Railway to boost China-Laos cooperation
The China-Laos Railway was inaugurated on Friday, with President Xi Jinping, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, and Thongloun Sisoulith, general secretary of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party Central Committee and Lao president, watching the opening ceremony via video link, and congratulating each other on the success of the project.
As a major Sino-Lao cooperation project, the China-Laos Railway is an important part of the pan-Asian railway network and will not only benefit the two peoples, but also significantly improve regional connectivity.
Located in the northern part of the Indochina peninsula, Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia and mainly depends on road, water and air transport for the movement of people and goods. Till the opening of the new railway line on Friday, Laos only had a 3.5-kilometer narrow gauge railway linking the capital Vientiane to the border with Thailand. In fact, backward infrastructure and inadequate connectivity have restricted Laos' economic and social development, and prevented the country from capitalizing on its geographical advantages.
It has long been a dream of the Lao people to see their country change from a land-locked to a "land-linked country", and the opening of the new railway is a big step toward turning their dream into reality.
The new railway will upgrade Laos' infrastructure, reduce its transportation costs, boost its tourism, logistics and agricultural processing industries, enhance its self-development capacity, and help it more expeditiously alleviate poverty. It will also enable Lao businesses to better integrate into regional and global supply chains, and enjoy the benefits of such integration.
China and Laos have stood together through thick and thin, and engaged in mutually beneficial cooperation on the basis of equality, generating tangible benefits for the two peoples and increasing state-to-state exchanges.
Also, China and Laos were among the first countries to reach a consensus on building a bilateral community with a shared future and the first to sign an agreement on Belt and Road cooperation. The opening of the China-Laos Railway will thus help accelerate the development of the China-Laos Economic Corridor as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and further advance the building of a China-Laos community with a shared future.
Besides, the economies of the two countries are complementary. With its superior natural resources and rapid economic development, Laos is at a crucial stage of industrialization, while China has rich experience and advantages in the use of capital and technologies, and is adept at building and developing infrastructure. As such, the new railway will deepen cooperation between the two sides on traffic, production capacity, power generation, mining, agriculture, tourism, the digital economy, people's livelihoods, poverty alleviation, education and culture.
Also, as an important part of the pan-Asian railway network, the China-Laos Railway will play a key role in improving connectivity between the countries in the region. As Lao Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh said: "The Laos-China Railway will become an important driving force for Laos-China and ASEAN-China cooperation in the economic, trade, investment, tourism, employment and cultural fields as well as personnel exchanges."
In the same vein, Lao Ambassador to China Khamphao Ernthavanh said:"While bringing tangible benefits to Laos and China, the railway will also make positive contributions to the development of trade, investment, tourism and connectivity in the region."
The new railway will not only widen the land and sea connectivity network between China and the ASEAN member states, but also set a good example of high-quality Belt and Road construction and deepen China-ASEAN cooperation.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of China-ASEAN dialogue partnership. Over the past 30 years, China-ASEAN trade has expanded－from less than $8 billion in 1991 to $684.6 billion in 2020. And China has been ASEAN's largest trading partner for 12 consecutive years, with ASEAN becoming China's largest trading partner for the first time last year.
Moreover, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, signed by China, the 10 ASEAN member states, and Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia and New Zealand, will come into force on Jan 1 next year, and the China-Laos Railway will help better implement the agreement, thereby boosting the development of the regional economy and elevating China-ASEAN economic cooperation to a new level.
The new railway also marks a major step toward building a comprehensive pan-Asian railway network and could inspire other countries to add to and improve the network to ensure better connectivity. For instance, the China-Laos Railway will increase freight train services between Nong Khai in Thailand and Laos to 24 round trips a day in the next five years, according to Thailand's National Railway Authority.
Some experts say the China-Laos-Thailand railway, once linked, will greatly enhance trade among the three countries, even beyond their borders, not least because Thailand and Laos have agreed to build more infrastructure facilities, including two new bridges across the Mekong River.
In short, the new railway will boost connectivity and trade between not only China and Laos but also China and other ASEAN member states, as well as within ASEAN.
The author is director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Chinese Academy of South and Southeast Asian Studies (Kunming).