China’s Belt and Road Initiative to unlock Laos economic potential

GOVCN. VIENTIANE — Laos, the only landlocked country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is now facing a golden opportunity to rewrite its “disconnected destiny” and export its abundant resources to the rest of the world thanks to a railway that will connect it with the world.

The China-Laos railway, which is a part of the pan-Asia railway and will link Vientiane to the China-Laos border area in the north and Thailand in the south, will become the realization of a strategic mission to transform Laos into a land-linked nation and help boost economic growth in the world’s least developed Southeast Asian country.

“It is good timing for both Laos and China as the Belt and Road Initiative is highly in accord with our strategy to become a land-linked country,” said Saysana Sithiphone, chief cabinet of Lao-China Cooperation Commission, adding that the railway will bring Laos new opportunities for future development.

“Tourism will be the first industry that will truly benefit from the Laos-China railway and then tourism-related real estate will follow. The railway will also speed up development in industrial and agricultural sectors due to decreased transportation costs,” Saysana told Xinhua in a recent interview.

The China-Laos railway is the first Chinese overseas railway project that has been primarily financed, built and will be operated by China and connect with its own railway network. The railway will bring hundreds of thousands of Chinese visitors to neighboring countries and create a reliable way for Lao products to access a vast Chinese, regional and global markets.

Furthermore, there is no doubt that the project will help ASEAN countries to implement their ASEAN Community Vision 2025, which emphasized “vibrant, sustainable and highly integrated economies, enhanced ASEAN Connectivity as well as strengthened efforts in narrowing the development gap.”

Close to a planned railway freight station in Vientiane along the China-Laos railway is the Saysettha Development Zone, where in June 2010, Laos and China signed the Memorandum of Understanding on Vientiane Comprehensive Development Project, witnessed by then vice President Xi Jinping and his then Lao counterpart Bounnhang Vorachit.

The special economic zone aims to attract around 150 enterprises to operate from the hub with a total output value to reach $6 billion and to create about 30,000 new jobs for locals by 2030 after its full development. The Saysettha area will become the embryo of a new Vientiane subcenter and will develop to provide about $300 million in fiscal revenue to the local government annually.

“All entering enterprises must abide by relevant Lao environmental regulations and need to acquire an environment assessment license issued by the Lao government. In the meantime, the development zone will build disposal plants to reduce waste emission,” said Liu Hu, general manager of the operator of the Saysettha development zone.

According to Liu, since the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative, 32 enterprises have entered the Saysettha development zone after 2013 and have already brought new operating and managing ideas to local plants, adding that related infrastructure such as roads, water and power supports are now in position for the first stage of the exploration.

During his visit to the special economic zone in April, then Lao President Choummaly Sayasone said that the zone would become a model for the cooperative development between China and Laos, adding that China has become the top country of investment in Laos and has made an important contribution to the economic and social development in Laos.

Besides the hard infrastructure construction, China’s investment in Laos also involves high-tech areas to promote communication and internet development in the country and to enhance bilateral people-to-people exchanges.

China on Nov 21, 2015, helped Laos launch its first communication satellite and the two sides jointly established the Lao Asia Pacific Satellite Company Ltd., or Laosat, to maintain the satellite’s operation.

“Laos is a small developing country, it is very encouraging for the country and its people to have its own satellite encircling the Earth, as neighboring countries and other nations that have satellites now are noticing that Laos has obtained a satellite,” said former Lao Minister of Post, Telecommunication and Communication Hiem Phommachanh, who now chairs the Laosat.

He said the satellite is important to push forward the development of Lao’s economy and provide convenient services such as internet and television program to families in remote mountainous regions. “I hope they could connect to a new world through the advanced technology that will also change their lifestyles,” said Hiem.

Onideth Oudomsak, manager of the Satellite Marketing Department at Laosat, who spent eight years in China to study communication, said he is proud to play a part in his country’s first satellite and called the satellite “historic.”

“I’ve been to many remote areas in my country. Now, the satellite covers these places and people there can watch our TV programs,” Onideth said.

The Laosat provides professional training to Lao employees so as to help the country cultivate more local satellite engineers for the future. “We will launch another satellite in the foreseeable future and our services will expand. Therefore, we need more professionals in this area,” Hiem told Xinhua.

“We hope that through our satellite services, China’s cultural and personal ties with Laos and other ASEAN countries could be deepened and ASEAN members’ understanding of China enhanced through programs broadcasted by our satellite,” said Ding Yongbing, general manager of the Laosat.

“The connectivity between China and ASEAN should not be limited to infrastructure on land. There must be connectivity between hearts from the two sides,” Ding said.

On Sept 2 in China’s Hangzhou, President Xi Jinping told his Lao counterpart Bounnhang Vorachit that the two sides should advance their comprehensive strategic partnership and join hands in building a community of common destiny, as this year marks the 55th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Laos and the 25th anniversary of China-ASEAN dialogue.

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