By Suwatchai Songwanich
Boten, once a remote village on the China-Laos border, has gone from boom to bust within a few short years and is now preparing for another boom.
The village’s development began in 2003 when a casino was built there by Hong Kong developers. This attracted thousands of visitors who poured across the border from Yunnan province. The village was renamed Boten Golden City as business boomed. However, in 2011 the casino was shut down by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Most businesses closed and Boten became a virtual ghost town.
But now Boten’s star is rising again, as it is being developed into the Mohan-Boten Economic Cooperation Zone and become once more a bustling centre of activity.
Situated in Laos’ Luang Namtha province, Boten is China’s gateway to Southeast Asia and will be a critical link in both the North-South and East-West economic corridors. In terms of the North-South corridor, it is the transit point for the Kunming-Bangkok Expressway, which passes across Laos, over the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, and down to Bangkok. The planned China-Laos Railway that will connect Kunming to the Laotian capital of Vientiane will also pass through Boten. The East-West Corridor will connect Vietnam’s Danang with Phitsanulok in central Thailand and then Mawlamyine in Myanmar.
The agreement to establish the Mohan-Boten Economic Cooperation Zone was signed by the Chinese and Laotian governments in September. The development will cover 1,640 hectares and is being developed by two Chinese companies – Yunnan Hai Cheng Industrial Group Stock Co, Ltd. and Hong Kong Fuk Hing Travel Entertainment Group Ltd, which have been given a concession period of 99 years.
The developers plan four mega-projects in the zone including a duty-free centre, bus station complex, warehousing and a resort. However, a much grander development is taking place just across the border where China has earmarked billions of dollars for investment in the Mengla economic zone in Yunnan. This zone will focus on agriculture, biological industries, processing, logistics and cultural tourism. The Chinese government aims to develop both sides of the border into an economic hub that will help integrate Asean and China.
If all these plans come to fruition, not only will Boten be transformed but there will be a major impact on the rest of Laos, which will become a land-linked, rather than land-locked, nation. It will also give China a crucial foothold in Southeast Asia.
However, it is still early days and, as we have seen from other projects in Southeast Asia – such as the problems with the Myitsone hydro dam in Myanmar and with high-speed rail in Thailand – there may be unexpected obstacles along the way.