The Fourth Thai-Lao Friendship bridge which connects Thailand’s Chiang Rai province to Lao PDR’s Bokeo province officially opened for business yesterday. Although the bridge, which stretches 400 meters across the Mekong river, and surrounding customs and inspection infrastructure have been completed for a few months, the two countries set the auspicious date of December 11, 2013 or 11/12/13 as written in the international form for the bridge’s opening ceremony conducted by Thailand’s highly respected Princess Sirindhorn.
The prime benefactor from the bridge’s opening is not Thailand or Laos, but rather China as the bridge serves as the final link in the Kunming-Bangkok highway, a 1900km series of connected highways that will facilitate significant increases in container shipping trade between China and Thailand. Six years ago overland transport between Kunming and Bangkok for container shipping was virtually impossible due to the poor quality of roads. In China’s southwestern Yunnan province, a drive from Kunming to Jinghong, the Dai cultural capital of Sipsongpanna (Xishuangbanna) prefecture took up to 24 hours and another six hours to the Lao PDR border at Boten. China completed its portion of the highway to in late 2007.
The Lao PDR segment of the highway connects Boten to the 4th Friendship bridge in Huayxai and cuts through 180km of the most remote parts of Laos. In the summer rainy season of 2004 I hitched a ride on a pickup truck to travel the 180km segment which then was a single lane mud track. We completed the tiresome 10 hour drive only after averting a serious accident and certain death when the truck spun out of control nearly pitched over a 400 meter cliffside. China, Thailand, and the Asian Development Bank invested equal thirds in the Laos portion of the highway which opened in 2010 and dropped transportation time to three hours.
By design, the highway system links the friendship bridge to Bangkok, but despite being the strongest economy on mainland Southeast Asia, Thailand’s highway system lags behind in quality compared to China and the stretch running through northern Laos. Improvements to Thailand’s R3 highway system which will link Chiang Rai province to all points in Thailand is ongoing but far from complete. Thailand has promised to upgrade its national transportation and highway infrastructure but political roadblocks, corruption, and a perceived lack of momentum for regional integration at many levels of Thai government and society has discouraged those plans from synching up with China’s outwardly stretching infrastructure linkages. When the Thai roads are finished, a container truck will be able to travel from Kunming to Bangkok in less than 18 hours.
The 14 hour drive from Kunming to the friendship bridge feels like a leapfrog journey from bridge to tunnel and tunnel to bridge as the road makes its 1800 meter descent. These two roads cut through some of the most difficult terrain on the planet and link the Chinese state to the Thai state while passing through the most ethnically diverse region in Asia.
The roads not only to build regional commercial connections between China, Thailand, and Laos through the increases of trade and investment but they also assist in expanding each of these state’s interests and systems into the once impenetrable regions of upland southeast Asia by introducing national education systems, agricultural techniques that promote mono-cropping over traditional subsistence farming, and creating avenues for ethnic and rural peoples to leave their homes and link up to national labor markets. The opening of the bridge will increase trade in the region and will intensify and quicken the pace of social change in upland Southeast Asia and reshuffle the cultural milieu of peoples who have sought refuge from the expansionary Chinese and Thai states for centuries.
The bridge’s construction has also caused an influx of Chinese investment in Chiang Rai province mostly in real estate development, speculation on future industrial estates for manufacturing of intra-industry goods passing between China and Thailand, and the buying up of agricultural lands. While this investment is encouraged and welcomed at the national level and by the Chiang Rai Chamber of Commerce, locals are wary of the fast and growing levels of investment in the Golden Triangle Area by Chinese firms and often cite a “Chinese invasion.” The mayor of Pak Ying Tai village, a small fishing community of 100 households located less than one kilometer south of the bridge has lamented to me on several occasions about China’s footprint in Chiang Rai as he observes year on year decreases in freshwater fish catches and sends more and more of his villagers looking for work in urban areas.
In many ways the bridge and its construction serve to represent the challenges of regional cooperation between China, Thailand, and the rest of mainland Southeast Asia. From its conception in the late 1990s to its completion yesterday, the bridge has gone through stalled and failed rounds of negotiation and has not lacked controversy. Groundbreaking for the 1 billion Thai baht project which is equally invested by China, Laos, and Thailand did not occur until 2010 despite a scheduled start for as early as 2006. In May 2011 Thailand pulled its portion of the construction team in order to settle a land dispute with the local Thai government accusing Chinese commercial interests of illegally purchasing land on the Thai side of the bridge.
Another obstacle to regional cooperation demonstrated by the bridge is the ease of passage through customs and inspection for both container trucks and individual travelers or tourists to the region. Chinese trucks are not permitted to drive in Thailand, nor are Thai trucks allowed to travel through China; thus the speed of transport is slowed by the need to repackage goods at one of the border crossing points. Despite efforts of the ADB in to facilitate a shared cross border trade and transport protocol to streamline logistical flows at regional border checks in China and mainland Southeast Asia, states have been slow to adopt the measures in order to protect national markets and logistics industries. New customs and inspections facilities at the bridge are fitted to increase the speed of transport and ease of people movement and will serve as a testing ground for these promised increases in logistical efficiencies.
Looking forward to the first six months after the bridge’s opening, the verdict will be clear on whether the bridge will serve as a strategic choke point, a gateway for win-win trade and economic development between two regional powers , or a conduit that will further challenge the structure of rural livelihoods in upland Southeast Asia.