Bridge builds Asean ties for China
The bridges that span the Mekong River are not simply bridges. They are a political indicator that illustrate the changes that have swept the region.
Thailand and Laos are preparing for a commemoration of their first bridge linking Nong Khai and Vientiane, which will be 20 years old on April 8.
The first friendship bridge crossing the mighty river, opened on April 8, 1994, and not only signified the openness of the Lao government - it marked a key step for Laos to show other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that there would be no turning back for the country on its plan to be part of the grouping. It eventually became an Asean member three years later.
It was also a showcase for Australia’s role in Southeast Asia. Canberra funded A$42 million (1.3 billion baht) for the bridge, marking another footprint in the region. Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating and his government set the aim of being part of Asia by cultivating more ties with Asean because they realised that the future of Australia was here, not with its old connections in Europe.
But four bridges later, things have changed. Australia’s role in Asia seems to have decreased in recent years as Canberra is keen to foster trans-Pacific ties with Washington rather than being a key player here. Gone is Australia and in steps China. Beijing is the latest powerhouse to expand its influence in the area, and it’s doing so rapidly.
That was reflected in the fourth bridge connecting Chiang Khong district of Chiang Rai and Huayxay in Bokeo province in Laos, which was opened on Dec 11 last year.
The bridge is more than a structure to promote trade and tourism between northern Thailand and northern Laos and southern China. Of course, Chiang Rai looks to reap benefits from it since it could make the district a key trading and tourism post in the northern province, with more exports from China and Chinese tourists taking advantage of the latest transport link.
Border trade at the Chiang Khong checkpoint was estimated at 13.6 billion baht last year, up almost 9% on 12.5 billion baht in 2012, according to the district customs office. The office projected the value of goods that will be exported through Chiang Khong will rise to 17 billion baht in 2015.
For China, the bridge is more important than a structure for trade and tourism. The bridge is a 1.57-billion-baht joint investment between Thailand and China, with the two countries equally sharing the cost of the construction.
Like Australia two decades ago, China did not fund Laos’s contribution to the bridge simply for those two sectors. The bridge, with a road to the Lao-Chinese border onto Jinghong and Kunming in southern China, will provide a better flow of trade and tourism at a time when safe passage for traders along the Mekong River is a growing concern for Beijing. Two of its cargo ships were attacked near the Golden Triangle in 2011 with 13 crew members killed and dumped in the river.
Laos is benefiting from Chinese generosity. “We highly value the assistance from the Chinese government, which provided a large sum of grant aid to the Lao government and our people,” Lao Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad was quoted as saying before the opening ceremony for the bridge.
More importantly, the latest friendship bridge underscores the ambition of China to play more of a role in Thailand and other Asean countries. That was the main purpose of the financing, Adisorn Senyaem, an analyst on Laos at the Institute of Asian Studies, said.
“The bridge is serving China’s strategy in building better connections with Thailand and Asean,” he noted. “There is no better time to open the bridge than this.”
The competition by the powerhouses in the Southeast Asian region is not over. Japan is stepping in after letting China cultivate its role in this region with Myanmar to be the main target to balance the influence between Tokyo and Beijing in that country.
The fight for the leading role of the two Asian giants in this area has just begun. There will probably be no more bridges to finance, but the two countries still have plenty of money to pour in.
Saritdet Marukatat is digital media news editor, Bangkok Post.
Digital Media News Editor
He is Bangkok Post's Online Editor and is in charge of all online content.