New eco­nomic cor­ri­dors cat­a­lyst for con­nec­tiv­ity

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

Twenty-five years ago, Yun­nan prov­ince was one of China’s most iso­lated and im­pov­er­ished re­gions, due to its in­land lo­ca­tion and moun­tain­ous ter­rain. Its roads were poor, its com­mu­ni­ca­tion in­fra­struc­ture was un­der­de­vel­oped, and trade with south­ern neigh­bors was neg­li­gi­ble.

To­day Yun­nan’s cap­i­tal, Kun­ming—the grand city of “mer­chants and ar­ti­sans” de­scribed byMarco Polo—is re­claim­ing its po­si­tion as a ma­jor re­gional trade hub. Com­merce is once again thriv­ing, and peo­ple are pros­per­ing like never be­fore.

Im­proved con­nec­tiv­ity has been a cor­ner­stone of Yun­nan’s trans­for­ma­tion. The nar­row trails trav­eled by 13th cen­tury traders have given way to mod­ern ex­press­ways that are driv­ing trade. As re­cently as 1990 it was vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to ship goods over­land from Yun­nan to nearby Thai­land, ne­ces­si­tat­ing a six-week jour­ney, vi­aHong Kong, to reach Bangkok. To­day it takes just two days, and over­land trade be­tween Yun­nan and its neigh­bors is boom­ing.

Yun­nan has played a piv­otal role in the GreaterMekong Sub­re­gion (GMS). Since 1992 the six GMS na­tions shar­ing theMekong River – Cam­bo­dia, China (specif­i­cally Yun­nan prov­ince and Guangxi Zhuang au­ton­o­mous re­gion), Laos, Myan­mar, Thai­land, and Viet­nam – have pur­sued a pro­gram of eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion and im­proved con­nec­tiv­ity to foster greater pros­per­ity to the sub­re­gion.

Un­der this pro­gram, two mod­ern ex­press­ways – one stretch­ing from Kun­ming through Laos and on to Bangkok, and the other from Kun­ming toHanoi – have been de­vel­oped, form­ing the back­bone of the GMS north-south eco­nomic cor­ri­dor, a key build­ing block in an Asia-wide ta­pes­try of trade routes that are pro­pel­ling the re­gion’s eco­nomic growth.

The chal­lenge now fac­ing GMS coun­tries is cut­ting the red tape. One-stop cus­toms and har­mo­nized quar­an­tine ad­min­is­tra­tion need to be in­tro­duced at all bor­ders to en­sure goods, peo­ple and ve­hi­cles can move freely. Lo­gis­tics need to be im­proved, and GMS na­tions must cre­ate a bet­ter busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment that en­cour­ages the pri­vate sec­tor to more ac­tively in­vest in trade and in­dus­try.

Progress is al­ready be­ing made on th­ese fronts. To­day Mekong na­tions are plan­ning the next quan­tum leap for­ward – a new­era where goods and peo­ple will eas­ily crisscross bor­ders, and where a new­com­mu­ni­ca­tion su­per­high­way net­work will give rise to thriv­ing e-com­merce be­tween GMS na­tions. If GMS coun­tries con­tinue to make mean­ing­ful strides on th­ese fronts, their progress over the next quar­ter cen­tury should be ev­ery bit as im­pres­sive as the last.

Per­haps the most im­por­tant le­gacy of the GMS eco­nomic cor­ri­dors is the role they have played in trans­form­ing the lives of peo­ple living along them. Since the com­ple­tion of the Kun­ming-to-Bangkok route, for ex­am­ple—a mod­ern high­way cut­ting through a pre­vi­ously iso­lated cor­ner of Laos—com­mu­ni­ties all along the cor­ri­dor have been reap­ing enor­mous benefits. The old road was nar­row and vir­tu­ally im­pas­si­ble dur­ing the rainy sea­son. The new all-weather road pro­vides a cru­cial life­line, giv­ing fam­i­lies in the 76 vil­lages along the route bet­ter ac­cess to life-sav­ing health ser­vices and bet­ter jobs. It is mak­ing it eas­ier for chil­dren to get to school, im­prov­ing enrolment and re­ten­tion rates.

Tourist vis­its are also sky­rock­et­ing, pro­vid­ing a new source of in­come and a much bet­ter of stan­dard of living for peo­ple in count­less vil­lages. All along the road, fam­i­lies once bound to a life of poverty due to their iso­la­tion can now tap new op­por­tu­ni­ties. Earn­ings for fam­i­lies along the cor­ri­dor are now 50 per­cent higher than other house­holds’ earn­ings, en­abling many fam­i­lies to fi­nally es­cape the poverty trap.

Just as the an­cient Silk Road pro­moted in­ter­change and bet­ter un­der­stand­ing be­tween Chi­nese, Southeast Asian, cen­tral Asian andWestern civ­i­liza­tions, so too can new eco­nomic cor­ri­dors serve as a cat­a­lyst for greater con­nec­tiv­ity be­tween na­tions, and stronger bonds be­tween their peo­ples. Through bet­ter co­op­er­a­tion, con­nec­tiv­ity and mu­tual un­der­stand­ing, the GMS pro­gram—in tan­dem with other ini­tia­tives in cen­tral and south Asia— can help pave the way for a newage of pros­per­ity, in­no­va­tion and progress. The au­thor is the Asian Devel­op­ment Bank’s vice-pres­i­dent for East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pa­cific.

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