Driving out of the Wattay International Airport in Vientiane one sees a large billboard featuring the overseas campus of Suzhou University in China. In a coffee shop in Vientiane two Chinese businessmen talked about the prospect of a new venture to extract copper in northern Laos. Just across the border from China in Boten, a local Lao driver talks in Chinese about the trucks full of fruit from Thailand parked minutes away from the border checkpoint near the a Chinese-built casino ghost town that once ruled the area. And on the outskirts of Yunnan’s capital city of Kunming, China’s fourth largest airport behind Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, Changshui International Airport, was opened in mid-2012.
While seemingly disparate, these anecdotes reveal the ambition of China’s “Go Southwest” strategy to politically and economically connect Southeast Asia to the PRC.
Integrating with Southeast Asia
Integrating with Southeast Asia is a key component of the PRC’s approach to multi-pronged regionalization. PRC-instigated globalization and regionalization unleashes a dual process of de-bordering and re-bordering in which the traditional barrier role of borders is yielding more to that of bridges.
As a result, once small, marginal, and remote border cities and towns have become larger and lively centers of trade, tourism, and other flows. China’s effort to engage Southeast Asia leaves many local footprints within and beyond the cities of the greater Mekong sub-region, which was launched in 1992 and consists of Yunnan Province, with the later addition of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
China’s trade with each of the subregion’s countries has grown since 1990, most rapidly since 2000. Yunnan’s advantageous geographic location has helped the province’s GDP skyrocket from US$31 billion in 2000 to US$165 billion in 2012, and even stronger cross-border economic and trade ties will promote the province’s goal of doubling that to US$329 billion by 2017.
Urban development is playing a leading role in stimulating this growth, and it is emerging as a polity priority in the next phase of development. On 6 May 2011, the PRC’s State Council issued the document entitled, “Supporting the Accelerated Construction of Yunnan as the Important Outpost for the Southwest Region.” This is a critical part of a broader ambitious plan to build up Kunming as a comprehensive center of trade, transportation, tourism, education, and R&D that reaches the bordering countries of Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and beyond.