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Yunnan border trade to get boost from new links

Publication Date : 07-01-2014


Pong Jaw has been involved in the jade trading business in Ruili, Yunnan province, for more than 20 years, bringing him wealth of more than 10 million yuan (US$1.6 million).

His business is a microcosm of the trade between Myanmar and Yunnan.

The province's annual trade with Myanmar, India and Bangladesh was about US$2.8 billion in 2012, a dramatic increase from US$416 million in 2000, said Ren Jia, president of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences.

For China as a whole, trade with India, Bangladesh and Myanmar was US$82 billion in 2012, more than 18 times the level in 2000.

Antiquated transport links between northern Myanmar and Yunnan have been a pain in the neck for Pong Jaw. But a recent conference in Kunming, the provincial capital, showed that his dream of a new traffic line is set to come true in the near future.

Government delegates met at the first joint study group meeting of the BCIM Economic Corridor on December 18 in Kunming and signed a cooperation agreement and joint research plan covering transportation, trade and investment. A detailed timeline for specific transport projects will be released by September or October.

Pong Jaw said that these developments, especially the transport projects, will promote economic interaction among merchants in Myanmar and China.

Setting priorities

The conference grew out of a previous forum, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Regional Economic Cooperation Forum, which was limited to academic participants for 14 years.

An official at the National Development and Reform Commission said China is striving to strengthen cooperation with its neighbours on the western border.

In May, Premier Li Keqiang proposed a BCIM economic corridor on his visit to India.

And the Silk Road economic belt, proposed by President Xi Jinping, is also meant to revive the trade along the Asia-Europe route that existed for centuries.

Yunnan was one of the origins of the tea and salt trade, which ran through the current Tibet autonomous region and onward to India, Myanmar and Bangladesh since the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

Since that era, there's been a tradition for individual interactions during the course of trade and exchanges.

The "Ancient Tea and Horse Road" in Yunnan was also part of the South Silk Road and "we hope the BCIM economic corridor can benefit from and contribute to the restoration of the silk roads", said Ren.

Li Jiheng, governor of Yunnan, said the first China-South Asia Expo in June proved a success in building a communication mechanism between Yunnan and Bangladesh, Myanmar and India.

Navnidhi Sharma, attache of the East Asian department of the Ministry of External Affairs of India, said cooperation needs to involve the central governments, provincial governments and also the private sector in each country.

Haque MD Shahidul, foreign secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh, said Bangladesh has a huge market and a young population.

"The advantage of the demographic dividend will encourage investors to start businesses in Bangladesh," he said.

U Htin Linn, deputy director-general of the department of international organisations and economics of Myanmar's Foreign Ministry, said the region has the potential to build the biggest free trade zone in the world based on total population, as well as shared characteristics and values.

Mekong model

Kunming now has air links to Yangon and Mandalay in Myanmar, Dhaka in Bangladesh, and Kolkata in India.

India and Bangladesh also restored rail services between Dhaka and Kolkata. And Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed a construction agreement for a connecting highway.

The priority now is to build a complete and uninterrupted traffic line that goes through Yunnan to India, experts said.

But in comparison, the cooperation involving the greater Mekong subregion seems better-established and follows an agenda.

Newin Sinsiri, unit head of the regional cooperation division of the Southeast Asia department of the Asian Development Bank, said transport projects in the greater Mekong subregion could be an example for the BCIM corridor.

As of December 2012, projects involving the greater Mekong member states had reached US$15 billion, with greatly increased physical connectivity as a result of the near-completion of the Trans-Asia Railway, said Sinsiri.

In addition, Sinsiri said the greater Mekong programmes had gained from the ability to mobilise substantial financial resources from member states.

For example, China has invested billions of yuan in the Trans-Asia Railway. The Kunming-Bangkok Expressway, which is more than 1,800 km long, has seen thousands of Chinese visitors driving to see the exotic scenery in Laos and Thailand over the past five years.

According to the ADB, the greater Mekong group has built effective institutional arrangements such as a leaders' summit at the political level, ministerial conferences supported by senior officials' meetings at the policy level, sector forums and working groups at the programme and operational levels and secretariat support from the ADB.

Sinsiri said the ADB regards collective political will and commitment as the crucial factor in regional cooperation.

The greater Mekong countries are now firmly on the world tourism map and a sustainable tourism industry is being strengthened with the effort of each country, an ADB report said.

As for environmental protection, the greater Mekong project has laid the foundation for long-term, enduring development through the Core Environment Programme and Biodiversity Corridors Initiative.

However, the anonymous NDRC official said there's a long road ahead for cooperation between China and the other three countries.

"Political trust is another thing that we have to consider in the meeting, and we have put poverty relief and welfare of the local residents on top of the agenda.

"In this way, our neighbours will be convinced China has no ambition to suppress their development but aims at a win-win situation," the official said.

Gautam Bambawale, director-general of the East Asia department of the Indian External Ministry, said economic cooperation is being discussed separately from the boundary dispute between China and India, which should not be an obstacle to economic cooperation.

U Htin Linn said Myanmar has struggled with ethnic factions in the north, while the central government is working to keep border trade uninterrupted. "The Myanmar government will treat all people equally and focus on the progress of ethnic groups. In the next year, everything will return to normal in northern Myanmar, and trade and investment will also improve," said U Htin Linn.

Zhang Xiaoqiang, vice-minister of the NDRC, said the four countries are at different stages of development, and every phase of cooperation is based on mutual respect and trust.

There will be more collaboration in procedures such as customs checks, quality inspections and quarantine. The ultimate purpose is to establish long-term facilitation of trade, personnel and currency exchanges," Zhang said.




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