China’s super highway changes SE Asia forever


The prime ministers of Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam officially opened a former opium smuggling route as the final link of what they call the “north-south economic corridor,” a network of roads linking the southern Chinese city of Kunming to Bangkok spanning 1,800 kilometers, or 1,100 miles. It is also known as Route 3.

The new roads, as well as upgraded ports along the Mekong River, are changing the diets and spending habits of people on both sides of the border. China is selling fruit and green vegetables that favour temperate climates to its southern neighbours and buying tropical fruit, rubber, sugar cane, palm oil and seafood. “You never used to see apples in the traditional markets,” said Ruth Banomyong, an expert in logistics who teaches at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

China has blasted shallow sections of the Mekong to make it more easily navigable for cargo barges, allowing traders to ship apples, pears and lettuce downriver. The price of apples in Thailand has fallen to the equivalent of about 20 cents apiece from more than $1 a decade ago. Roses and other cut flowers from China have displaced flowers flown in from Holland, making Valentine’s Day easier on the wallet for Thais. Traders now have the choice of shipping by barge, truck or both.

Over all, even before the completion of the road, trade between China and upland Southeast Asian countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam) had risen impressively to $53 billion in 2007 from $5.7 billion a decade ago.

Since paving was completed late last year, people who live deep inside the jungle have come to the edge of Route 3 to sell vegetables and forest products, residents say.

image: Laotian food stall

“You have a huge hinterland that’s pretty badly served at the moment, from Kunming down through Laos and northern Thailand,” said John Cooney, director of the Southeast Asia infrastructure division at the Asian Development Bank, which financed one section of the road in Laos. “That suddenly is becoming a market.”

Cash-strapped Laos is encouraging Chinese investment by handing out what it has plenty of: land. Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad has said the government will trade “land for capital.”

The Chinese spent $4 billion building the highway from Kunming to the border. One particularly difficult stretch of road required the construction of 430 bridges and 15 tunnels. With the bridge over the Mekong still in planning stages, passengers must take ferries across the Thai-Laos border.

Some of the most remote parts of SE Asia are being changed forever. As usual, some of this is positive but, other aspects will not be welcome.

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