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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Building Bridges in ASEAN

Apr. 6, 2015

A missing link along one of Southeast Asia's most important transport corridors has been connected. The Tsubasa Bridge spanning the mighty Mekong River is now open. It's something Cambodians have dreamed about for centuries. The benefits are expected to be felt across the region, and beyond.

Several thousand people gathered to celebrate the bridge's opening in Neak Loeung, 60 kilometers southeast of the capital, Phnom Penh. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was also on hand to mark the historic occasion. "I'm sure this bridge will help strengthen the entire economy of the Asian region," Hun Sen said.

More than 100 million dollars in grant money from Japan went into building the Tsubasa Bridge. Its name comes from the Japanese word for wing. Planning for the bridge began 2004, and construction got underway in 2011.

"I've waited so long for this new bridge," a woman at the ceremony commented.

"It's like a dream," said one man. "I don't think we could ever have such a great bridge without Japan's help."

The bridge is opening ahead of the launch in December of the ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC. The 10 members of the Southeast Nation bloc are trying to create a single regional market.

The AEC will promote the free flow of people, goods and services within ASEAN. That's a mega market of 600 million people. Its economy could rival other regional powers, such as China and India.

The key to integration is infrastructure. This is especially true for the transportation routes connecting the main cities.

One of those routes is the Southern Economic Corridor. It runs from Vietnam's commercial hub, Ho Chi Minh City, via Phnom Penh in Cambodia to the Thai capital, Bangkok, and beyond. It's already become one of the region's most important commercial arteries. The Tsubasa Bridge makes it even more essential.

Patchari Raksawong spoke to Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya from near the bridge.

Raksawong: People living in this region have been waiting for this bridge for many years. They're thankful the mighty Mekong River made their land fertile. But the waterway also acted as a natural wall, dividing the Indochina Peninsula into East and West.

Before the 2,200-meter span was built, the only way to cross was by ferry. Though the crossing takes only 5 minutes, the waiting time to board a ferry turns the trip into a long one.

Workers constructing the new bridge faced numerous challenges unique to this region. During the rainy season, the water rises about 7 meters. So the bridge piers had to be installed during the 6-month-long dry season. In addition, about 5,000 unexploded shells from the time of Cambodia's civil war were discovered near the construction site.

The bridge is featured on the most recent banknote issued by the government. This shows the significance of this bridge not only for the Cambodian economy but for the region as a whole.

Shibuya: It seems a lot of people have a lot of hope invested in this bridge.

Raksawong: That's right. The Tsubasa Bridge became a symbol of development and change even before it opened. And then there's the ASEAN Economic Community, which is expected to transform the playing field here. Many businesses are already betting on the benefits of what's to come.

Masashi Yamaguchi reported from a restaurant in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, where fresh seafood and vegetables are popular.

As Cambodians become wealthier, demand for high-priced perishable foods is rising.

A Japanese-run logistics company with a base in Vietnam is aiming to boost exports of perishable foods to Cambodia before the bridge opens. It wants to make lettuce its first export to Cambodia. The reduced use of chemicals gives it a hint of sweetness, and it is double the price of normal lettuce. But officials are confident that Cambodians, especially the well-to-do, will be happy to pay.

Last year, the firm obtained a license to make it easier to transport perishable foods to Cambodia. This is because it will enable them to cross the border without transferring their cargo to a different vehicle.

An official from the logistics firm visited a Japanese vegetable wholesaler that supplies high-end restaurants in Cambodia. They decided to do a trial delivery of lettuce to Cambodia.

An agricultural conglomerate in Cambodia, the Mong Reththy Group, also wants to use the bridge to expand exports. It's focusing on the port in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Usage fees there are 25 percent lower than Cambodian ports. They want to use it for exports to Asia and Europe. They've expanded mango production. They've chosen a type popular in Japan and planted 120,000 trees. They hope to start exports to Japan within two years.

The economic corridor will revolutionize the regional distribution system. Cross-border flows of goods are likely to create a lot of business opportunities.

Beppu: This bridge really marks of the dawn of a new era for Cambodia and its neighbors. How is ASEAN expected to change in the coming years?

Raksawong: Efforts are underway to strengthen connectivity in Indochina. The peninsula is home to half of ASEAN's 10 members. Crews are building two east-west corridors in Indochina, along with a north-south corridor. The 3 corridors form a network centering on Thailand, a hub of ASEAN's manufacturing industry. Railways are also being constructed east-west and north-south on the peninsula. Japan and China vied to win contracts for these infrastructure projects. They're keen to participate in such undertakings in ASEAN, an engine of the global economy. Both of these Asian economic powers want to capitalize on the bloc's growth.

Shibuya: What kind of challenges are Cambodia and other ASEAN members facing?

Raksawong: Cambodian and Vietnamese leaders are trying to narrow the development gap between their countries and Thailand. From Thailand's perspective, cheap labor is available just next door. The nation attracts millions of both legal and illegal workers from neighboring countries. Efforts to bolster connectivity should not end up concentrating people and social capital only in Thailand. ASEAN needs a strategy to boost its economy as a whole. Thailand's neighbors need to promote their geographical advantages and do a better job luring foreign investment. To do that, they have to improve infrastructure and produce highly skilled experts.