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18 June 2010

China bridges last Mekong gaps

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The last remaining physical gaps on the north-south roadway set to connect China with Thailand and through Southeast Asia will soon be bridged, opening a new land route that promises to expand intra-regional trade.

China has recently agreed to finance the construction of two bridges across the Mekong River inside Laos, which until now have represented the regional project's missing links, Asia Times reports.

Both bridges are key components of a grand infrastructure plan known as the Greater Mekong Subregion's (GMS) North-South Corridor, which aims to create more efficient and rapid transport between China and Southeast Asia's Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The infrastructure is also key to the design of the Asian Development Bank (ADB)-funded Great Asian Highway, which has been a priority of the ADB's regional development agenda since 1993, according to Asia Times.

Lao state media reported on May 25 that China would provide a US$50 million loan for the construction of a bridge near the Lao town of Pakbeng, in the Southeast Asian country's northern Oudomxay province and across from northern Thailand. The new bridge will link the two lane Route 2W with a new road extending from the Thai border to the river.

Since undergoing improvements in 2004, the 2W is reportedly now in excellent paved condition.

Thailand has given Laos $25.9 million in grants and loans to build a 49-kilometer road linking the bridge with a border crossing at the Lao village of Mong Ngeun in Xayaboury province. From there, an existing two lane road continues from the Thai village of Huay Kon to the provincial capital of Nan and onward to Thailand's extensive domestic road network leading to modern ports and other trade facilities.

A long-delayed fourth bridge across the Mekong connecting northern Thailand and Laos is also planned.

China provided a $20 million grant to Vientiane in 2008 to cover its share of the costs of the Chiang Khong-Huay Xai bridge. That project is slated for completion by late 2012, though construction has been delayed several times in the past and many observers doubt the deadline will be met.

For Vientiane, the roads promise to change Laos from being "land-locked to land-linked", strategically positioning the country as a regional trade crossroads. China and Thailand believe the routes will open up new trade and business opportunities in some of their poorer remote regions. China in particular sees the north-south roads as an opportunity to open up its landlocked southwestern Yunnan region to Southeast Asian markets and ports.

Asia Highway 3 was officially inaugurated in March 2008 at the GMS's 3rd Meeting in Vientiane. The $97 million project was financed with a loan from the ADB and funds from China, Thailand and Laos. Thai and Chinese construction companies built the road that has shortened travel times between the Chinese border town of Boten and Huay Xai on the Lao border with Thailand from two days to five to six hours.

A third route off the North-South Corridor is scheduled to be built through Myanmar, but has been hampered because it would pass through territory where armed insurgents are active.

Both Asian Highway 3 and Route 2W are expected to replace much of the current river shipping down the Mekong.

There are concerns in the region about land grabbing along the routes, and an influx of cheap Chinese goods as well as a wave of Chinese economic migrants.

Others in Thailand believe that increased trade and investment with China will bring net-net economic benefits. Either way, it seems certain that when the new Mekong bridges in Laos and other road links are finally completed, China's influence in Southeast Asia, through trade, investment and migration, is only set to grow.


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