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Tiny Laos Gets a Rare Moment in the Sun

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VIENTIANE, Laos — Laos hosts U.S. President Barack Obama and leaders from China and Russia next week. How this tiny, landlocked country handles the annual East Asia Summit could go a long way to shaping the complex interactions between China, America and Asian nations competing with Beijing for territory in the South China Sea.

The host nation at these diplomatic contests typically plays a significant role in defining the agenda. When Vietnam was the chair in 2010, it infuriated China—and delighted the U.S.—by putting the South China Sea on the program. Two years later, Cambodia derailed discussions when it hosted the summit in 2012.

Laos is facing pressure from China, which has invested heavily here, and from its neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, who are struggling to find a united voice to contest Beijing’s growing military and economic influence.
It’s unusual for Laos to find itself in the spotlight. The country, wedged between Thailand, Vietnam and China, and colonized by France in the 19th century, has long been one of Asia’s backwaters. Laos’s biggest claim to fame is that the U.S. dropped over two million tons of bombs here during its attempt to knock out the North Vietnamese Army’s cross-border supply chain during the Vietnam War.

Since then, China appears to have developed substantial influence here. Among other things, it built and launched Laos’s first satellite last year and has set out plans to build a $6 billion train line linking China to Vientiane, the Laotian capital. A drive around Vientiane shows the old French colonial architecture is gradually being overshadowed by Chinese-built shopping malls and other property investments.

“Most informed observers see China playing Laos like a puppet-master on parts of the Asean agenda, particularly the South China Sea dispute,” said Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center, a Honolulu-based think tank.
Beijing’s primary objective at these annual meetings is to fragment the Asean bloc, political scientists say. It demonstrated its ability to do so earlier this year when the Asean foreign ministers failed to agree on a statement opposing Beijing’s program of building artificial islands among the busy shipping lanes of the South China Sea. Diplomats blamed Laos and neighboring Cambodia, another beneficiary of Chinese largess, for the collapse.

Government officials in Laos didn’t respond to requests for comment, while Cambodia has previously stated its support for China’s preference to negotiate with other South China Sea claimants individually instead of as a group.

Still, Laos might not be the fawning Chinese satellite it appears to be.

Laos’s Communist Party installed a new leadership team in April which appears to be nurturing its already strong ties with Vietnam, one of China’s more vocal adversaries. President Bounnhang Vorachith’s first foreign visit was to the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. Laos intends to sell Vietnam large amounts of hydropower, one of the few industries driving its tiny, $12 billion-a-year economy.

Mr. Obama’s arrival might help to encourage this apparent shift away from Beijing, some diplomats have said.

U.S. officials describe the visit as an opportunity to improve Washington’s relations with the country. Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters Aug. 29 that the U.S. intends to increase its commitment to clearing unexploded bombs from Laos, which are still a significant threat in many rural communities.

China, which hasn’t commented publicly on the agenda for the meetings, is expected to lobby for the discussions to proceed in as comfortable a fashion as possible.

“It’s quite likely that China will continue to put pressure on Laos to keep the South China Sea off the agenda as much as possible,” said Ian Storey of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a think tank based in Singapore.

Source: Wall Street Journal