The New Gateway to South East Asia

Over recent years there has been a softening of travel regulations in South East Asia. This has come at a similar time to a reversal on the former ban of travel overseas by citizens of the People’s Republic of China. There has been a drive on China’s part to form stronger economic ties with South East Asia. It is a region with strategic significance for China.

The first thing that should be noted is that China has a border with Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. The Chinese authorities have been very keen on securing their borders and reclaiming any land in dispute. They don’t have any land disputes with South East Asian countries.

Moreover, these countries unlike India don’t pose any real economic, cultural or ideological threat to China. Myanmar is controlled by the army with a window-dressing form of democracy. Thailand is currently under military rule and in an unofficial civil war for control with the establishment and army lined up against a populist party funded by the shady figure of Thaksin Shinawatra. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos remain communist but no longer isolationist.

In short China feels at home in the political climate of South East Asia. No government in South East Asia is much interested in a liberal agenda and unlikely to complain about China as long as it keeps to its borders.

And so it has. Instead China has been making massive inroads to improve travel infrastructure in the region. In the south western province of Xishuangbanna there has been massive forest clearance and the creation of roads to Laos and Myanmar.

In parallel with this road building, China has been keen to invest in South East Asian countries and has been keen to partner up on train line improvements to get the flow of consumer goods from China into South East Asian markets and at the same time bring out the valuable natural resources in the region, primarily rare hardwoods and timber.

It will take a while before Cambodian trains and Vietnamese trains are properly connected to Thailand. However, these 3 countries have plenty of track and rolling stock. Myanmar also has rail assets. Laos less so but is not starting from scratch. The obvious goal is to have a large circular train circuit that goes from Bangkok to Siam Reap in Cambodia and then travels on to Ho Chi Minh City before heading north up the Vietnamese coast to Yunnan province in China. The railway would also have routes going East-West going from Vietnam into Laos and then into both Thailand and Myanmar.

There has already been an explosion of Chinese tourism in Thailand. There is no reason why this cannot be further expanded by rail links. Moreover, as Chinese tourists become braver it is likely that they will want to explore farther afield than simply Bangkok and Pattaya in Thailand. They will want to go to Angkor Wat, to Luang Prabang, to Mandalay, to Saigon, to the forests in the north and the islands in the south.

China doesn’t belong to the ASEAN grouping but it sees the 4.4 million square miles that this area represents as being a gold mine of natural resources and a great place to flex financial muscle and to gain strategic assets and debts. This is the area with which China is keen to connect.

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