The plan, which is backed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), has been on the regional development agenda since 1993. However, only now China has provided loans to Laos to build bridges near the city of Pakbeng to link up with Route 2W, which leads from Oudomxay in Laos to the border with Thailand, where it joins other roads that reach Boten on the Chinese border, and in the east to the Vietnamese border with roads that go to Hanoi.
Math Sounmala, director of the Lao Ministry of Public Works' Planning and Cooperation Department, said that the bridge's construction should start soon and would likely be completed before 2015.
The approximately 600-metre long bridge is expected to replace the current ferry service across the river, which is now viewed as a bottleneck to fast and efficient trade.
Thailand has given Laos US$ 25.9 million in grants and loans to build a 49-kilometer road linking the bridge with a border crossing at the Lao village of Mong Ngeun in Xayaboury province. From there, an existing two-lane road continues from the Thai village of Huay Kon to the provincial capital of Nan.
A 480-meter long bridge will link Thai town of Chiang Khong and the Lao town of Huay Xai in Bokeo province. It will be the last link in a route known in Laos as National Route 3 or regionally as Asia Highway 3 that will connect Thailand with southwestern China running through northwestern Laos.
It took China, Laos and Thailand a good deal of time to agree on the various plans. All three countries were interested in improving the roads but had to wait for things to be sorted out, after delays and disagreements over costs, the world financial crisis and political uncertainties in Thailand.
Laos is foremost interested in the new corridor, a small landlocked caught between its largest neighbours. For China too, the north-south roads are an opportunity to open up its landlocked southwestern Yunnan region to Thailand and Southeast Asian markets and ports.
Asia Highway 3 was officially inaugurated in March 2008—since then it has shortened travel times between the Chinese border and the Lao border with Thailand from two days to five-six hours.
A third route off the north-south corridor is scheduled to be built through Myanmar, but has been hampered because it would pass through territory with an active insurgency. The northernmost portion of the proposed road and the border crossing with China at Mong La are in fact controlled by an ethnic armed militia that currently has a very tenuous ceasefire agreement with Myanmar's military government.
Both Asian Highway 3 and Route 2W are expected to replace much of the current riverine shipping down the Mekong, including from ports near Jinghong in China to the Thai river port of Chiang Saen. At present, goods can take three days or more to transit, depending on water levels. When the river's depth drops below levels considered safe for navigation, the river route is sometimes closed.
Obstacles are not only geographic. Some freight shippers still prefer the river route because it skirts restrictive customs regulations, including multiple tariffs applied on goods transported along the various roads connecting China and South-East Asia across Laos.
The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has increased pressure on its member states to reduce tariffs in line with both the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) and the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area.
Still, some fear that without effective regulation the new routes will result in an unsustainable influx of cheaply produced Chinese goods and low-priced agricultural products.
Rights advocates and development workers already say greater efforts are required to ensure that people living in northwestern Laos also benefit from the roads and to mitigate the potential negative social impact of accelerated travel and trade.
There are already reports about land grabbing along the main new route, as influential business people get land near the Asia Highway 3 or launch new businesses alongside it.
Laos and Thailand area also concerned about waves of “peaceful” Chinese migrants, especially in retail.
Some have already arrived in Laos where certain towns, especially Oudomxay and Laung Nam Tha, have recently developed a distinct Chinese character.
Thailand too is afraid of an invasion by cheap Chinese goods and armies of Chinese migrants.