In 2010, as ASEAN celebrated the 43rd year of its existence as a regional organisation, signs of its division became increasingly manifest.

Despite repeated urging for members to move towards the ASEAN Economic Community by 2015, it is becoming obvious that most of the mainland Southeast Asian states (CLMV) see their political and economic futures tied to China far more than to their insular Southeast Asian erstwhile brethren.

While the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta pursued its ‘Initiatives for ASEAN Integration,’ lauded ‘ASEAN Centrality’ and dutifully held its 300+ meetings over the year, the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), under the guidance of the Asian Development Bank and China, went from strength to strength in developing a wide array of new linkages, alliances, interactions and interdependencies in mainland Southeast Asia.

The GMS has thereby moved steadily from “subregion” towards “region,” and we are seeing the cracks which will almost inevitably produce a permanently-divided ASEAN.

The Greater Mekong Subregion nominally comprises the CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) as well as Thailand and the two Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi.

However, China in toto is in fact the member with national-level technocrats engaging in the various GMS initiatives.  The idea of equality of GMS members can thus be dismissed immediately and entirely, with China completely dominating the arrangement. It is thereby that this country of 1.3 billion people is drawing into its various systems the polities and economies of mainland Southeast Asia.

Under the GMS Economic Cooperation Programs, a multitude of new developments have been brought to much of mainland Southeast Asia. About US$11 billion has been injected into infrastructure investment in the GMS region over the last decade with one-third of this coming from the ADB.  This aid has been channelled into three so-called economic corridors — multi-country transport arteries now being built across mainland Southeast Asia.

The North-South Economic Corridor connects Kunming to Bangkok, while the East-West Corridor ties the Indian Ocean coast of Myanmar with the South China Sea ports of Vietnam. The Southern Economic Corridor connects Bangkok with Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City and Vung Tau. Apart from such hardware, the GMS is also planning and implementing software initiatives in terms of trade and investment facilitation.

China openly declares that the GMS is the most effective economic mechanism in the region.

How are the new policies of Chinese engagement with mainland Southeast Asian states and these GMS projects affecting or being responded to by the respective polities?

A full analysis is available here.

Author: Geoff Wade

Geoff Wade is a historian with interests in China-Southeast Asian historical interactions and comparative historiography.

This piece originally appeared here, on New Mandala.

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ASEAN divides

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