Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 16:21 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 16:21 | SYDNEY

China extends its southern reach

31 March 2008 16:31

The near-completion of a new road linking Kunming, the provincial capital of China’s Yunnan province, with Bangkok is the latest step in China’s steadily developing policy of closer physical ties with its southern neighbours. Running for a distance of 1800 km, the event was marked by a ceremony on 31 March attended by the prime ministers of China, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The one remaining obstacle to be overcome in the completion of this route is the construction of a bridge across the Mekong River near the Lao town of Huay Xai and the Thai town of Chiang Khong. It is expected to be completed by 2011.

The new road is part of the Greater Mekong Sub-region’s plan for a series of economic corridors, designed to expand both political and economic links between China and the countries immediately to its south. The new road joins other projects that have already been completed or are still in progress. Chief among these are the refurbishment of the road system that will run from China, through Laos and Cambodia, to Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam, and the now completed clearance of the Mekong for commercial navigation between Jinghong in southern Yunnan and Chiang Saen in northern Thailand. Before clearance of the Mekong was completed at the end of 2003, commercial navigation was restricted by the presence of no fewer than twenty-three major reefs and other obstacles in the river’s course. Now, year-long commercial navigation is possible for vessels up to 150 dead weight tons.

Observers are far from agreed about where the balance of advantage lies in this river trade. But it is clear that there is an active and growing market in both directions as China ships temperate fruits and vegetables into Thailand and receives in return tropical goods, including palm oil.

More broadly, there is a growing measure of concern in the countries on China’s southern periphery about the extent to which their great northern neighbour is calling all the shots in the expanding relationship. Some Thai politicians worry that their compatriots’ interests will be squeezed out in the dramatic increase in Chinese commercial activity in Chiang Rai province, the northern region served by navigation up and down the Mekong.

And the proposal for a massive new Chinese residential quarter to be built next to the Lao capital of Vientiane, with at least 50,000 Chinese residents, has also aroused concern. Even in Burma, despite China’s role as a key supporter of the Burmese ruling junta, there is growing evidence of local resentment in the northern city of Mandalay at a Chinese presence estimated a more than 30 per cent of the population.

So China’s expanded reach is meeting some local resistance. That said, there is no indication that any of the Southeast Asian governments involved in this expansion are anxious to see it halted.