Working Toward the Development of the Mekong Region
On January 20, 2009, the opening reception of the Mekong-Japan Exchange Year 2009 was held in Tokyo. Japan has worked to deepen exchange with the countries of the Mekong Region in a diverse array of fields. The following is a brief description of the countries of the Mekong Region and their importance to Japan.
Mekong-Japan Exchange Started in the Ryukyu Islands
Exchange between Japan and the Mekong Region goes back roughly 600 years. At the time, Japan enjoyed trade with Southeast Asia, including the Mekong Region, primarily through the Ryukyu Islands (now Okinawa), leading to the creation of maritime trade routes that passed through China and the Korean peninsula. Later, when the vermillion seal certificate trade became active, many Japanese moved to the Mekong Region, building Japan-towns and Japanese districts in places like Ayutthaya (Thailand), Hoi An (Viet Nam), and Udong (Cambodia).
Shared Buddhist Identity
Japan and the countries of the Mekong Region are also known as Buddhist countries. In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism is common, while in Viet Nam and Japan Mahayana Buddhism is predominant. There are many cultural similarities among the countries due to their common Buddhist identity, and these are at the root of Japan's friendly relations with these countries.
Bilateral Relations with the Countries of the Mekong Region
Japan has been providing substantial assistance to the countries of the Mekong Region through ODA and in partnership with NGOs. Japan has also built close economic relationships with these countries through the entry of Japanese companies into the region. Japan has recently signed a series of economic partnership agreements (EPAs) and bilateral investment agreements with countries in the region, further strengthening bilateral relations. Japanese investment in these countries is expected to promote the maturing of markets and the future vitalization of the Japanese economy.
Reducing Disparities between ASEAN Countries
ASEAN is an important partner for Japan in various domains. There is no question that the prosperity of ASEAN will lead to greater prosperity and stability for Japan as well. There are, however, a number of potential obstacles standing in the way of ASEAN's development, stability, and future integration. One of these is the disparity in levels of development that exists among the countries in the region. Within ASEAN, countries that are less developed are known as CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Viet Nam) each of whose per capita GDP is less than 1,000 dollars. Since all these countries are Mekong River basin countries, the Mekong River Basin Development Plan perceives them as a region and applies a region-focused approach. Currently, the projects for the CLV "Development Triangle" and for improving the efficiency of logistics and distribution of the East-West Economic Corridor and the Southern Economic Corridor are thus being implemented as assistance to promote the economic growth of the region as a whole.
The Development Triangle refers to the border provinces of the CLV countries (Cambodia, Laos, and Viet Nam) that is least developed in the Mekong Region. Japan has announced assistance of approximately 20 million dollars from the Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund to this area. Decisions have been made to implement such projects as the construction of roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals and improvements to the water supply system.
Improving Efficiency of Logistics and Distribution of the Economic Corridor
The term "economic corridor" refers to roads, bridges, and other transport infrastructure that pass through several countries, enabling the active movement of people and products across national borders. Japan is currently preparing support for two such corridors, the East-West Economic Corridor connecting Viet Nam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar, and the Southern Economic Corridor linking Thailand, Cambodia, and Viet Nam.
Toward Project Completion
Japan is considering a four-pillar program of enhancing customs functions through the introduction of X-ray inspection machines, improving cargo transshipment terminals, improving such supporting infrastructure as roadside stations, and human resources development. A contribution of 10 million dollars will be provided from the Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund (JAIF) for the implementation of these programs. Disbursements of a similar scale from JAIF are also planned for projects proposed by the Mekong countries themselves. A number of such projects will be formulated and implemented in 2009.
Supporting ASEAN Integration
From the perspective of supporting ASEAN integration, Japan is expanding its assistance to the countries of the Mekong Region and is emphasizing the Japan-CLV and Japan-Mekong frameworks. In addition to economic assistance, Japan has designated 2009 as Mekong-Japan Exchange Year and is promoting exchange of people in a wide range of fields, including politics, economy, culture, and tourism.
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