Laos’ Spanking New Highway to Nowhere

A two-lane asphalt road between Nan, Thailand, to Oudomxay, Laos, designed to boost regional trade and tourism, opened in mid-September with characteristic fanfare.

Four Lao hill tribe models coyly held up banners, welcoming a Thai delegation to their village bordering Thailand’s northern province of Nan. They posed next to a shiny pyramid-like marble tablet that bears the flags of both nations and words of gratitude to Thailand for building a rare road in this mountainous region.

The only problem with the ceremonial opening was that the road goes nowhere. Thanks to a Lao dispute with China, a key bridge for connecting the road to Lao’s national highway has yet to be built.

The saga of a finished road and missing bridge may not matter much in global politics, but does reveal China’s troubles with small neighbours. The Thai government spent 840 million baht, just under US$27 million, 30 per cent of which is given as a grant to build the 52-kilometer road in the hope of opening the depressed region to international commerce. The new road reduced travel time from a full day to 40 minutes. Landlocked Laos, lobbying to join the World Trade Organization, was only too pleased to gain infrastructure and a trade corridor to Thailand, eventually connecting the country of 6.5 million people to China and Vietnam via this national bypass.

Except the vaunted highway version of this “orient express” to China is still incomplete. The Chinese government agency that agreed to build a bridge across the Mekong River to link the just-completed Thai road to China’s Yunnan Province and Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam has yet to start work on their waterway sector. A group of reporters invited by the Thai government saw a tranquil river and villagers scooping sizeable catfish by the riverside. No dredging equipment has yet arrived to spoil their catches. The Laotians and the Chinese are said to be haggling over conditions in the Memorandum of Understanding signed last year with China Road and Bridge Corporation. According to representatives linked to these projects, the Chinese have asked to resettle large numbers of Chinese labourers involved in the Mekong bridgeworks into Laos.

The influx of Chinese nationals into Laos is a source of growing tensions for Sino-Lao ties despite 50 years of relations, a milestone crossed this year. The labour issue has now come to a head over the Mekong bridge.

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