On the Mekong, a New Era Quietly Takes Shape

LAO BAO, Vietnam: In an era of divisiveness, it is heartening to see one part of the world, the Greater Mekong subregion, moving toward greater integration and harmonization. This is especially so since the area, comprising the six countries sharing the Mekong River, was divided until only recently by longstanding conflicts.

Cooperation in the Greater Mekong subregion, led by the Asian Development Bank, began a little more than a decade ago. Today, Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are accelerating the building of links in physical and social infrastructure. As they do so, the region is becoming a vibrant and competitive part of Asia, leveraging its location as a land bridge between South Asia and East Asia.

The Mekong countries are convinced that what is good for the region is also good for the individual members, and that regional and national prosperity are not mutually exclusive. One lesson of the past decade is that thinking regionally but investing nationally makes eminent good sense.

Within that period, the group's intraregional trade has grown nearly eight times, and interregional trade is expected to expand as the area becomes more competitive. Importantly, a significant decline in poverty has accompanied this growth.

Already, the most advanced of the economic corridors planned to criss-cross the region is creating jobs and providing basic amenities to isolated and poor communities. Upon completion, the 1,500-kilometer East-West Economic Corridor will link Vietnam's east coast with Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.

Such corridors, with transport, power and telecommunication links, allow strategic growth areas to develop their production and trade potential. In the Vietnamese-Laotian border district surrounding Lao Bao, for example, there is already plentiful evidence of burgeoning prosperity.

Individual governments have also been gradually liberalizing their economies. As infrastructure projects begin to materialize, investors are arriving in greater numbers at what is often called Asia's last frontier. Investors in land-locked Laos, for example, will soon have greatly improved access to ports in Thailand and Vietnam.

There are more tourists, too, as the region promotes itself as an integrated tourism district. Vietnam's tourism boom, in particular, is providing thousands of young men and women an effective and sustainable means to escape from poverty.

Aware of the risks associated with greater connectivity, the six countries are also taking steps to stem the spread of diseases like AIDS as well as social ills like drug abuse and trafficking in people and wildlife. Governments are increasingly taking a common approach to regional health and environmental management.

When the group's ministers met last month in Vientiane, Laos, they reflected on how quickly this previously war-ravaged region has been able to achieve a stronger sense of mutual trust and confidence, with regional cooperation yielding rich peace dividends. And they set out plans for further cooperation in the region, particularly in infrastructure and human resource development.

Having paved the way with more liberal policies and better infrastructure, the Mekong countries recognize that the private sector needs to take a more prominent role. To date, $3.4 billion has been invested in the Greater Mekong Subregion Program, with the support the Asian Development Bank and other international agencies, but at least another $10 billion is needed to complete priority cooperation projects.

The Greater Mekong subregion has two messages for the world. One is that the area has seen one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent times from conflict to peace, and growth. The other is that confidence and trust are key ingredients of successful regional cooperation. If this paradigm needed proving, the Mekong countries have given us the evidence.

This article first appeared in the International Herald Tribune