Asia is urged to plug into China's economic boom

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 September, 2003, 12:00am

Senior officials from the Asian Development Bank say that closer trade links with the mainland will benefit the region

China's economic rise is unstoppable and the entire Asian region can benefit by developing closer trade links with the mainland, according to senior officials of the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

'China is playing an increasingly important role internationally,' said Rajat Nag, director-general of the ADB's Mekong department. 'Rather than seeing this as a threat, the region should see it as a plus.'

Mr Nag is co-ordinating the three-day annual meeting of finance ministers of the Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Co-operation Programme, which is made up of six nations linked by the Mekong river: China, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. The 12th ministerial meeting opened in Dali yesterday.

In the past 10 years, the ADB has lent close to US$3 billion to various projects along the Mekong.

China's growing economic strength has been seen by some as a threat to smaller Asian economies in recent years, as it has attracted the biggest chunk of foreign direct investment. But ADB economists argue that China's rise actually benefits the entire region.

'China's gross domestic product will quadruple by 2020,' said Bruce Murray, ADB's resident representative in Beijing who is also attending the conference. 'ADB did a study recently and we concluded that while China will get most of the benefits if it just implemented its WTO accession agreement, other countries will also benefit if they just integrate more with China.'

The ADB has been extending loans to Yunnan province, on the upper Mekong, to build highways linked with Burma and Thailand. A new US$250 million loan will be used to promote cross-border trade between western Yunnan and neighbouring Myanmar.

'If you want good economic development to take place, you have to have good infrastructure,' said Mr Murray. 'You have to lower the costs for the private sector.'

Private companies in Yunnan are particularly keen on breaking into neighbouring economies.

Du Jinghua, a manager of Dali's Gaoxin New Hi-Tech Industry Development Zone, said many of the 300 companies operating in the zone sold to local markets but were looking forward to selling to Southeast Asia.

'Yunnan is China's window to the greater Mekong region,' he said. 'The meeting in Dali this week will lower tariffs and increase trade and it will benefit all of us.'

Lin Jiaqi, manager of Dali-based Yunnan Tong Da Biotech Pharmaceuticals, said up to 5 per cent of his herbal medicine output went to Southeast Asia - Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore. He is thinking of breaking into the Thai market.

'We plan to bump up our exports by 30 per cent in the coming few years,' he said.

Mr Nag said this week's meeting of the region's finance ministers would focus primarily on promoting cross-border trade, cutting red tape, training officials of all six member states to improve cross-border operations, and getting private entrepreneurs involved.

'The ADB and regional governments have been involved, but what we hope would happen is that other people would come in, particularly the private sector.'

The Greater Mekong Subregion, a relatively obscure group, has existed since 1992 and helped lay the foundation for China's recent free-trade agreement with member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The agreement, signed last year, will lower tariffs in the region to minimal levels by 2015.

This week's meeting in Dali, a picturesque lakeside resort town in the mountains in Yunnan, ends tomorrow.