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How Laos Tries to Balance Its Powerful Neighbors

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HONG KONG — A rare spotlight is being cast on Laos as world leaders, including President Obama, prepare to gather in its capital, Vientiane, for meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, and other countries beginning on Tuesday.

A former French colony that gained full independence in 1954, Laos is one of the world’s few remaining Communist countries. It has long depended on its neighbors China, Vietnam and Thailand for investment and political patronage. But that reliance has often put it at the mercy of political forces beyond its control.

In an interview, Keith Barney, a lecturer at the Crawford School of Public Policy at Australian National University, speaks about the country’s history and its efforts to balance the attentions of its powerful neighbors.

Being a land in between larger powers, how has that affected Laos’s development?

This is Laos’s historical-diplomatic strategy: to not be tied too closely to any one patron or protector. Surrounded by Thailand, China to the north and Vietnam — three very powerful countries — Laos’s basic diplomatic interests are to seek alliances with all of them and make sure no one country has hegemonic control.

Could you provide an example from Laotian history?

Laos as a nation was of course created out of the French colonial period — they helped to create a sense of Lao nationalism in the early 1900s. Then, at the end of the Second World War, that Indochinese nationalism, which the French created to maintain control over their colonial holdings, turned into an anticolonial nationalism and a territorial nationalism in which Laos was seen as separate from Vietnam and Cambodia as well as claiming independence from France. That was a strong theme in the middle of the 20th century.

As the Communist period developed, Laos was very close with Vietnam. The leadership was trained in Vietnam and was closely allied with the Vietnamese Communist Party. So certainly, since the 1975 revolution, Vietnam has been Laos’s closest political partner. But they’ve also had strong economic ties with Thailand, and more recently, China is of course playing a very important role in the country. So I think it’s broadly evident through Laos’s history that they seek to create political and economic connections with all of their different neighbors.

Some think of the Vietnam War as something that happened only in Vietnam. But Laos was an important theater in the conflict, even though the United States did not publicly acknowledge its bombing there. What role did Laos play?

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was an incredibly important strategic asset for the North Vietnamese and the Viet Minh for flying troops and arms down into South Vietnam. So without the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and without that possibility of moving war equipment and men and materials down through Laos, the war would have played out very differently — and most historians would agree. So that area of Laos was always a strategic area for Vietnam, and they’ve continued to see Laos as part of their geostrategic area of interest.

That conflict also dovetailed with a civil war in Laos.

Beginning in the late 1940s, early 1950s, the Pathet Lao, the Communists, were drawing most of their young leaders from students studying in Hanoi — like the most famous president, Kaysone Phomvihane — and after the 1954 conflict at Dien Bien Phu, where France lost and agreed to independence for their Indochinese holdings. So the Pathet Lao held these two provinces in the northeast along Vietnam: Houaphan and Phongsaly. These were the Pathet Lao provinces, and then you had the royalists, the U.S.-backed government, holding the Mekong Valley and other provinces. From there, the Pathet Lao, backed by the Vietnamese Communists, basically sought to move Laos into a Communist sphere of influence.

What does President Obama’s coming visit mean for Laos?

For the government, I think it’s an important visit. My interpretation is that the Lao government also wants to maintain close connections with Western countries. There seems to be some evidence that the recent party congress in January 2016 represented a bit of a shift away from closer connections with China and back towards Vietnam.

I’d be cautious of oversimplifying that; I think Laos in fact tries to maintain connections with all of the different powers, so Laos would have a complex approach to those questions, not simply pivoting from one to the other in an either-or fashion. But part of that is Laos also tries to maintain close connections with countries like Japan, which is still the largest donor in the country, and with Western countries. So in that sense I think Laos would be interested in what a U.S. role in Southeast Asia could look like.

It’s a little bit interesting compared to Cambodia, which is seen as being much more closely connected to China. It’s evident in Cambodia’s approach to the South China Sea, where they’ve really been the most belligerent state in terms of blocking resolutions from ASEAN on the South China Sea. Laos is in a difficult position on this issue — clearly they can’t afford to completely alienate China, but they’re taking a bit of a different approach than Cambodia, is my sense. Laos is still trying to argue for resolutions coming out of ASEAN on the South China Sea, even if they might be very watered-down resolutions.

The Vietnam War — the bombing, specifically — took a huge toll on Laos, and leftover bombs are still killing people in the Laotian countryside. How might Obama’s presence in the country, or whatever he might say there, affect that issue of unexploded ordnance, or UXO?

It might be a bit less what he says and more the increased amount of aid that could go into UXO removal. It is still a pretty significant issue in many areas of the countryside. In the places where I work and do fieldwork, there are some companies that are doing UXO clearance. But there’s still a huge amount of land area affected by this, so I think increased U.S. support for UXO clearance would also be quite welcome.

Laos’s rivers, forests and minerals have been, in some ways, a blessing, but also a source of tension over the years. What are the key debates in Laos over how to manage its natural resources?

The most important sector is really mining, in terms of revenues for the government. Something like 40 percent of Laos’s exports are in minerals, and 30 percent of that is copper alone. So the two largest investments in gold and copper mines are pretty strategic areas of interest for Laos. They need to really manage this resource well if it’s going to be contributing to the development strategy of their country. In December 2015, Laos lifted its moratorium on their mining concessions, so that will be an interesting issue to watch, how mining moves forward again. These two companies were quite well managed — they were initiated by Australian companies but taken over by China in the last few years. They’re quite well regulated. There’s also a medium- and small-scale mining sector which has a lot of environmental problems associated with it.

In terms of hydropower, with all the controversies over the Mekong River and mainstream Mekong hydropower, Laos has arguably played a little bit of a cynical game in terms of undermining the process enshrined under the Mekong River Commission for the process of notification, prior consultation and agreement. Laos has basically been moving ahead with its two mainstream Mekong hydropower projects without full agreement from its neighbors, and it looks like a third Mekong hydropower project — Pak Beng, backed by a Chinese developer — is the next one that will be started soon. It really raises questions around what’s the level of political support in Laos for the Mekong River Commission — and for the Western donors to the Mekong River Commission, what their approach should be.

All this becomes quite interesting in terms of China’s new Lancang-Mekong Cooperation forum, which some observers say could be a competitor to the Mekong River Commission, led by China as opposed to Western donors. So it’s a really interesting moment in terms of how regional and global diplomacy is playing into the hydropower sector, and how all this is going to move forward.

Source: New York Times