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Mekong channel navigation project only helps China: Thai businesses

Pratch Rujivanarom

Cargo shipping on the river is now dominated by Chinese firms.

THAI businesses have voiced concern over the Mekong River Navigation Channel Improvement Project, arguing that only Chinese businesses will profit while Thai businesses are kept out of the market.

As China’s CCCC Second Harbor Consultant Co Ltd surveys the Mekong River in Chiang Rai to prepare for the navigation project, local business people have said the project will not confer any advantage for the domestic economy.

Business leaders have also expressed concern the project could widen the trade deficit between Thailand and China by enabling Chinese businesses to dominate the regional market.

The project will entail blasting rocky rapids in the river to widen and deepen the navigation channel, allowing cargo barges as large as 500 tonnes to travel from Yunnan province to Luang Prabang in Laos year-round.

Wiroon Khampilo, former president of the Chiang Rai Chamber of Commerce and a businessman in the province, said businesses operating locally and around the country would get nothing from the navigation project, which would disproportionately benefit China.

“China currently dominates water transportation on the Mekong River. Only Chinese deliver their goods via cargo ships to sell in Thailand, and we have very few goods to transport via the river to sell in China,” Wiroon said.

“From my point of view, this project will only provide greater benefits for Chinese trade, because they will be able to send even more goods at a cheaper cost. We do not have a cargo ship fleet on the Mekong River.”

He said river navigation was not the only kind of transport available between Thailand and China, as Chiang Rai was already linked to Yunnan by the R3A and R3B Highway.

Thai Transportation and Logistics Association president Sanyawit Sethapokin said the project would lead to market monopolisation by Chinese businesses.

“Right now, Chinese business is increasingly competing with Thai business in our country and in the region. The Thai market is already full of Chinese products and more convenient trade routes will only mean that Chinese businesses will take a tighter grip on our market.”

He said China also competed with Thailand in logistics businesses as well, since many Chinese firms had started to operate cargo transport services on the R3A and R3B Highway.

“The Mekong River Navigation Channel Improvement Project will provide large advantages to Chinese traders who have cheaper logistics costs, so in the future more Chinese products will pour into the Thai market at cheaper prices, especially agricultural products,” he said. “Thai farmers will be the ones most affected in such a situation.”

Wiroon also warned that allowing China to alter the river channel would jeopardise local people’s livelihoods and the local economy, which depended heavily on the healthy river ecosystem.

“The project will include blasting the rapids in Mekong River, which will result in total and irreversible damage to the river environment. This will not only destroy people’s livelihoods, but also permanently eradicate the opportunity to develop new ways to profit from tourism on the river in the future as well,” he said.

“We should not trade our natural assets for the one-sided profit benefiting others.”