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China & Southeast Asia: Unbalanced Development in the Greater Mekong Subregion

By Xiangming Chen and Curtis Stone

Integrating with Southeast Asia is a key component of China’s multi-pronged regionalisation around its borders as its global rise continues. Below, Xiangming Chen and Curtis Stone consider the ambition of China’s ‘Go Southwest’ strategy to extend its economic interests and influence into Southeast Asia, and explore how China’s regional assertion reinforces the larger trend of new spatial configurations in light of increasing globalisation. The authors show how simultaneous globalisation and regionalisation unleashes a dual process of de-bordering and re-bordering where the traditional barrier role of borders is yielding more to that of bridges, as small, marginal, and remote border cities and towns become larger centers of trade and tourism. This article examines China’s effort to engage Southeast Asia and many of China’s footprints within and beyond the cities of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS). Inter-country and intra-regional trade provides the starting point for examining the extent of economic integration in the GMS, and also its unbalanced development.

Going Southwest

In a coffee shop in central Vientiane on a hot summer day in 2012, two young Chinese businessmen from northwestern China, sipping ice-cold Latte, talked about the prospect of a new venture to explore copper in the mountains of northern Laos: ‘If we make $100 and they [Laotians] get $5, they should be happy’. On the outskirts of Yunnan’s capital city of Kunming, China’s fourth largest airport behind Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou (also the world’s fifth largest airport in occupied area), Changshui International Airport, which is expected to have flown 38 million passengers by 2020 and 65 million by 2040, was opened with much fanfare in June 2012. While seemingly disparate, this pair of anecdotes reveals the ambition of China’s ‘Go Southwest’ strategy to extend its economic interests and influence into Southeast Asia.

Integrating with Southeast Asia is a key component of China’s multi-pronged regionalisation around its borders as its global rise continues. China’s regional assertion reinforces a larger trend of new spatial configuration as an inherent part of increasing globalisation driven by China. This simultaneous globalisation and regionalisation unleashes a dual process of de-bordering and re-bordering where the traditional barrier role of borders is yielding more to that of bridges (Chen). As a result, once small, marginal, and remote border cities and towns have become larger and lively centers of trade, tourism, and other flows. China’s effort to engage Southeast Asia leaves many striking footprints within and beyond the cities of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) facilitated Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), which was launched in 1992 and consists of China’s Yunnan Province (with the later addition of Guangxi Zhuang Auto-nomous Region), Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Trade with the GMS Countries

Inter-country and intra-regional trade provides the starting point for examining the extent of economic integration in the GMS as well as its unbalanced development. China’s trade with each of the GMS countries has grown since 1990, most rapidly since 2000 (see Figure 1). Given the size of their economies, Thailand, followed by Vietnam, led the smaller GMS countries in trade with China. However, the total volume of China-Myanmar trade rose by $5.9 billion from 2001 to 2011, while China-Laos trade increased by $1.2 billion (Figure 1). Much of China’s growing trade with Myanmar and Laos occurred through cooperation across international boundaries. The role of Yunnan and its capital city of Kunming in China-GMS trade cannot be understated. Yunnan’s GDP skyrocketed from $33 billion in 2000 to $160 billion in 2012, and the province aims to double that to $320 billion by 2017 through even stronger cross-border economic and trade ties. Kunming acts as the origin and core of economic activities that reach into the bordering countries of Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, and beyond.

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