China-proposed initiatives synergize with ASEAN's development strategies

Updated: 2015-12-22 19:07


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BANGKOK - There is more convergence of interests than many might have noticed between development strategies of ASEAN countries, either collectively and individually, and China-proposed initiatives such as the Belt and Road, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Lancang-Mekong Cooperation framework (LMC).

ASEAN has for years strived to realize a community characterized by high-level integration, free flow of goods, services, capital, investment and skilled labor, facilitative institutional mechanisms, as well as deepened people-to-people interaction and understanding, to which enhanced connectivity is essential.

With shared goals, the Belt and Road initiative, AIIB and LMC, all put forward by China, could play a complementary role in the building of the ASEAN Community as well as the implementation of ASEAN member states' specified development plans by providing financial, technological and personnel assistance, among others.

The China-Thailand railway project, for which a launching ceremony was recently held in Thailand, could serve as an example of how the Belt and Road initiative is a "symphony" played by all parties concerned on an equal footing, and brings benefits to all.

Complementing each other

ASEAN integration and the "Belt and Road" initiative, namely, the initiative of jointly building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, can complement each other, said Prof. Yang Baoyun, an ASEAN expert with Thailand's Thammsat University.

"Based on equality and mutual benefit, the Belt and Road initiative could be aligned with the development strategies of Southeast Asian countries and they make headways together to the benefit of regional economic growth, peace and stability," Yang commented.

In 2010, 10 Southeast Asian countries adopted the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity as their own guidelines on building "a well-connected ASEAN that will contribute towards a more competitive and resilient ASEAN."

The Master Plan identified a number of prioritized actions, including developing transport, energy and telecommunications infrastructure, reducing policy and institutional barriers, harmonizing relevant rules and standards, encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as promoting cultural exchanges.

Improved physical, institutional and people-to-people connectivity is expected to help achieve the goals of facilitating ASEAN integration and cooperation, boosting ASEAN's global competitiveness, enhancing ASEAN peoples' well-being and livelihood, promoting local economic and social development as well as beefing up efforts to tackle climate change.

Well-designed as the Master Plan is, observers have argued, multiple challenges have been slowing its implementation, which include scarcity of financing resources, uneven levels of development within ASEAN and certain institutional obstacles.

Efforts within the region are not enough to realize ASEAN integration, Yang said, adding a large amount of external assistance is required.

A considerable portion of ASEAN members are developing nations, some even comparatively impoverished, and thus they need help to bridge the wide gaps in infrastructure and economic development, according to Yang.

"China-proposed Belt and Road initiative caters to the very demands of many developing countries, groupings of developing countries, or regional groupings," he said.

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping put forward the Belt and Road initiative, which called on countries concerned to promote policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people bonds.

In addition, China set up the Silk Road Fund and spearheaded the establishment of the AIIB, both expected to finance of connectivity projects.

The Belt and Road initiative could help promote the ASEAN's development as it will improve infrastructure throughout the region both on land and at sea, said Kavi Chongkittavorn, senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

The ASEAN connectivity and the initiative must be "synergizing and harmonizing" with each other to some extent because there are some overlapping projects, especially on the construction of the North-South Corridor, he said.

China is appreciated for its "constructive role" in promoting regional connectivity through various initiatives including the establishment of the AIIB and the launch of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, according to Vitavas Srivihok, Deputy Permanent Secretary of Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road will not only connect China with the ASEAN, but also link them up with other countries and outer regions along the road, which would spur growth and bring more opportunities for mutual benefit, such as the promotion of maritime commerce, disaster relief, search and rescue, environmental protection and conservation, Vitavas stressed.

China's Belt and Road initiative is creative and will help expand regional economic partnership and lead to progressive cooperation between ASEAN and ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan, South Korea), said Surakiart Sathirathai, a former Thai deputy premier.

Initiatives of this kind are intended to create opportunities for Asia's developing regions to connect better with more developed areas, Surakiart noted.

Bolster regional prosperity

A project of railway cooperation between Thailand and China was recently launched in central Thailand's Ayutthaya province, which will be Thailand's first standard-gauge double-track railway line.

The kickoff of the railway project marked a good start of the two countries' cooperation in transportation, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prajin Jantong said, stressing it would improve the living standards of Thais, boost the competitiveness of the Thai economy and further propel the economic growth of counties and cities along the railway line.

China-Thailand railway cooperation could be viewed as an endeavor by the two countries to implement the Belt and Road initiative, Chinese ambassador to Thailand Ning Fukui said, adding Thailand has a lot of untapped potential in promoting the implementation, given its geographic advantages as a key junction that connects mainland and maritime ASEAN countries.

Stepped-up bilateral cooperation in developing infrastructure connectivity will not only help build Thailand into an increasingly important regional transport hub, but also play an exemplary role in improving regional connectivity and pushing forward the development of trans-Asian railway network, Ning said.

The Thai government has drawn up the Strategic Framework for Development of Thailand's Transportation Infrastructure 2015-2022, which aims at a rapid and efficient railway network so as to achieve better connectivity between Thailand and other ASEAN countries, reinforce Thailand's position as a regional hub and seek more development opportunities.

It was under the Strategic Framework that Thailand and China inked a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on railway cooperation on Dec 19, 2014.

The two countries are collaborating in building an 845-kilometer railway line, which uses 1.435-meter standard gauge with trains operating at top speeds of 160-180 kph. The project will use China's technology, standard and equipment.

Railway development is definitely helpful for Thailand, a country that is advantageously located in the middle of Southeast Asia and is becoming more and more a center of manufacturing, logistics, distribution and training in the region, former Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun told Xinhua.

When the Sino-Thai railway line connects with the China-Laos railway, regional trade, investment, financial exchanges, and tourism will boom, said Huang Bin, a China expert with Kasikorn Research Center, a Thai think tank.

Rice, rubber, cassava, fruit and other agricultural products will have easier access to the markets of China and the rest of the world, as will industrial products, he noted.

More and more tourists, both domestic and from abroad, will be attracted to visit the east, and particularly the northeastern part of Thailand, Huang said, adding the economy along the line will grow in leaps and bounds.

"Furthermore, Thailand's railways will lead all the way to Europe via China's railway network, making the country the real ASEAN transport hub," he commented.

With the railway line, travelers can get on and off trains at more destinations in Thailand, and explore the kingdom more deeply by visiting secondary cities and smaller towns, Thailand's Tourism and Sports Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul told Xinhua.

Local people will stand to gain from railway-based tourism, as it helps to distribute tourism revenue to more people and thus narrow "the gap between the very rich and super poor," she stressed.

The Thailand-China project will not only be an important section of the Kunming-Singapore Railway, but also part of the preparations for ASEAN economic integration and a bridge that connects economies and peoples, commented Thai Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith.

Bridge development gaps

ASEAN is perhaps one of the most diverse regional groupings in the world, in terms of both economic development and political, ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds.

There is a conspicuous divide between the six older and richer ASEAN members and four newer and poorer members, namely, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV countries).

ASEAN's diversity, directly or indirectly, poses challenges to the region's integration process, said Yang Baoyun.

ASEAN has come up with several initiatives in an attempt to close development gaps, which include the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) Work Plan and Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity.

Enhancing intra-regional connectivity promotes economic growth, and narrows the development gaps by sharing the benefits of growth with poorer groups and communities, the Master Plan envisions.

In addition to ASEAN's own initiatives, China-proposed ones like the Belt and Road initiative and Lancang-Mekong Cooperation framework will also help address the gaps by bettering connectivity for lagging countries and lagging regions within countries, bringing their competitive advantages into full play, and creating more opportunities for investment, trade and growth.

The LMC framework was proposed by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in November 2014 when he attended the 17th China-ASEAN leaders' meeting.

In November this year, China, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam officially launched the LMC framework, a new mechanism tasked with alleviating poverty, bridging development gaps and realizing full integration into regional and global economy.

At the first LMC foreign ministers' meeting, participating officials decided to cooperate in three key areas, politico-security issues, economic affairs and sustainable development, as well as social affairs and people-to-people exchanges, which correspond to the three pillars of the ASEAN Community, namely, the political-security community, the economic community and the socio-cultural community.

At this stage, there are several prioritized areas of cooperation under the LMC framework, including connectivity, industrial capacity cooperation, cross-border economic cooperation, as well as cooperation in water resources, agriculture and poverty reduction.

Closer cooperation among the six countries will promote economic and social development, enhance sustainable development and narrow the gaps among countries in the Mekong sub-region so as to contribute more to the building of the ASEAN Community and China-ASEAN cooperation, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said.

The LMC, if effectively implemented, will help raise the levels of economic development in underdeveloped areas along the Mekong River, Yang said.

Taking Thailand as an example, he said the LMC would be of help to the development of relatively lagging areas in the country's eastern and northeastern parts. "It will also be conducive to reinforcing Thailand's geographic advantages."

Yang believed that benefits from unimpeded logistics and economic cooperation among the six countries along the Lancang-Mekong River would also be extended to other Southeastern Asian countries, as a result of which China-ASEAN ties will be further augmented.