities and likewise has a bigger influence on the production of knowledge. This impedes riparian countries' independent exploration of shared knowledge based on historical and cultural connectivity and has also prejudiced the development of people-to-people bonds among the six countries.
The second five-year action plan for Lancang-Mekong connectivity will revolve around the China-Laos Railway and the hard connectivity benefits that it can deliver. There will be an effort to transform subregional cooperation from "mechanism congestion" to "mechanism coordination" to achieve shared economic goals.
China will continue to pursue economic sustainability while also expanding its efforts at "low political" and socio-cultural cooperation, with soft connectivity and people-to-people bonds becoming vital development areas.
The Covid-19 pandemic has presented an opportunity for regional public health cooperation as a priority area. Safe, scientifically rigorous and people-centred measures for customs clearance and outbound travel could be part of this cooperative effort.
While strengthening cooperation in infectious disease prevention and control and health care, the six Lancang-Mekong countries should also strengthen traditional medical cooperation, drawing on their rich cultural traditions. For instance, stepping up exchanges of traditional Chinese, Dai, Yi and Tibetan medicine traditions with Mekong countries could improve local people's perceptions of China.
In terms of elevating the quality of industries along the railway, Yunnan should seek alliances with economically advanced provinces and cities in western China and the International Land-Sea Corridor while improving economic development and using its indigenous advantages.
Member countries could also proactively integrate the Lancang-Mekong connectivity into the broader framework of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the giant free trade pact that links China with the 10 Asean States, Japan South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Agreeing to abide by third-party rules governing the RCEP could help overcome current problems impeding industrial interconnectivity in a flexible way.
As for tourism development in the post-pandemic era, Chinese embassies in the Mekong countries could distribute manuals on local customs, habits and travel in destination countries and promote positive behaviour. As well, they could more closely monitor the commercial behaviour of Chinese businesses in Making countries to help avoid any misunderstandings.
The Lancang-Mekong Tourist Cities Cooperation Alliance, meanwhile, could cooperate with Unesco and other bodies on promoting common aspects of historical and cultural heritage, such as a "Tai cultural tourism circle". Promoting the integration of tourism resources along the China-Laos Railway could also involve historical and cultural heritage tourism in northern and northeastern Thailand.
Through tourism, employment and service industries in the areas along the railway will be elevated, shared knowledge enhanced, and Thailand's enthusiasm for high-speed railway construction mobilised.
Participants should also be aware of the Mekong-US Partnership initiated by the United States in the context of Washington's Indo-Pacific strategy, which has intensified its influence in the Mekong region.
The world is undergoing profound changes, and the Lancang-Mekong countries can play a role in bringing about change for the better. The LMC should be viewed alongside other cooperation mechanisms such as the Greater Mekong Subregion and Mekong-US Partnership to make the transformation from "mechanism competition" or "mechanism congestion" to "mechanism coordination". That would open a new chapter for the future development of the Lancang-Mekong region.
Duan Haosheng is a PhD student in the International Development Studies Programme at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University. Liu Yunkang, an international relations observer, holds a Master's degree from the same programme.