BANGKOK — Premier Li Keqiang’s expected attendance at a Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) summit in Thailand signals China’s more active role in efforts to bolster regional economy and connectivity and to expand the scope of cooperation.
Also on Li’s agenda is the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on China-Thailand railway cooperation, a step in infrastructure development beneficial not only to the two countries, but also far beyond.
Li is scheduled to arrive in Bangkok on Dec 19 to attend the fifth summit of the GMS Economic Cooperation, and discuss with leaders of other countries about inclusive and sustainable development in the region and the deepening of partnership.
“China has always been an active participant in GMS initiatives. In the future, we expect it to grow into a responsible leader in the mechanism,” said Prof. Tang Zhimin, director of China ASEAN Studies of the Bangkok-based Panyapiwat Institute of Management.
The GMS Economic Cooperation Program was started in 1992 by the six countries along the Mekong River — Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, with cooperation spanning 10 fields from transportation, energy, agriculture, tourism to trade facilitation.
Of all the fields of cooperation, infrastructure has seen the greatest achievements over the past two decades, said Pornchai Trakulwaranont, vice rector for administration of Thailand’s renowned Thammsat University.
For instance, the East-West corridor has almost been developed to the full scale, involving transportation and other activities that have proved to be economically beneficial, Pornchai said.
Profitable as they are, GMS projects like East-West and North-South economic corridors have not yet fully met the needs of this subregion, Tang said. “Infrastructure development cries for more funds, which is one of the major challenges.”
China’s initiatives, including the building of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), will help address such challenges and promote regional connectivity, said Zhang Yunling, director of the Academic Division of International Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The AIIB is designed to serve as a more secure source of financial support for infrastructure development in the region, as well as a platform that features more negotiations between governments and joint decision-making, Pornchai said.
Countries participating in the upcoming summit will hopefully have follow-up discussions about the AIIB, he said.
Meanwhile, other issues like security, political development and human trafficking are also expected to receive their fair share of attention from participants in the summit.
CHINA-THAILAND RAILWAY COOPERATION
As an important part of his stay in Thailand, Li and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will witness the signing of the MoU on the two countries’ railway cooperation.
The MoU will allow China’s investment in two dual-track rail lines that span 734 km and 133 km respectively and connect northeast Thailand’s Nong Khai province, Bangkok and eastern Rayong province.
The project is estimated to cost about $10.6 billion.
The signing of the MoU will bear witness to the consensus between Chinese and Thai leaders on promoting regional connectivity and furthering bilateral ties.
Earlier, Prayut told President Xi Jinping in Beijing that Thailand would cooperate with China in agriculture and railway development, under the framework of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiatives.
The conviction is widely shared that China-Thailand railway collaboration promises great growth opportunities for the GMS and beyond.
The two lines mentioned in the MoU will join the planned China-Laos railway and high economic returns will come along, said Huang Bin, a China expert with the Kasikorn Research Center, a Thai think tank.
“They will offer a new channel for bilateral trade, and also help form a potentially-lucrative tourist route starting from China’s Yunnan province, to Laos’ Vientiane and Thailand’s Bangkok,” he said.
Once China’s railways connect with those in ASEAN countries, they will remarkably fuel economic growth for cities and regions involved, said Yang Yong, who is in charge of the China-Thailand rail project in the China Railway Corporation.
Thailand’s Nong Khai province, for example, could become a gateway that links Thai products with China and even the world, as well as a magnet for Laotian tourists, Yang said.