A bridge too soon
Cross-border transport problems suggest mental blocks are harder to overcome than physical barriers
The second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, which connects Mukdahan province with Laos's Savannakhet province, was opened for traffic in January amid high hopes that it would promote regional trade, boost tourism and encourage economic and social integration of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) in a significant way. Instead, it did all this in a decidedly non-dramatic fashion, just like the first Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge did, and continues to do, since it was inaugurated in 1994 to link Nong Khai province with the Lao capital of Vientiane.
The first bridge - initiated by the late Thai prime minister Chatichai Choonhavan and funded by the Australian government as a gift to land-locked Laos - was a gesture of goodwill toward communist Laos that reflected Thailand's eagerness to establish itself as a regional hub for trade and transport in mainland Southeast Asia. Almost 13 years have passed since its completion and there hasn't been as many goods hauled across the bridge as both countries would like to see.
Poor, land-locked Laos, with its small population of six million, does not seem to have much economic activity going on within its borders and cannot seem to maximise the benefits it would otherwise hope to from the bridge. Thailand, which hoped to export manufactured goods to Laos and import raw materials from there, has also had to lower its expectations. But the bridge is especially useful in promoting people-to-people contacts. This comes naturally as people in Thailand's Northeast and in Laos share the same language and cultural heritage.
The second span is expected to do the same and more. The construction cost was split equally between Thailand and Laos under a financing arrangement by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and with technical assistance from Asian Development Bank.
The bridge is part of the East-West corridor that will link the countries in the Mekong sub-region - Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China. When completed the corridor will form a land route between the Indian Ocean in Burma's Moulmein province and the Pacific Ocean in Vietnam's Danang region.
But economic benefits will start in a trickle and then gradually increase - provided that countries along the route create conducive conditions to promote cross-border trade, investment and tourism. Obviously there are obstacles that Thailand, Laos and Vietnam need to overcome.
Thailand is exploring the possibility of shifting some of its labour-intensive industrial base into Laos and Vietnam to take advantage of lower labour costs, but is still not persuaded because of a lack of incentives. Laos is eager to promote investment in the Savannakhet area but has been bogged down by bureaucratic red tape and lingering suspicions about foreign investors, while Danang is still underdeveloped compared to other regions in Vietnam.
An example of the kind of impediment that stands in the way of economic cooperation is the fact that Laos continues to refuse to allow Thai trucks to pass through its territory and travel on to Vietnam. At present, Thai trucks travel through Laos only up to Vietnam's border and then unload their goods onto Vietnamese trucks, which causes delay and increases transport costs. As for Laos, it fears that it will lose out if long-haul trucks carrying goods between Thailand and Vietnam only pass through it. Thailand and Vietnam are seen as the two bigger, stronger neighbours.
Laos is demanding a fair share of the benefits for being part of the international highway. It has become clear that even though the physical barriers have already been overcome, there are still mental blocks that need to be dealt with. Nevertheless, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam are fellow Asean members at the forefront of the ambitious effort to bridge the gaps between old Asean members with a higher level of economic and social development and newcomers like Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Road links can only take economic and social cooperation between Thailand, Laos and Vietnam so far. But for all the bridges and highways that span the borders to work in the way they were intended, these three countries need to rationalise and harmonise their regulations, customs procedures, auxiliary services, traffic laws and transport standards in a way that enables benefits to be shared fairly.