China-backed SEZ set to transform transport and manufacturing ties between China, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.
Late last month, the Thai government announced plans to develop a cross-border Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in the Chiang Khong district of Chiang Rai, the country's northern-most province. Once established, it is believed that the new SEZ will act as a nexus for a number of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) related projects under way in the country, as well as in neighbouring Laos and Myanmar.
More specifically, the SEZ will connect with the existing Mohan-Boten Economic Cooperation Zone (MBECZ), which straddles the Laos-China border. Ultimately, it is anticipated that the zone will act as a hub for the growing economic interconnectedness between Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and China.
Laos' own economic zone development programme has met with considerable success to date and the MBECZ is proving to be no exception. A recent update from the Ministry of Planning and Investment showed that the country's 12 SEZs were already home to 350 Lao and overseas companies, representing total registered capital of US$8 billion, with $1.6 billion of that having already been actively invested.
At present, the SEZ programme has created 14,699 jobs, with 7,564 of these going to local workers. That number is expected to rise imminently following the announcement that a further 40 companies are to set-up within the Boten Specific Economic Zone, which forms part of the MBECZ's core offering.
The Mohan-Boten project, a joint venture between China and Laos, was established in September 2015 at a cost of about $500 million with a remit to focus on agriculture, biotechnology, logistics and cultural tourism. The site was originally developed by the Yunnan Haicheng Group and the Hong Kong Fuxing Tourism and Entertainment Group.
In addition to Mohan-Boten, there are a further two large-scale China-backed clusters in Laos – the Vientiane Saysettha Development Zone and the Vientiane Thatluang Lake Specific Economic Project. The MBECZ, though, has a unique significance in that it interconnects with the border crossing point of the China-Laos Railway, a major BRI project that will ultimately provide the backbone for high-speed train connectivity throughout much of Southeast Asia.
As a consequence, the MBECZ's international trade and finance areas have already attracted investment from many of the companies that are engaged in infrastructure construction activities throughout the country, as well as those actively working on the development of the country's hydropower facilities. It is, however, those businesses that are directly involved with the roll-out of the China-Laos rail link that are most widely represented.
Given the size and prominence of these businesses, it is perhaps reassuring that work on the rail link seems to be proceeding with few notable hindrances. As of March this year, the project was said to be already more than 25% complete and well on course for its officially scheduled 2021 completion date.
Since then, a number of other major project landmarks have been passed, including the completion of the construction work on a 1 km tunnel – the line's longest subterranean stretch – at the end of October. On top of that, the primary construction work on the 7.5 km Nam Khone Bridge – the widest-spanning structure along the course of the route – has also been completed.
In a sign of further progress, October saw China begin to export petroleum products to Laos via the Mohan-Boten border crossing for the first time. Amid much official fanfare, PetroChina delivered 64 tons of diesel to the local importer – the Nationwide Trading Petroleum Public Company – at the China-Laos border. Prior to this first batch arriving, all oil and petroleum shipments to landlocked-Laos had been routed via Vietnam or Thailand.
The opening of this new conduit was given added significance by its clear importance to the future of the recently sanctioned, BRI-backed Laos-China Economic Corridor. Given the numerous construction projects this will entail, demand for fuel across Laos is only set to soar over the coming years.
Geoff de Freitas, Special Correspondent, Vientiane