Where the Silk Roads meet the mighty Mekong

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An aerial view of the Unesco heritage town of Luang Prabang in Laos.
Photo: iStock

The small wooden boats slowly make their way down the brown waters of the Mekong at sunset. Flowing meditation – just enjoying the silence, watching the river flow. Then, suddenly, in the distance, an apparition – a row of cement Ts.

Like a high-tech divinity, the 21st century irrupts across the immemorial Mekong, which in Laos is appropriately named Mae Nam Khong or the Mother of Waters.

Welcome to the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor, one of the key planks of the New Silk Roads, or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).     

Spiritual beginnings

It’s tempting to regard the bridge as a post-modern naga. In the inestimable The Enduring Sacred Landscape of the Naga, published by Mekong Press, Lao scholars Mayoury and Pheuiphanh Ngaosrivathana track the literally fantastic world of animated beings in the Mekong basin – totemized reptiles such as the serpent, or ngu, the salt-water crocodile (ngeuak) and supernatural beings such as the naga.

These tutelary spirits, controllers of water and rainfall, local proprietors of the soil and guardians of its fertility, wealth and welfare – these are the autochthonous spirits tamed by Buddhism collectively known as naga. Worship of the naga – in rituals, festivals, daily life – has shaped the lives and life cycles of Mekong populations for millennia.

The new naga will take the form of Made in China high-speed trains – for passengers of course, but mostly for cargo – crossing the Mekong back and forth and crucially bypassing the Maritime Silk Road along the South China Sea.     

The numbers by the Lao Ministry of Public Works and Transport are impressive – the Kunming-Vientiane high-speed railway, started in 2016 and to be completed in 2021, features 72 tunnels, 170 bridges and will have trains speeding along at 160 km an hour.

The China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor is one of the six main BRI corridors identified back in March 2015. These are BRI’s land arteries – the backbone of an intricate, integrated continental landmass featuring multiple layers of transportation, telecom, energy infrastructure, financial, trade, political and economic projects and agreements. 

The Lao mini-boom

Northern Laos, a maze of mountains, jungles and a few rivers, for a long time was virtually isolated until the opening of borders with Vietnam and China led to immense economic and demographic transformations – with traditional rice-based agriculture giving way to speculative commercial agriculture.

Laos is landlocked between powerful neighbors China and Thailand.

A North-South economic corridor has been the favored strategy by both China and Thailand to develop commerce, tourism and investments in Laos. Mountain people minorities linked to Chinese culture such as the Chin Haw, Akha, Yao and Hmong, who speak Lao and know Lao culture, were cast as the perfect intermediaries and partners.

Especially in the BRI era, connections with China, both in the formal and informal economy, are now overtaking connections with Thailand. Vientiane – not exactly a transparent government – has encouraged Chinese investments of extremely dubious value in luxury hotels, malls and casinos in Special Economic Zones (SEZs) along the Chinese border.   

At the same time, Chinese companies have been pouring billions of dollars into the productive development of these SEZs, as well as in dams, mines and rubber plantations.

Read the full article at Asia Times: https://www.asiatimes.com/2019/04/article/where-the-silk-roads-meet-the-mighty-mekong/

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