China approves Tumen border development zone

UPDATE:  China plans development zone on North Korean border
By Michael Rank

China is planning a major new development zone along the North Korean border aimed at boosting trade with its reclusive neighbour and throughout northeast Asia, a Chinese-language website reports.

The plan is to come to fruition under two separate deals: the border cities of Dandong in Liaoning province and Tonghua in Jilin province have signed an (unpriced) “development and opening up vanguard zone cooperation agreement” as well as a 440 million yuan ($64 million) “six-party cooperation agreement” with the Shenyang Railway Bureau, Changchun Customs, Dandong Port Group and Tonghua Steel (Tonggang) to build a “Tonghua inland port” with a duty-free zone, warehouses and international transit facilities that will be ready in 2012.

The Tonghua-Dandong Economic Zone will apparently stretch over most of the western half of the Chinese-North Korean border, a distance of around 350 km. The city of Tonghua is in fact some 80 km north of the border, but the report says the new zone will include the border post of Ji’an which is administered by Tonghua.

It gives few further details, but notes that when Premier Wen Jiabao visited North Korea last month he signed an agreement on building a new bridge across the Yalu river which would further boost Chinese-North Korean trade.

It also quotes the acting mayor of Tonghua, Tian Yulin, as saying that the new zone will transform the city from “inland” to “coastal” and “will promote trade between the inland cities of the northeast and North Korea and with the whole of northeast Asia.” The report adds that almost 60% of China’s trade with North Korea passes through Dandong.

This is not the only new development zone in China’s rustbelt northeast, which has been in severe economic decline in recent decades: a separate Chinese report announces the creation of another zone in Jilin, stretching from the capital Changchun in the centre of the province to the city of Jilin (or rather just part of it, for some unstated reason) as far as Yanbian on the North Korean border. This report does not mention North Korea directly but says the new zone will make the eastern border city of Hunchun an “open window” for regional trade, with Changchun and Jilin city “important supports.”

One-third of Jilin’s 26 million population live in the zone and it accounts for half of the province’s economic output, the report adds. See also this English-language report.

State-owned Tonghua Steel’s involvement in the Tonghua-Dandong zone is somewhat surprising as the ailing company has been rocked by unrest following an abortive attempt at a takeover deal by rival company Jianlong earlier this year. There was strong opposition to the deal on the part of workers who feared they would lose their jobs, and their fears turned to violence last July when a senior manager was murdered in mysterious circumstances.

The Chinese business magazine Caijing told how “the man’s death at the hands of unidentified killers uncovered an often antagonistic network of competing business interests and investors involved in Jianlong’s botched attempt to buy Tonggang.”

Tonghua Steel was in 2005 planning to sign a 7 billion yuan ($865 million), 50-year exploration rights deal with a North Korean iron ore mine, said to be the country’s largest iron deposit. The Chinese company was hoping to receive 10 million tonnes of iron ore a year from the Musan mine as part of its plans to increase steel production from a projected 5.5 million tonnes in 2007 to 10 million tonnes in 2010.

Tonggang boss An Fengcheng said at the time that agreement had already been reached with China Development Bank on 800 million yuan worth of soft loans and 1.6 billion yuan of hard loans, while “the remaining investment will come in in stages”. But it seems that the deal was never signed.

Caijing told how An, the steel mill’s chairman and Communist Party secretary, had “basically unlimited managerial control of Tonggang” and that the takeover by Jianlong was cancelled just a few hours after the murder of the manager Chen Guojin, who had come from Jianlong and was one of two Jianlong representatives on the board of Tonghua.

“There is no evidence to suggest An’s involvement in Chen’s death. But two weeks after the incident, he was sacked and stripped of all power by the Jilin provincial government. No other details of his removal were announced,” the magazine added.

ORIGINAL POST: According to the P.R. of China’s Global Times (Xinhua) via Adam Cathcart:

The Chinese government has approved a border development zone in the Tumen River Delta to boost cross-border cooperation in the Northeast Asian region, the provincial government of Jilin announced on Monday.The information office of the government said the pilot zone covering 73,000 square kilometers involved the cities of Changchun and Jilin as well as the Tumen River area.

Han Changbin, governor of Jilin, said the Changchun-Jilin-Tumen pilot zone was China’s first border development zone.

It is expected to push forward cross-border cooperation in the Tumen River Delta.

The delta, a 516-kilometer-long river straddling the borders of China, Russia and North Korea, was set up as an economic development zone in 1991 by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to promote trade.

In 1995, five countries – China, Russia, North Korea, South Korea and Mongolia – ratified the agreement on the Establishment of the Cooperation Commission for the Tumen River Economic Development Area (web page here). Japan participated in the program as an observer.

In 2005, the five signatories agreed to extend the agreement for another 10 years.

They also agreed to expand the area to the Greater Tumen Region and to further strengthen cooperation for economic growth and sustainable development for the peoples of Northeast Asia.

“Before the Changchun-Jilin-Tumen pilot zone was initiated, the Chinese part of the Tumen River area was mainly Huichun, a port city in Jilin, that has involved in the cross-border cooperation,” said Zhu Xianping, director of the Northeast Asia Research Institute of Jilin University in Changchun.

The 5,145-square-kilometer port city with a 250,000 population had limited industrial development capacity to develop infrastructure projects that will match the cross-border cooperation, he said.

Du Ying, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, said that by bringing the two cities of Changchun and Jilin into the border zone, the zone could serve as a strategic platform to support the cross-border cooperation in the Greater Tumen Region.

Zhao Zhenqi, an assistant to the Jilin governor, said the central government has allowed the pilot zone to try new land use and foreign financing methods, such as sharing ports and sea routes with other countries in the region and setting up free trade zones.

Under the initiative of the pilot zone, local governments in the region could better interact to tackle development bottlenecks, he said.

The Northeast China region, rich in natural resources including coal and oil, is China’s traditional heavy industry base and granary. However, it also faces the challenges of industrial upgrading, resource depletion and financing bottlenecks.

Random thoughts and links:
1. The challenge facing north east China (as they see it) is the lack of a port city on the East Sea (or the Sea of Japan if you prefer).  This is where North Korea comes in.  China and Russia have long been trying to establish  use rights and/or control of Rason and Chongjin.  Russia recently built a “Russia-gague” railroad line from Rason to the DPRK-Russian border. The Chinese have been busy building roads.

2. (speculation) China is the DPRK’s largest trading partner.  International sanctions have given China monopsony power vis-a-vis the DPRK.  This means the Yuan goes farther in the DPRK than in other countries and it gives the PRC a financial incentive in the continued economic isolation of the DPRK.

3. Here is CCTV video.

4. Forbes covers this story here.

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