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Introducing ACMECS: economic cooperation of the three rivers

 

Whenever a conversation touches on regional cooperation, ASEAN seems to be the most well- known regional organization among Thai people, especially after the launch of the ASEAN Community in 2015. However, Thailand is a member of many other cooperation frameworks in this sub-region, such as the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy or ACMECS which was initiated by Thailand in 2003.

ACMECS is derived from the three major rivers in this part of the world, namely the Ayeyawady (Myanmar), the Chao Phraya (Thailand), and the Mekong (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Viet Nam). The main objective of ACMECS, as its name suggests, is to stimulate economic cooperation in areas such as trade, investment, tourism, and agriculture, to name a few.

When ACMECS was formed, all of its members were already members of ASEAN. However, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Viet Nam, at that time were often referred to as ‘new ASEAN members’ as they later joined the group and were still in transition towards becoming fully integrated ASEAN members. More steady economic growth was needed in order to keep pace with former ASEAN members in order to bridge the development gaps. Once all member countries have equivalent levels of economic advancement, ASEAN members could achieve further progress and have more leverage in the international arena.

Thailand, with its location at the center of mainland Southeast Asia surrounded by new ASEAN members, sees the opportunity to play constructive role based on ‘prosper-thy-neighbour’ policy. It was foreseen that common prosperity would enable the countries in the sub-region to move forward together and create better livelihood for the people. Therefore, Thailand proposed ACMECS as a platform to develop the sub-region revolving around the three rivers, which would subsequently help strengthen ASEAN and reinforce Thailand’s role in regional development.

ACMECS cooperation focuses on sectors that are most relevant and beneficial to its people. For instance, agriculture is included because it is a source of living for millions in the sub-region while trade, investment and tourism have vast potential to grow in the future. Other cooperative sectors are human resource development, health and environment. However, the most tangible and closely related sector to the people is perhaps transport connectivity.

 

The word ‘connectivity’ has been regularly cited in various fora in the last decade because having seamless transportation will ease movement of passengers and goods with reduced cost and time. Connectivity has both hardware and software dimensions. The hardware dimension is the physical structure, such as roads, bridges, and train tracks. The software refers to the rules and regulations which will facilitate the use of hardware to its full capacity, such as rules and regulations on immigration and customs. With regard to ACMECS, examples of connectivity projects are the upgrading of Road 12 (R12) from Thakhek, Khammouane Province in Laos, to Nam Phao checkpoint at the Laos-Vietnam border, the proposal to build a bridge across the Mekong River to connect Ban Chiangman and Luang Prabang Province, and the ACMECS Single Window Transport Cooperation project to harmonize cross-border rules and regulations.

In Europe, overland travel by car or train is popular because of the quality of the infrastructure and public transport. It is even less stressful when traveling in the Schengen zone because of the abolishment of checkpoints among Schengen countries so no time is spent at the border. For example, it is possible to simply drive from Budapest to Paris, passing through 4 countries for the full length of 1,500 kilometers without any border inspection at all.  

Turning back to the ASEAN region, many similar routes can be identified, such as Road 9 (R9) connecting Thailand-Laos-Vietnam, which makes it possible for travellers to have breakfast in Mukdahan (Thailand), lunch in Savannakhet (Laos) and dinner in Quang Tri (Viet Nam). Although it is still far away from abolishing border checkpoints like in the Schengen area, the plan to streamline procedures at checkpoints is in the pipeline. The goal is to have officers of two bordering countries conduct single inspection in the same area. If all the planned structures are completed, all regulations harmonized and all personnel are well trained, then the overland transport of goods from Dawei port in Myanmar to Da Nang in Viet Nam will be a reality. This can be a viable cost-saving and less time consuming alternative route in linking the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.

 

The connectivity of transportation routes not only facilitates people in the sub-region, but also for foreigners who are eager to explore the area. Thailand has a well-developed tourism industry, drawing more than 35 million tourists last year alone. If Thailand were a product, its quality still remains in the forefront. But compared to neighboring countries, it is less appealing in terms of being an exotic destination off the beaten track while Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Viet Nam still have several more interesting sites to discover. Therefore, tourism cooperation is feasible in order to complement the strengths and advantages of each other. For instance, ACMECS has an initiative called Five Countries One Destination, where ACMECS member countries do tourism marketing together to attract visitors to the sub-region as a whole.

Furthermore, ACMECS has introduced the Single Visa to enable foreigners to apply visa from just one ACMECS country to travel to all other ACMECS member countries. However, only Thailand and Cambodia are pilot countries of this scheme, allowing citizens of 35 countries to apply for a visa from either Thailand or Cambodia but will be permitted to enter the other country as well.

Besides transport connectivity, ACMECS also strives to develop the infrastructure to support internet and energy connectivity such as high-speed internet network and electricity grid line. Thus, citizens of ACMECS countries would be fully equipped for the digital age while having energy security.

How does ACMECS work to materialize all of these? Like several other international cooperation, the mechanism of ACMECS includes the Summit, Ministerial Meeting, and Senior Officials Meeting. The ACMECS Summit is held every two years to discuss policies and theme of cooperation for the upcoming years. The results of the summit are documented in the Summit declaration as a reference record. Not surprisingly, the declaration would reflect the perspective and priority of the leaders during that period. For example, at the 7th ACMECS Summit in 2016 in Hanoi, the Meeting adopted the Hanoi Declaration: Towards a Dynamic and Prosperous Mekong Subregion. From the topic alone, it can be inferred that the leaders’ main focus is on the livelihood of the people. A closer examination into the details of the Hanoi Declaration reveals that ACMECS intends to develop its economy and encourage sustainable development according to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations.

ACMECS has been in existence for over a decade and thus requires rebranding and revival in order to enhance efficiency and maintain its relevance with the changing international environment. Thailand, as the initiator of ACMECS in 2003 and the upcoming host in 2018, volunteered to draft a Master Plan for the next 5 years to design an upgraded version of this sub-regional cooperation.

It is likely that ACMECS will scale down its areas of cooperation to better manage the limited resources for optimum outcome. Additionally, the long-term aspiration is to integrate ACMECS members into a connected economy and add value to the global production chain in manufacturing, trade, and transport.

Although ministers and senior officials are the main platforms to implement the plan into action, summits are vital as they provide policy direction of this cooperation framework. Thailand hosted the 2nd ACMECS Summit in 2005 and will be the host of the 8th ACMECS Summit on 16 June 2018, in Bangkok. On the occasion that ACMECS returns to its birth place, Thailand is preparing every detail to ensure that ACMECS will grow stronger and serve the common interest of its peoples more competently.

By Thailand Today Editorial Team

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