The Greater Mekong Sub-Region (GMS) held its second summit in Kunming, Yunnan Province, early this month. Prime ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam were guests of Premier Wen Jiabao. They flew in to agree to greater cooperation among the five countries and China's Yunnan Province and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, which all share the Mekong River as their economic lifeline.
The GMS is at the crossroads of its development. A region of strife and war until 1991, when the Paris Peace Agreement for Cambodia was struck, this area has indeed transformed from battlefields to marketplaces.
The five ASEAN members within the GMS are poised to take off within ASEAN, which has recently developed more confidence in its development. Belonging to both ASEAN and GMS therefore ensures more sustained development for these five nations.
Although the international perception of post-crisis ASEAN in the last years of the 20th century was unfortunately one of lethargy, fatigue and ineffectiveness, the signing of the Bali Concord II in October 2003, followed by the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos in October 2004, appeared to have given ASEAN a new lease of life.
The special summit called by ASEAN in Jakarta after the tsunami on December 26, 2004, that had ravaged parts of Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, should give it an added organizational boost, especially as a regional entity capable of rallying international assistance, cooperation and solidarity.
Parallel with this take-off within ASEAN, the GMS was officially formed in April 1994 in Hanoi, Vietnam, with projects defined in seven areas ranging from infrastructure and environment to trade and investment. The Hanoi launch marked the beginning of a new culture of trust and communication between member states.
The four new ASEAN members Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam have decided to use both the ASEAN and GMS frameworks, with Thailand and China, to invigorate their economies and develop their societies. ASEAN and GMS are complementary to their development.
Because of the level of economic development in these countries and their painful transition to market economies, they have come to realize that integrating with the mainstream of ASEAN economic development has proved to be tougher and more arduous than previously thought.
The specter of a two-tier ASEAN surfaced. Considering the present digital race and potential digital divide, it is feared that such a two-speed alliance could develop into a truly divided ASEAN in all aspects of development.
But such a division goes beyond economic development alone, or an old versus new divide. It is probably more a division in terms of culture and mindset, which may ultimately prove more difficult to bridge.
On the other hand, GMS development appears to be more balanced as the economies of Yunnan and Thailand are similar to the other four.
The culture of confidence and trust has clearly set in along the Mekong River, and socio-economic development has pulled the six countries together.
China has pledged to spur investment within the GMS with soft loans to its neighbors, just as Thailand has created a development fund to assist Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
But narrowing and bridging the developmental gap between the more developed and less developed countries within the GMS and ASEAN remains a top priority.
The GMS has enlarged its list of priority sectors from seven to 11 key tasks, as the Asian Development Bank intensifies its support and technical expertise to help alleviate poverty through infrastructure development.
The United Nations Economic and Social Commission of the Asia-Pacific has pledged support to urgently develop the GMS private sector.
On the other hand, ASEAN adopted the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) at its Informal Summit in Singapore in November 2000. But one of the key aspects of the IAI is the promotion of GMS developmental policy, so less developed ASEAN states can catch up economically and socially as soon as possible.
It also acknowledged that China, as a member of the GMS, has a special role to play. ASEAN solidarity with its GMS members, especially in narrowing their development gaps, was strengthened in Brunei at the seventh ASEAN Summit in November 2001, as well as at subsequent summits in Hanoi, 2002, Bali, 2003, and Vientiane, 2004. The socio-economic gap within individual ASEAN countries must also urgently be tackled.
Because of the financial crisis and the unequal development of provinces and regions, without action poorer areas could become festering hotbeds of socio-economic discontent, which could aggravate political and religious struggles, and worsen unrest.
Socio-economic imbalance constitutes a premier factor in instability in Southeast Asia, and could be said to be its most fundamental geo-political challenge.
In this regard China and its strategic partners must urgently help address socio-economic ills and narrow development gaps, especially in less developed nations.
(China Daily July 12, 2005)