Senior officials of several Mekong countries have agreed to build a bridge across the Mekong River that will connect the southwestern province of China directly to Bangkok by road.

The bridge, which will be financed by the governments of China and Thailand, is scheduled for completion in 2011 and will cross the Mekong River at Chiang Khong, in northern Thailand, and Houayxay, in Laos. It is the final link in a north-south road system through the Mekong region under development by nations in the area and ADB for more than a decade.

“When this vital bridge is completed, it will be possible for the first time to travel by land directly from Yunnan, People’s Republic of China, through Lao PDR to Thailand, opening up tremendous potential for increased trade, tourism, and further integration of the Mekong region,” says ADB vice-president Lawrence Greenwood.

The signing of the agreement by Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) ministers from China, Laos and Thailand to build the bridge came at the conclusion of the 14th Greater Mekong Subregion Ministerial Conference, a major meeting of senior government officials held at ADB headquarters in Manila on June 19-21.

The conference focused on further strengthening cooperation for economic expansion and poverty reduction in the region.

ADB has been the lead supporter of the Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation Program since it began in 1992. Since then, the area has grown into one of the fastest growing regions in the world, with average gross domestic product growth of about 6% in recent years.

“Fifteen years of fruitful partnerships and solid achievements are something to be proud of,” says Greenwood. “The Greater Mekong Subregion Program sends a very powerful message: that cooperation and joint action among neighbours works.”

Cooperation among the GMS countries – including Cambodia, China, Loas, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam – has enhanced their connectivity, improved their competitiveness, and developed a sense of community in the region.

Among the recent accomplishments of the Greater Mekong Subregion programme are the opening in December 2006 of the government of Japan-funded Second Mekong International Bridge at the Mukdahan-Savannakhet border between Thailand and Laos, which completes the East-West Economic Corridor – a 1,500km stretch of upgraded roads that cuts across four of the six GMS countries.

Other substantial achievements of the program are the start of work on two ADB-assisted major railway links in Cambodia and Vietnam, and the finalisation and signing of all the annexes and protocols of the Agreement for the Facilitation of Cross-Border Transport of Goods and People, as well as the development of priority cross-border power transmission lines and advanced work on the finalisation of agreements for regional power trade.

In addition, the sub-region will soon see the completion of Phase 1 of the Information Superhighway Network consisting of optical fibre backbone connections among the GMS countries, as well as measures to address the region’s environmental challenges through a Core Environment Program.

The sub-regional grouping has also worked successfully to strengthen surveillance systems and institutional capacity for controlling the cross-border spread of communicable diseases, including HIV/Aids.

Exports of the GMS countries quadrupled from US$37bn in 1992 to US$182bn in 2006. Annual tourist arrivals more than doubled from 10mn in 1995 to over 22mn in 2006. Foreign direct investment into the GMS increased from about US$3bn in 1992 to about US$7bn in 2005.

The recently-concluded conference also considered the results of a midterm review of the GMS programme’s 10-year strategy over 2002-12, which recommended a balanced pursuit of continued infrastructure development and measures to directly improve livelihoods and reduce poverty. The ministers instructed senior officials to prepare five-year action plans in priority areas taking into account the results of the midterm review.