The Southeast Asian economies are expanding and forging closer trade links than ever before. However, regional integration in Southeast Asia is still minimal, hampered by a variety of issues, notably bottlenecks in transport infrastructure. With national and regional policy action and the strong upcoming pipeline for future bridge construction, regional integration and economic cooperation in Southeast Asia can become a reality.

Philippines

The 3.98 km Samal Island-Davao City cross-sea bridge project will cost approximately $400 million and is one of the key government-to-government cooperation projects between China and the Philippines. The project is a two-way, four-lane, 3.98 km bridge to connect the Island Garden City of Samal to Davao city across the Pakiputan Strait. The main bridge is 1.62 km long and will be designed in a cable-stayed structure with twin towers and double cable planes. The construction is expected to be completed in 60 months. Once completed, the bridge will provide a transportation link between Metro Davao and Samal Island. Besides, the 3.77 km Panguil Bay Bridge once built will be the Philippines’ longest bridge, surpassing the San Juanico Bridge. Having witnessed months of delay due to the pandemic, the construction of PhP 7.3 billion project began in January 2021. The mega bridge project connecting Tangub city in Misamis Occidental and the town of Tubod in Lanao del Norte, will be funded through a loan agreement between the Philippine government and the Korean Export Import Bank.

Meanwhile, the bridge linking Binondo and Intramuros, the two bustling districts in the centre of the country’s capital, is so far 90 per cent completed and expected to become operational by September 2021. With a total cost of PhP 3.39 billion, the project is one of the first China-funded infrastructure projects under the Build, Build, Build programme offering a two-way, four-lane bridge over the Pasig River. The project would serve over 30,000 vehicles per day, significantly reducing traffic congestion along the river. The project is being funded through a grant by the Chinese government, which has sparked criticism as it allegedly favours Chinese labourers over local labourers. Another China-funded project, the PhP 303.655 million Estrella-Pantaleon Bridge, which connects Makati and Mandaluyong city, is now 79 per cent built and is expected to be opened within 2021.

The National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) had earlier approved the construction of the PhP 187 billion Bataan-Cavite Interlink Bridge that would greatly reduce travel time between the two provinces, as well as provide a direct link between Region IV-A and Region III. However, NEDA is now re-evaluating the cost  for the proposed 32.15 km four-lane bridge, causing uncertainty over the project’s completion. The Asian Development Bank is expected to provide a $1 billion loan to finance this massive undertaking.

Indonesia

Indonesia aims to construct a 7 km bridge linking the islands of Batam and Bintan situated adjacent to Singapore. The Rp 4 trillion bridge will be the longest in Southeast Asia. Two major state-owned construction firms, PT Adhi Karya and PT Hutama Karya, have expressed interest in constructing the bridge. The bridge is expected to boost tourism and bring Singaporean businesses to the Indonesian islands. In recent years, the two neighbouring countries have strengthened their bonds and collaborated in the private sector for mutual benefit. Since Batam is Indonesia’s only free trade zone, the island is uniquely positioned to benefit from the trade war between the US and China.

Thailand and Laos

Under the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy, Thailand and Laos have been constructing Thai-Laos Friendship Bridges over the river Mekong. Four such bridges have been constructed so far, while approval has been granted for the fifth Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge.  The fifth Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge project consists of a 15 km four-lane road, starting from Muang district of Bueng Kan in Thailand to Paksan town of Bolikhamxay province in Laos. The two-lane concrete bridge over the river Mekong will be 1.35 km in length. Construction work on the project is expected to be completed in three years. The cost of the fifth Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge has been estimated at THB 3.93 billion (about $126.77 million). Of the total cost, the Government of Thailand will invest THB 2.63 billion, while the Government of Laos will invest the balance THB 1.3 billion that it will borrow from the Neighbouring Countries Economic Development Co-operation Agency, founded in 2005 by the Thai government. Meanwhile, the sixth Thai-Lao friendship project, which is currently in planning stages, will be a 1.02 km bridge connecting Thailand’s Highway 2112 with Lao PDR’s Highway 13. The project is  expected to begin in 2023. The bridge is projected to cost about $140 million (THB 4.36 billion), with the two countries sharing the cost.

Vietnam

The 885.7 metre long Thu Thiem 2 Bridge, which will span the river Saifon, is a significant landmark in Ho Chi Minh City. The VND 3.08 trillion project is intended to relieve traffic congestion on the Saigon river tunnel and the Saigon Bridge, which are the city’s two major traffic links connecting the city’s downtown and District 2. The Thu Thiem 2 Bridge was started in 2015 and was supposed to be finished in 2018. Owing to delays in site clearing, the project is still on hold as of September 2020, with just around half of the cable-stayed bridge on the District 2 side completed. The Thu Thiem 4 Bridge is approximately 2.2 km long and 28 metres wide, with six lanes and two pedestrian sidewalks, which will connect District 7 and the Thu Thiem Peninsula in District 2. The bridge will be built by local companies under a build-and-transfer deal with a cumulative value of VND 5.2 trillion.

Besides, Phase II of he Vinh Tuy Bridge project is a group A project with a VND 2.54 trillion total investment capital from Hanoi’s public investment fund. The bridge and approach roadway have a combined length of 3,504 metres with four lanes. It will be built downstream parallel to phase I bridge; stage II bridge is parallel and 21.25 metres from Phase I bridge downstream of the Red river. Owing to the lack of funding, the project has witnessed delayed progress and is now set to be completed by 2022.

Myanmar

The 1.93 km long Bago river bridge that is currently under construction is being provided by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). This new cable-stayed project is estimated to cost $289 million, connecting Thanlyin and Yangon’s Thaketa Township district, mitigating traffic congestion on the road to the Thilawa special economic zone (SEZ), enabling faster cargo shipment from the Bago Industrial Zone to the Thilawa SEZ.

Meanwhile, after being halted for a month on account of the Covid-19 pandemic, construction work has resumed on the Korea-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, also known as the Dala Bridge. It is a four-lane, cable-stayed bridge which will connect Lanmadaw and Dala townships, with a total construction cost of $157.8 million. The project is due to be finished by October 2022.

The way ahead

The development of bridges in Southeast Asia provides an insightful experience for tracking ASEAN’s growing prosperity. Bridges are a major investment that facilitate market and trade growth while also boosting overall economic development. It’s a Catch-22 situation when it comes to financing infrastructure projects. But the nations recognise the economic advantage of its creation and focus their attention on ensuring the completion of projects. The bridge’s long-term value would compensate for its construction costs many times over.