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Opinion: Will South Asia benefit from development of Mekong valley

Mekong river has been an important international river network for Asian integration. Photograph:( Others )

New Delhi, Delhi, India Dec 21, 2017, 10.42 AM (IST) Ritu Agarwal

The Lancang-Mekong Co-operation Forum was held in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan province during 23-25 November 2017. It went without attracting much policy or media attention in India. But the quiet conclusion of the Dian Chi Forum, as it was called, is a significant development in terms of the economic interactions between Yunnan and the rest of Asian region. 


 In Yunnan, the Dian Chi Forum kindled academic as well as debates about the possibilities it offers for the economic development of the province. For many local scholars and officials, the Dian Chi Forum hold forth great potential. They believe, it can transform Yunnan from a backward province to a gateway to China’s Asian neighbours.


 Mekong river has been an important international river network for Asian integration. Mekong river originates in the mountains of Qinghai Province and known as Lancang in China. It flows Southward and enters into Yunnan, crossing eight prefectures and municipalities, mainly Nujiang, Lijiang, Dali, Baoshan, Linchang, Simao and Xishuangbanna. After it leaves China, the river flows down to five Southeast Asian countries; Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. 


Lancang changes its name into the Mekong when it enters southeast Asia. Although the drainage area of the river in Southeast Asian countries is four times larger than that of China, Yunnan accounts for more than 50% drainage area in China. Historically, this geographical region formed by Mekong River was an important trade corridor. There are pieces of evidences of commercial navigation and movement of goods and commodities through this network between China and Southeast Asia.   


Yunnan is one of the important border provinces of China which had historical trade connections with India. The ancient Southern Silk Road connected India and Yunnan through Myanmar. In fact, long before China’s other provinces began opening up to the outside world, Yunnan had more open trade relations with her Asian neighbours. There is evidence of flourishing tea trade and other commodities between India and China through this route. 


However, Yunnan lagged behind in economic development compared to the coastal regions of China, largely, owing to her geographical location in the landlocked hinterland. Over the years, the provincial government formulated preferential policies for Yunnan’s agricultural products, such as flowers, vegetables, fruits and tobacco. The government has also protected the local mineral products and energy bases. To a large extent, these interventions have helped in creating a market for its products within China. 


 In recent years, the volume of trade between Yunnan and Southeast Asian countries have increased to USD 14.3 billion in 2014, accounting for 48% of Yunnan’s external trade. Yunnan has also become a transit route for finished goods coming from the coastal provinces of China, such Guangdong which are exported through Yunnan to Southeast economies. 


However, the border trade between Yunnan and these countries are decreasing due to change in preferential policies of the central government. To promote cross-border exchange, Yunnan provincial government have further speeded up the establishment of Border-Economic zones in many parts of Yunnan. Besides trade, the construction of international passageways from China to the Indian Ocean as well as the Oil and Gas Pipeline between China and Myanmar have been projected. All these help to bolster Yunnan as an important international passageway for transportation, gas, energy, trade and information. 


Yunnan is the home to nearly twenty-five ethnic minorities in China. Since the late 1990s, the province has opened this area to domestic tourist and visitors. The rich cultural repositories of the minority nationalities, including their music, costumes, and dance are exhibited to the wider public. Kunming has been transformed into yet another important city of China as some of the important mega-events like Kunming Horticultural Expo, Annual China-South Asia and China-Southeast Asia Think-Tank Forum, South Asia Trade and Commodities fare are hosted by the city. 


 Besides, the number of infrastructure connectivity projects like highways, railways, aviation and waterways have been completed which not only connects the main Kunming urban region to remote border mountainous areas but also make the flow of trade in terms of goods and services possible between Yunnan and neighbouring regions in South Asia and Southeast Asia.     


However, there are lingering questions as to what extent these large-scale development projects and market integration of the province with Southeast Asia have benefited local communities. The government-funded transnational linkages like Economic Corridors, Regional co-operation and Cross-Border economic zones are strong incentives to the growth of the provincial economy. But whether they brought prosperity to the local population living in border regions are remained a mute point. 


 Most of these border economies are home to several ethnic minorities and trade and tourism have not only uprooted them from their natural habitats but also created more vulnerabilities in catching up this new drive to achieve higher economic growth

Ritu Agarwal

Ritu Agarwal is Associate Professor, Chinese Studies, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies