Northeast Asia can be considered the last major economic frontier on the Asian continent. The region has enormous economic potential, but this potential can only be realised through dynamic cooperation and sharing of resources.
Recognising Northeast Asia’s considerable potential and geopolitical significance, UNDP in 1991 agreed to support the initiative of the countries in the region to establish an institutional mechanism for regional dialogue and further cooperation. For the past twelve years, the Tumen River Area Development Programme has facilitated economic cooperation among the five member countries: China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Mongolia, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and the Russian Federation. The member countries are equally represented in the Consultative Commission for the Development of the Tumen River Economic Development Area and Northeast Asia, which meets annually at Vice Ministerial level.
The main objectives of the Tumen Programme are to:
- attain greater growth and sustainable development for the peoples and countries in Northeast Asia, and the Tumen Region in particular;
- identify common interests and opportunities for cooperation and sustainable development;
- increase mutual benefit and mutual understanding;
- strengthen economic, environmental and technical cooperation; and
work to ensure that the Tumen Region is attractive for international investment, trade and business.
The first phase of the Tumen Programme involved extensive planning and background studies. An interim phase focused on investment promotion and development initiatives designed to build momentum for the region as a growth triangle. The second phase built on the institutional framework for regional cooperation created by the multilateral agreements concluded in 1995. The third – and current – phase continues to address factors fundamental to regional economic cooperation and is designed to ensure the sustainability of this regional cooperation framework.
Why the Focus on the Tumen Region?
The Tumen Region has great potential as a major entrepot for international trade because of the strategic location of the Tumen transport corridor, the strong complementarities of the Tumen River Area, vast natural and human resources, and the area’s accessibility to the resources and markets of Northeast Asia.
Northeast China and Mongolia are landlocked and therefore have a strong interest in access to ports in DPRK and the Russian Far East. Overseas shippers also have a stake in the Tumen transport corridor, for it offers a much shorter route to affluent and new markets, and facilitates transit trade to a number of destinations.
The local governments in the Tumen Region have been steadfast supporters of the Tumen Programme since its inception. It appears that central governments in Northeast Asia are now re-emphasising the value of the Tumen Region, particularly its strategic transport corridor. Northeast Asian governments are rapidly improving the Tumen Region’s infrastructure network and transport services. They are also working to create legal and institutional mechanisms conducive to cross-border trade and transport. The Tumen Programme is actively facilitating the creation of an enabling environment through “soft” infrastructure and human capacity building.
Why is Regional Cooperation so Important?
Regional cooperation is a vital part of the development process and a building block for effective participation in world trade and capital markets. For the Tumen Region, which partly consists of small and remote areas of large countries, economic cooperation is an effective way to avoid marginalisation. Cross-border cooperation also helps resolve environmental issues and facilitates the adoption of international environmental standards. Most importantly, enhanced economic cooperation in Northeast Asia helps improve political relations and stability, in turn vital elements for investment and economic growth.
It is worth recalling how remote and closed the Tumen Region was just a dozen years ago, to appreciate the full significance of its role as a frontier for economic cooperation in Northeast Asia. Much has been achieved during the Tumen Programme’s existence, particularly in terms of opening borders and increasing interaction in a region that was, until recently, tense and largely closed. A new trade and transport corridor has been created, which will – in time – evolve into an economic corridor with a significant impact on poverty reduction and improved living standards in the region.
The Future of the Tumen Programme
The prevailing political and economic climate in the region has altered dramatically since the start of the Tumen Programme in 1991. The Soviet Union has dissolved, China and ROK have established diplomatic relations and a major trading partnership, and there has been a degree of rapprochement between DPRK and ROK. The transition to stronger economic systems in the countries that relied on the Soviet Comecon trading system has reinforced the logic of economic cooperation in the Tumen Region. The increased participation of DPRK, Mongolia and the Russian Far East, combined with the rapid expansion of the Chinese economy, will help the Northeast Asian economy grow.
Dynamic cooperation has found increasing expression in Northeast Asia, and relations in the region continue to improve, helped by stronger economic links. Despite major improvements in the geopolitical circumstances of the region, however, much remains to be done. The Tumen Programme is the only initiative that brings the member countries together on a sub-regional basis, and its existing institutional structure and multilateral agreements should be utilised to maximum effect to help Northeast Asia achieve peace and prosperity.