LAOS INTERNATIONAL ISSUES AND FOREIGN RELATIONS

LAOS INTERNATIONAL ISSUES AND FOREIGN RELATIONS

Laos is located amid historic enemies and regional powers. Landlocked and impoverished, it offers fewer resources than its far larger neighbors and has lagged in Asia's economic boom. One of the poorest countries in Asia, it embraced isolationism under the communist regime that took power in 1975, resulting in economic stagnation. Most of its people still live by subsistence farming.

Laos was made a member of ASEAN in 1997. The Laotian government has had difficulty raising money to send delegations to meetings and sometimes doesn’t have enough English speakers to send full delegations.

Laos is very small. Many Laotians worry about being swallowed up or at least dominated by its much larger neighbors: China, Thailand and Vietnam. Laotians have traditionally been considered low-class and uncouth by other Southeast Asians.

Laos is highly reliant on foreign donors. Chinese economic influence is fast-rising in Laos, which has traditional political ties, as well as business links, with Vietnam. Associated Press reported in 2012: “In recent years, China has stepped up as Laos' principal source of assistance, with loans and grants of up to $350 million over the past two decades. But like many others in its region, Laos' government is wary of Beijing's intentions. And it has kept an envious eye on neighboring Vietnam's 40 percent surge in commercial trade with the United States over the past two years, as well as the sudden rapprochement between the U.S. and nearby Myanmar.

The Economist reported: “Although mainly distinguished by its repressive ways, Laos is not without friends. Japan seems to have paid for nearly every bus, park bench and rubbish bin in the capital, Vientiane. France, the former colonial power, is hopeful that its support for the government will lead to a revival of use of the French language in the country. In Vientiane, restaurants, bars and Internet cafés are kept in business by the community of aid workers rich enough to patronise them. [Source: The Economist, April 26, 2001]

Disputes - international: Southeast Asian states have enhanced border surveillance to check the spread of avian flu; talks continue on completion of demarcation with Thailand but disputes remain over islands in the Mekong River; concern among Mekong River Commission members that China's construction of dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries will affect water levels; Cambodia and Vietnam are concerned about Laos' extensive upstream dam construction. [Source: CIA World Factbook ++]

International organization participation: ADB, ARF, ASEAN, CP, EAS, FAO, G-77, IAEA, IBRD, ICAO, ICRM, IDA, IFAD, IFC, IFRCS, ILO, IMF, Interpol, IOC, IPU, ISO (subscriber), ITU, MIGA, NAM, OIF, OPCW, PCA, UN, UNCTAD, UNESCO, UNIDO, UNWTO, UPU, WCO, WFTU (NGOs), WHO, WIPO, WMO, WTO. ++

In November 2012, the 9th Asia-Europe Summit (ASEM) was held in Laos, and the government built a special media centre for the occasion.

Laos Hosts ASEAN Meetings in 2004 and 2005

Laos hosted major ASEAN meetings in November 2004 and July 2005. On the latter, in Vientiane, AP reported: “ Impoverished Laos, holding only its second such conference, deployed soldiers in armored cars at intersections in tropical Vientiane and along the main road to the nearby Mekong River separating the country from Thailand. The main venue's corrugated metal roof was pelted with rain Sunday, filling the cavernous interior with an earsplitting sizzle. Conference spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy said VIP meeting rooms were protected by a new layer of grass thatch - though the main hall was left unthatched. "Even if there is a downpour now, it will not disturb the meeting because we have grass covering the roof. The rain will hit the grass, not the roof," Yong said.

On the meeting in Vientiane in November 2004, AP reported: “Laos told its women to wear traditional skirts instead of pants to beautify the capital for the communist nation's first major summit, and blocked roads from the provinces to keep out any Hmong militants who might disrupt the historic meeting.Officials ordered motorcycles and three-wheeled taxis off the streets of Vientiane to help police maintain security for the 10th Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference, which opened in the small and sleepy capital. The conference is partly pre-empting an annual Buddhist festival that draws Laotians from overseas and the countryside to a temple in Vientiane. The festival usually lasts about two weeks, but this year's was cut short to three days, from Thursday to Saturday [Source: AP, November 26, 2004 **]

"It is the duty of all Laos people to help this meeting go successfully," Vientiane Deputy Governor Boonchan Singhawong said. "They have to abide by these measures to make the city look good and beautiful."Women in jeans were a no-no, and karaoke bars, pubs and traditional dance halls were closed for the conference, culminating in two days of leaders' summits starting Monday.Residents have removed unsightly awnings from shop houses and raised white fences to block eyesores.Laos hopes the summit can help net more sorely needed foreign investment and tourism, a growing industry. Tour operators in neighboring hotspots Thailand and Cambodia could add Laos to their package tours, said Thavipheth Oula, a Laos tourism official.Vientiane is on the Mekong River directly across from Thailand. **

“Two bomb explosions earlier this month on the capital's outskirts raised security fears ahead of the conference, though they caused no injuries. A small blast at jewelry store's metal workshop Thursday added to those jitters. The accident injured a silversmith, the shopowner said on condition of anonymity.Soldiers at checkpoints around the city blocked Laotians coming in from the rural and mountainous provinces. Only those with medical or family emergencies would be allowed through, said a soldier who identified himself only as Sgt. Buawan. **

“The U.S. government warned last month that militants might target the conference with bombings, and Laos state-run radio said this week that "bad elements" might plot violence and urged residents to keep an eye out."With many important guests from foreign countries meeting in Vientiane, they are trying harder to create trouble," the radio broadcasts said.But Laotian officials said they resented the U.S. warning and its implication that Laos might not keep a lid on attacks."We are not happy," Sayakane Sisouvong, a senior Foreign Affairs Ministry official, told The Associated Press. "It is our commitment to provide maximum security, so there is no point to create any news that would confuse people." The government typically uses "bad elements" as a reference to anti-government militants from the Hmong tribe, who fought alongside the CIA against communists here during the early 1970s. **

Peter Lloyd of ABC wrote: “One of the world's most reclusive nations has thrown open its doors to 800 journalists, more than 2,000 officials and a handful of heads of state, attending a summit meeting of South East Asian nations. For the communist regime in Laos, hosting the annual ASEAN get-together is an unprecedented and somewhat challenging exercise in hospitality. By day this normally sleepy capital has seen some remarkable transformations. Most schools and businesses have closed, and security has been ramped up. A 10.30pm curfew is in force, and the city has been locked down to keep out anti-government militants who threaten to disrupt the summit with a bombing campaign. Women have been told to wear traditional skirts instead of pants, and work crews have been busy in a citywide beautification program. Unsightly awnings have been removed from shop houses, and a new applied to cover potential eyesores. Yong Chanthalangsy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “Laos is one of the most secure countries in this region. We are a small country, we have a very peaceful life here, crime rate is among the lowest in the region, and we are proud of it. And we intend to keep this peaceful situation. [Source: Peter Lloyd, ABC, November 28, 2004 \+/ ]

Finding beds for around 3,000 officials and media has been perhaps the biggest challenge. Rumours persist of a shortage of bed sheets and blankets. Some have even suggested that the Australian media delegation arriving with the Prime Minister might have to share rooms. John Howard and other heads of state will have no such worries. The Lao authorities have built a deluxe compound for each and every leader. The inconvenience thus far has been to tourists, a lifeblood to this impoverished country, who've been shut out of the city for the sake of a smooth summit. Yong Chanthalangsy said: “ We request the tourists not to come to Vientiane capitals only. They may transit to older provinces, they may also come from older provinces to transit to older part of the country, but we – by taking these measures – we try to ease the demands, the pressure on hotels to our country. \+/

Missing and Arrested Foreigners in Laos

In April 1999, two Laos-born Hmong-Americans disappeared near the Thai-Laos border. One of them, Hua Ly, fought with the CIA-backed forces during the Vietnam War. The other, Michael Veng, was the son of Hmong resistance leader Vang Pao. As of 2001 nothing had been heard from them. The U.S. indicated its displeasure by delaying the appointment of an ambassador to Vientiane. [Source: The Economist, April 26, 2001]

Associated Press reported: The Lao Veterans of America called on the Laotian government to provide any information about two missing Laotian-Americans, Michael Vang of Fresno, Calif., and Houa Ly of Appleton, Wis Ly, who fought with CIA-backed forces in Laos during the Vietnam War, and Vang disappeared in April 1999 while on vacation. They were last seen boarding a boat on the Mekong River that divides Thailand and Laos. Some Laotian groups and some members of Congress say the Laotian government kidnapped, imprisoned and possibly killed the men. Laotian officials say they know nothing of their whereabouts. [Source: Frederic J. Frommer, Associated Press, February 24, 2000]

In June 2003, two Europeans and an American of Laotian origin—French cameraman Vincent Reynaud, Belgian photojournalist Thierry Falise and Naw Karl Mua, an ethnic Hmong American and Lutheran pastor in Minnesota—were arrested in connection with killing Laotian security forces in northern Laos and sentenced to 15 years for obstructing police work and illegally possessing a gun and explosives. Three Hmong rebels were also arrested and tried with the foreigners.

The three foreigners were reportedly seized after they emerged from a jungle where they went to meet the leader of a group of ethnic Hmong fighters that had earlier been accused of killing a guard on a night patrol. Press advocacy groups said they were being punished for reporting on the Hmong rebels. They were ultimately offered release if they accepted their guilt and refused their right to appeal.

Other foreigners have been arrested in Laos. A 50-year-old Australian businessman was detained for embezzlement. An Australian couple from Brisbane was detained for 10 months. Five European pro-democracy activists who started a small protest were deported rather imprisoned. The Europeans—three Italians, a Russian and a Belgian—were members of the Italy-based Transnational Radical Party.

Foreign Aid and Development in Laos

Laos is one of Asia's poorest nations and is highly reliant on foreign donors. Laos receives hundreds of millions of dollars a year in foreign aid. Donor nations have traditionally supplied the money for half of Laos's national budget and 80 percent of public investment. By some accounts foreign aid accounted for 16 percent of Laos’s GNP in the 1990s.

There are many of international aid organizations and NGOs in Laos, including the United Nations Development Program and the Asian Development Bank.

After seeing the traffic jams, pollution, and excesses that development has brought Thailand, the leader of Laos initially decided to open their country to the outside world at a slow pace.

Ian Timberlake of AFP wrote: “The government aims "to lift the country from underdevelopment by 2020." Donors and non-governmental organisations have cautioned the government over its growth strategy, which features large-scale foreign investment in resource sectors that potentially could have negative effects on socio-economic development. Chinese economic influence is fast-rising in Laos, which has traditional political ties, as well as business links, with Vietnam. [Source: Ian Timberlake, AFP, December 24, 2010]

Japan provides Laos with lots of foreign aid. In January 2009, for example, it gave Laos $12 million in grant aid for poverty reduction. Some of the programs have been criticized. For example, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported in November 2006 that wells built under Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) program cost 10 times more than similar wells built by a Japanese company as a goodwill gesture. Also a Japanese-built conference hall in the Vientiane area is little used because its location is inconvenient and the hall is not big enough to host large meetings. The criticized wells—305 of them built between 1997 and 2000 in Champasak and Salavan provinces—were built at a cost of $ 1.8 million, or about $6,000 per well.

Initially Japan supplied support for construction of the East-West Corridor. In response China bgean supporting construction of the North-South Corridor from Kunming to Bangkok. One diplomat in Southeast Asia told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Japan planted the seeds but China likely will harvest the fruits.”

See Economic Reforms

Laos Foreign Policy: Location, History and Ideology

More than most countries, Laos suffers the constraints of physical location in shaping its foreign policy. Historically, the landlocked Laotian kingdom of Lan Xang, situated along the middle stretch of the Mekong River, had to contend with the predatory kingdoms of Burma to the north, Vietnam to the east, and Siam (present-day Thailand) to the west. After these kingdoms' seventeenth-century period of ascendancy, the lowland Lao kingdom broke up into the principality of Louangphrabang (Luang Prabang), which survived by offering tribute to both east and west, and Vientiane and Champasak (Bassac), which were reduced by the end of the eighteenth century to tributaries of Siam. Vietnam then asserted suzerainty over Xiangkhoang and Khammouan to the west. Thus, the foreign relations of the Laotians reflected their geography--landlocked and narrowly confined by valleys and mountains that supported a limited, overwhelmingly agricultural population exposed to more numerous and productive neighbors. In addition, the lack of national cohesion among various tribal groups subsisting in the mountains diminished the thrust of Laotian statehood. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Starting in 1893, Laotian kingdoms were subjected to the "protection" of France, which reasserted Vietnamese claims against Siam to all Laotian territories east of the Mekong River and in Xaignabouri and Champasak. This period of subordination was followed by the intervention of the United States and Thailand after 1954, succeeded by Vietnamese communists after 1975. More recently, since 1989, foreign policy has veered back toward more independence, in relinquishing both Marxist-Leninist ideology and the special influence of Vietnam. *

The geographical and demographic confines of Laos have not been the only constraints on its foreign policy. Given the weakness of the state, the international environment has largely determined both the opportunities and the limits of national strategy. The most obvious recent example is the economic collapse and political breakup of the Soviet Union and the consequent retrenchment of its economic assistance throughout Indochina. This series of events helped cause Vietnam's withdrawal of its troops from Cambodia and Laos by 1990, which encouraged Thailand to reenter Indochina as a field for business. In turn, Vietnam sought to normalize relations with China, which also withdrew its military support from Cambodia. *

These policy shifts redefined the conceivable strategies for a government concerned with economic development and political leeway. The shibboleths of Marxism-Leninism and state-organized agriculture and industry were no longer appropriate. In need of economic advice and investment, Laos looked beyond Vietnam and the Soviet bloc, to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other international organizations, and aid from a few Western nations and Japan. Besides increasing dramatically the presence of Thai traders and investors, Laos responded positively to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and advice from various United Nations (UN) agencies. At the same time, it began to establish a legal foundation for the protection of business risk-takers. Thus, the road to "national uplift" no longer stretched through the alien fields of Soviet/Vietnamese collectivism; people in Mekong Valley towns could see more products in their markets, and peasants began to believe that communal agriculture was a government imposition not likely to return. *

Despite the security gained during the French protectorate, Laos lost ground economically because of its slowness in absorbing European technology and in developing trade beyond its borders. By and large, it failed to tap the mineral resources beneath its mountains, except for tin, which was mined by the French, and to investigate its oil potential. It did next to nothing to build an infrastructure for international trade. Even if a railroad system and reliable roads had been built, Laos still would have confronted potential controls over its access to the sea from Thailand or Vietnam. However, the hydroelectric capacity of the country has provided a major export that Thailand cannot afford to do without. *

Because the rugged Annamite Mountains separate the Mekong Valley from Vietnamese population centers to the east, physical communication with the Thai nation to the west has always been easier, even before the Friendship Bridge across the river was completed in April 1994. Thus, the threat of Thai intervention across the Mekong River cannot be treated lightly by the LPDR's military planners, particularly under dry season conditions. At the same time, the ease of Vietnamese infiltration through the Annamite Mountains was thoroughly demonstrated during the years of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which led across southeastern Laos into the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). *

Basic Goals and Bureaucratic Complications of Laos’s Foreign Policy

The basic goals of foreign policy have not differed from one regime to another. National security or survival are fundamental concerns, and both the RLG and the LPDR have striven to preserve a Laotian state, even though their philosophies for organizing and serving the people differed fundamentally. In the 1990s, ideology shifted away from relentless Marxism-Leninism to "state capitalism" and single-party "democracy." Such formulations place Laos outside any rigid ideological camp and leave the national agenda open to the general promise of economic development. Officially, the government has dedicated itself to a foreign policy of peace, "independence, friendship and non-alignment," with the instrument for achieving those conditions being the LPRP. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In the 1940s, the ICP provided the most assertive challenge to colonialism. With the ending of French and United States dominance over the Laotian peoples, the communist-inspired LPRP has wrestled with the next challenge--economic and national development. The success of that undertaking and the survival of the party that has assumed it remains in the balance in the 1990s. The key to success, however, lies in developing and maintaining fruitful foreign relations. *

A serious need for skilled technical and economic personnel still hinders the government's dealings with international agencies and businesspeople. Thousands of the most trained and enterprising citizens fled the country after 1975. A related problem for foreign policy makers is the relative lack of young university graduates who are fluent in English and familiar with international economics. The several thousand Laotian students sent between 1975 and the late 1980s to the Soviet Union and its East European allies for several years of training often have returned without tangible or relevant skills. The hundreds of training years provided in the Soviet Union did not produce a solid base of junior diplomatic officers intellectually prepared to move easily among UN economic development agencies or in Western state capitals. *

In the 1990s, education in Western states has become essential for advancement. As the horizon broadened for Laotian diplomats and businesspersons, elite families in Laos sought training in United States or Australian universities. Thailand is also willing to pick up some of the demand for educational opportunity, and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states are also a potential source for scholarships. Recruitment of a professional foreign service is no easier in these circumstances. Moreover, party experience seems to count more heavily than sophistication in language and diplomatic training, even in the realm of foreign relations. *

Economic Concerns of Laos’s Foreign Policy

The retarded economic diversification and development of Laos constrained its foreign policy opportunities and generated its dependency in succession upon France, the United States, and the Soviet bloc. Following the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, Laos has become heavily dependent upon the advice and contributions of UN agencies and the readiness of regional states such as Australia, Japan, and Thailand to invest in its economy. Sweden has also made significant economic contributions. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

There has been a dramatic shift away from maintaining basic solidarity with a military/political bloc of mentors--first, the United States regional security alliance and then the "special relations" of Vietnamese-influenced Marxism-Leninism--to maximizing donor-recipient relations with UN agencies, state donors, and private investors. Although the universe of relations has not essentially grown, especially with Russia cutting back on its assistance, the expectation of genuine economic progress has begun to creep into economic dealings with outsiders. By moving resolutely and responding to Thai and Chinese gestures, Laos has broadened its range of donors, trading partners, and investors. The presence of Thai traders and investors has dramatically increased. *

The degree to which Laos has depended upon outside donors and investors, and which ones, has been a function not only of need but also political choice, a dependence that was carefully controlled during Kaysone Phomvihan's tutorship. Without his pervasive leadership, foreign economic relations might have fallen victim to internal rivalries between ministries and factions within the party. *

However, through legislation enacted by the National Assembly in 1991 of a basic criminal and investment code and the creation of a judiciary, Laos opened its doors wider to serious investors. In addition, the stabilization of foreign exchange rates and inflation signaled major steps toward engaging constructively with countries outside the ideological blocs within which it used to confine itself. The new institutions require a few years of serious testing, but a Burma-like return to stagnation seems unlikely, even with Kaysone's departure from the helm. The tantalizing images of Thailand's growth and prosperity, conveyed by television along the Mekong border, and increasingly easier travel across the river--in both directions--makes the economic policy of openness seem all but irreversible. *

Laos’s Relations with Vietnam

Vietnam is Laos’s closest ally, and has been like Laos’s Communist big brother. In many ways Vietnam has dominated Laos politically the same way that Syria dominated Lebanon for many years. Vietnamese Communists fought alongside Laotian Communists in the Vietnam War and were instrumental in the Pathet Lao’s seizure of power in 1975. Vietnam is believed to have given Laos secret military aid to fight the resurgent Hmong rebellion in the countryside.

The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP, Pathet Lao) has had close ties with Vietnam but has maintained its own identity. Vietnam has exerted great political influence over Laos. Many of its leaders were trained or educated in Vietnam or by Vietnamese. Vietnam’s influence in Laos remains strong primary based on the ties of old timers that dominate the Politburo and their mentors in Vietnam.

In 1992 the long-standing Vietnamese ambassador to Laos, a veteran of fourteen years' service, characterized the relationship as composed "d'amitié et de coopération multiforme entre les pays" (of friendship and diverse cooperation between the two countries). This pronouncement was far less compelling than the "objective law of existence and development" formulation sometimes expressed in the past. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Although Vietnam's historical record of leadership in the revolution and its military power and proximity will not cease to exist, Laos struck out ahead of Vietnam with its New Economic Mechanism to introduce market mechanisms into its economy. In so doing, Laos has opened the door to rapprochement with Thailand and China at some expense to its special dependence on Vietnam. Laos might have reached the same point of normalization in following Vietnam's economic and diplomatic change, but by moving ahead resolutely and responding to Thai and Chinese gestures, Laos has broadened its range of donors, trading partners, and investors independent of Vietnam's attempts to accomplish the same goal. Thus, Vietnam remains in the shadows as a mentor and emergency ally, and the tutelage of Laos has shifted dramatically to development banks and international entrepreneurs. *

Vietnam is also one of the largest investors in Laos with 69 projects worth US$500 million as of 2006, and continues to facilitate the transportation of Lao goods heading to other countries. Statistically, their two-way trade stood at US$2.2 billion from 1999-2005. In 2005 alone, it was valued at US$165 million, up 15.4 per cent from the previous year. [Source: Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun, The Nation, December 4, 2006]

History of Laos’s Relations with Vietnam

Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun wrote in the Thai newspaper The Nation: “Traditionally, Laos found its security in close ties with Vietnam. Their "special relationship" can be traced back to the 1930s when the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) and the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) were fighting together against the French for their independence. These intimate links enabled Vietnam to exercise a controlling influence over the Lao communist movement, and put a strain on Lao-Chinese relations, particularly after Vientiane supported Hanoi's occupation of Cambodia in 1978. [Source: Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun, The Nation, December 4, 2006, Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an independent writer based in Singapore <=>]

“Toward the end of the Cold War, Laos sought to reduce its dependence on Vietnam and reached out to more economically advanced countries to help rejuvenate the moribund economy. After diplomatic normalisation in 1988, China overwhelmed Laos with financial and technical assistance in an attempt to pull Vientiane into its orbit. The rise of China's soft power has compelled Vietnam to revise its strategy in order to maintain its influence in Laos. This was where China and Vietnam's tug of war over Laos began.” <=>

Relations with Vietnam had secretly set the strategy for the LPRP during the struggle to achieve full power, and the "sudden" opportunity to establish the LPDR in 1975 left no leeway to consider foreign policy alignments other than a continuation of the "special relations" with Vietnam. The relationship cultivated in the revolutionary stage predisposed Laos to Indochinese solidarity in the reconstruction and "socialist construction" phases and all but ensured that relations or alignments with China and Thailand would be wary and potentially unfriendly. Further, the LPRP, unlike the Cambodian communists under Pol Pot, was far too accustomed to accepting Vietnamese advice to consider striking out on its own. The final seizure of power by the hitherto secret LPRP in 1975 brought both a public acknowledgment of the previously hidden North Vietnamese guidance of the party and genuine expressions of gratitude by the LPRP to its Vietnamese partners. The challenge facing the ruling group--the construction of a socialist society-- was seen as a natural extension of past collaboration with North Vietnam. The revolution was simply entering a new phase in 1975, and the LPRP leaders congratulated themselves upon ousting the "imperialists" and looked forward to advice and economic as well as military support, which was not available from any neighbor or counterrevolutionary state. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

LPRP leaders were accustomed to discussing policies as well as studying doctrine in Hanoi. They formalized governmental contacts with their mentors at biannual meetings of the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam starting in 1980 and through the joint Vietnam-Laos Cooperative Commission, which met annually to review progress of various projects. Other levels of cooperation between Laos and Vietnam existed, for example, party-to-party meetings and province-to-province exchanges, as well as mass organizations for youths and women. Meetings of the commission were held regularly. *

The primary channels for Vietnam's influence in Laos, however, were the LPRP and the LPA. In the LPRP, long-standing collaboration and consultation at the very top made special committees unnecessary, whereas in the LPA, the Vietnamese advisers, instructors, and troops on station constituted a pervasive, inescapable influence, even though they scrupulously avoided public exposure by sticking to their designated base areas. Cooperation in the military field was probably the most extensive, with logistics, training, and communications largely supplied by Vietnam throughout the 1970s and 1980s (heavy ordnance and aircraft were provided by the Soviet Union). *

The phrase "special relations" came into general use by both parties after 1976, and in July 1977, the signing of the twentyfive -year Lao-Vietnamese Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation legitimized the stationing of Vietnamese army troops in Laos for its protection against hostile or counterrevolutionary neighbors. Another element of cooperation involved hundreds of Vietnamese advisers who mentored their Laotian counterparts in virtually all the ministries in Vientiane. Hundreds of LPRP stalwarts and technicians studied in institutes of Marxism-Leninism or technical schools in Hanoi. *

The resources that Vietnam was able to bestow upon its revolutionary partner, however, were severely limited by the physical destruction of war and the deadening orthodoxy of its economic structures and policies. However, it could put in a good word for its Laotian apprentices with the Soviet Union, which in turn could recommend economic assistance projects to its East European satellite states. Yet, Vietnam's influence on Laos was determined by economic assistance and ideology as well as by geographical and historical proximity. The two nations fit together, as the leaders liked to say, "like lips and teeth." Vietnam provided landlocked Laos a route to the sea, and the mountainous region of eastern Laos provided Vietnam a forward strategic position for challenging Thai hegemony in the Mekong Valley. *

During the 1980s, Vietnam's regional opponents attributed to it a neocolonial ambition to create an "Indochina Federation." This phrase can be found in early pronouncements of the ICP in its struggle against the French colonial structures in Indochina. The charge, exaggerated as it was, lost its currency once Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia in 1989 and subsequently from Laos. Laos's dependence on Vietnam since 1975 could then be perceived as a natural extension of their collaboration and solidarity in revolution rather than as domination by Vietnam. *

With the departure of Vietnamese military forces--except for some construction engineers--and the passing of most senior Vietnamese revolutionary partners, the magnetism of the special relationship lost its grip. Further, Vietnam was never able to muster large-scale economic aid programs. It launched only 200 assistance projects between 1975 and 1985, whereas the Soviet Union generated considerably more in the way of contributions. *

Laos Relations with Thailand

Thais and Lao people are very similar ethnically and linguistically. Many of Laos’s primary population center are on the opposite side of the Mekong River from Thailand. Until 1975, the Mekong was more of unifier between Thailand and Laos than a frontier. Villages in the border area have traditionally participated in each other festivals. Many Laotians have studied in Thailand. Thailand has traditionally been the largest foreign investor in Laos and buys up much of the energy produced by Laos’s dams. Thai television shows and pop music are popular in Laos.

Thailand is significantly richer than Laos. The average income in Laos is about one seventh of that in Thailand. Many Thais regard Laos as an extension of Thailand’s northeastern Isan province. Many Laotians resent this and the notion that Laos is little more than a little brother to richer, more populous Thailand. They are worried about being dominated by Thailand. A rallying cry for freedom from Thai dominance has been Laos pen Lao —“Laos is for the Lao.” Even so, the Lao people have a great deal of affection for Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Thai royal family, who have tried hard to improve relations between Thailand and Laos. Many Laotians would prefer to be under the influence of the Thais than the Vietnamese.

In some respects, Thailand can be seen as a greater threat to the country's independence than Vietnam because of its closer cultural affinity (Theravada Buddhism), its easier access, and its control over the railroad and highway routes to the sea. The Mekong River, which both sides have an interest in making a "river of true peace and friendship"--as their respective prime ministers called for in 1976--also provides a north-south artery during the rainy season. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

See History, Trade, Foreign Investment, Energy

Dams in Laos are a key source of electricity for Thailand and a key source of revenues for Laos. Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation in 2003: “When Thailand and Laos negotiated the price for hydroelectricity, the two countries faced a dilemma. At one point, Laos was unhappy with Thailand for failing to honour the agreed price which was fixed before the 1997 economic turbulence. After the crisis, Thailand was broke and unable to pay the agreed amount. However, after long and protracted negotiations, both sides agreed on a new price that reflected the economic realities of the post-1997 era. Had Laos adhered to the legal purchasing agreement the two sides would not have been able to reach a compromise. Certainly, the Malaysia-Singapore water issue is far more complex than the Thai-Laos hydroelectricity deal. The point is, when Thailand and Laos negotiated over the price their leaders did not engage in blame-games but chose to speak of their long historical and cultural ties and good neighbourliness. They even danced together. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, July 2003]

Recent History of Laos Relations with Thailand

Relations with Thailand have been uneven. An alarming patrol boat shooting incident occurred in 1980, but this brief encounter was overshadowed by the border disputes and military clashes of 1984 and 1987 in Xaignabouri Province west of the Mekong. These conflicts originated in rival claims to forest resources based on maps from the early days of the French protectorate. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In 1987 and 1988, a bitter border dispute between Thailand and Laos lasted three months and left over 100 Thai and Lao soldiers dead. In the early 2000s, a Thai patrol boat stopped a Laotian vessel smuggling a relatively small amount of beer across the Mekong River. The confrontation left four Lao men dead. The boat was impounded on the Thai side of the border.

The determination in 1988 of Thai prime minister Chatichai Choonhaven to open up the Indochina market abruptly turned a deadly conflict into a wave of goodwill gestures and business ventures. Kaysone paid an official visit to Bangkok in 1989, his first since the brief 1979 rapprochement with Prime Minister General Kriangsak Chomanand. These gestures were followed by official visits by Princess Maha Chakkri in March 1990 and Crown Prince Maha Wachirolongkon in June 1992. An irony of this process of reacquaintance was the dropping from the Politburo in 1992 of Army Chief of Staff General Sisavat Keobounphan, who had dealt closely and effectively with the Thai military command in restoring neighborly relations but who apparently was considered by his party colleagues to have indulged in personal gains. Indeed, this corruption of a senior party leader symbolizes the fear among some Laotian leaders that Thailand, with its materialism and business strength and greed, "want to eat us." *

Two political issues slowed rapprochement during the 1980s: first, the continuing issue of Laotian migrants and refugees remaining in temporary camps--whom Thailand had no desire to accept as immigrants--and second, Laotian and Hmong resistance groups who used the camps as a base. The Hmong constituted half of the camp dwellers and were expected to avoid repatriation the longest, out of fear of reprisal and hope for national autonomy. Thailand announced in July 1992, however, that Laotian refugees who have not returned home or found third-country resettlement by 1995 will be classified as illegal immigrants and face deportation. *

In the first few years of rapprochement, Thai businesspersons have not threatened to buy up long-term economic opportunities in Laos because they seem to seek shorter-term commercial ventures. Yet the possibility of heavy interdependence generated by Thai investors remains. A Thai business presence in Laos will probably depend on the continuing demonstration of Laos's independence from Vietnam. *

The persistence of a resistance movement since 1975 is attributable to permissive policies on the part of Thailand on behalf of their former Laotian cohorts. With the demise of the Cold War, the motivation to harass the LPDR and its Vietnamese military partners has dwindled. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will continue to press the Thai military command to live up to its March 1991 agreement to disarm rebels and discourage Laotian sabotage operations. At the same time, Thailand has made clear its unwillingness to assimilate Hmong refugees. *

The threat of a return of Vietnamese troops remains as a cautionary note to the Thai military, who prefer to keep Laos as a buffer rather than the military line of contact with the Vietnamese. The Friendship Bridge should open the interior to more foreign trucking and commerce and more openly reveal any foreign military presence in Laos. *

In recent years relations between Laos and Thailand have been obscured by issues involving refugees or economic migrants, The exodus of tens of thousands of middle-class lowland Lao and mountain dwelling Hmong across the Mekong into Thailand created a tense border that Thailand preferred to close off to commerce of any kind. An improved trade relationship has been achieved in spite of past feelings of superiority or victimization, and growing interdependence may make the path easier to follow. *

See Hmong Refugees in Thailand

Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge

The First Friendship (Mittaphan) bridge across the Mekong River connects the Thai city of Nong Khai with the Lao port of Tha Nalaeng. Built mostly with Australia money, it opened in 1994 and is 1,174 meters long and 19 kilometers southeast of Vientiane, the capital and main city in Laos. The bridge has two 3.5 meters (11 feet 6 in) wide road lanes, two 1.5 meters (4 feet 11 in) wide footpaths and a single 1,000 mm gauge railway line in the middle, straddling the narrow central reservation.

Opened on April 8, 1994, it was the first bridge across the lower Mekong, and the second on the full course of the Mekong. The cost was about $30 million, funded by the Australian government as development aid for Laos. The bridge was built by Australian companies as a demonstration of their ability to complete major infrastructural projects in Southeast Asia. The official name of the bridge was changed by the addition of "First" after the Second Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge further south at Savannakhet opened in January 2007. [Source: Wikipedia]

Traffic on the bridge drives on the left, as in Thailand, while traffic in Laos drives on the right. The changeover at the Lao end, just before the border post, is controlled by traffic lights. A shuttle bus service operates across the bridge, between the Lao and Thai border posts. The bridge is part of the AH12 Asian Highway Network. A metre-gauge rail track from Nong Khai station runs along the centre of the bridge. Road traffic is stopped when a train is crossing.

On March 20, 2004, an agreement between the Thai and Lao governments was signed to extend the railway to Thanaleng Railway Station in Laos, about 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) from the bridge. This will be the first railway link to Laos (but not the first railway, as a short portage line once existed). The Thai government agreed to finance the line through a combination of grant and loan. Construction formally began on January 19, 2007. Test trains began running on July 4, 2008. Formal inauguration occurred on March 5, 2009.

On February 22, 2006, approval of funding for the rail line from Thanaleng Railway Station to Vientiane, about 9 kilometer, was announced by the French Development Agency. In November 2010 plans to extend the service from Thanaleng to Vientiane were abandoned. A posited high-speed rail link from China to Thailand through Laos would make the extension redundant. It would also necessitate the construction of a new bridge near to the current First Friendship Bridge. In 2011, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's revised plan prioritises domestic rail expansion over the ambitious regional connectivity plan spearheaded by China. Since February 2010 the Eastern and Oriental Express crosses the Mekong via the bridge into Laos.

Second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge

The second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge—the 1.6-kilometer-long Second Mekong International bridge over the Mekong River between Savannkhet in Laos and Mukdahan in Thailand----opened in 2006. Built with money from Japan’s official development assistance (ODA) program and the Sumitomo Mitsui construction (a Chinese company), the bridge cost $75 million to make. The bridge was scheduled to be completed sooner but was delayed by the Asian financial crisis. Eight construction workers died in an accident in July 2005. The bridge is the final portion of the East-West economic Corridor.

The second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge has two traffic lanes 12 meters in width and 1,600 meters long. Officially inaugurated by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand and Lao Vice President Bounnhang Vorachith, it is part of the land transport development plan of the East-West economic corridor running through Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. Bridge construction began on March 21, 2004 and took three years to complete. The bridge is expected not only to promote overland tourism in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, but also to facilitate trade and investment in the Mekong subregion. As of 2011 more than 5,000 vehicles used the bridge daily, generating taxes and fee revenue to the Thai government of 60,000 baht a day on average.

Kyodo reported: “The Japan Bank for International Cooperation provided 8.09 billion yen (about $80 million) in soft loans to both Thailand and Laos for the shared construction costs. Thailand borrowed 4.079 billion yen, Laos borrowed the other 4.011 billion yen. The bridge is part of the transportation initiative headed by the Asian Development Bank known as the "East-West Economic Corridor." The idea is to create transportation corridor running the entire width of mainland Southeast Asia, approximately 1,500 kilometres long, linking the Andaman Sea from Mawlamyine in eastern Myanmar to the South China Sea. [Source: Kyodo, December 20, 2006 ==]

Thai-Lao Friendship Bridges No.3 and No. 4

The Third Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge over the Mekong is a bridge that connects Nakhon Phanom Province in Thailand with Thakhek, Khammouane in Laos. The bridge's foundation stone was laid on March 6, 2009, and it opened for traffic on November 11, 2011. The bridge is 1423 metres long and 13 metres wide. The name "Third Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge" was previously also used to refer to the planned bridge from Chiang Khong, Thailand to Huay Xai, Laos, but this bridge is now known as the Fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Fourth Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River, linking Chiang Rai Province of Thailand and Ban Houayxay in Laos, opened in December 2013. About 480 meters long and about 14.70 meters wide, the bridge is about 10 kilometers from Amphoe Chiang Khong (Chiang Khong District) in Thailand and about 12 kilometers from Ban Houayxay of Laos. The Thais, Laotians, and Chinese have jointly invested about 1,900 million Baht in the budget for this construction project. The share will then be divided in half between the Thailand and China.

On the official opening of the Fourth Thai-Lao bridge, the Bangkok Post reported: “Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn officially opened the Fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge across the Mekong River, linking Chiang Rai province with Bokeo in Laos. The box girder bridge is a 1.57-billion-baht joint investment between Thailand and China to improve transport and boost trade and tourism in the Greater Mekong Subregion, an economic area shared by the two nations with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Thailand and China equally shared the cost of the construction of the bridge. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Laos Vice President Bounnhang Vorachit were also present at the opening ceremony. [Source: Bangkok Post, December 2013]

Phitsanu Thepthong wrote in the Bangkok Post, “The fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge will further increase trade and travel not only between the two countries but also among the six countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS). The GMS comprises countries sharing the Mekong River: Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and China's Yunnan province and Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. [Source: Phitsanu Thepthong, Bangkok Post, February 16, 2011 \~\]

“The project, part of North-South Economic Corridor International Bridge Project, will connect with Route 3A (East), running between Bangkok, Chiang Rai and Kunming in South China and would benefit commercial traffic between the two countries through Laos's Laungnamtha province. The new bridge is expected to boost the trade potential of both lignite imports from Laos and Thai consumer goods. A second, larger port is under construction in Chiang Rai's Chiang Saen district in order to link Mekong River routes between China, Laos, Burma, and Thailand. The original Chiang Saen port is now overwhelmed by the increase in cross-border traffic. \~\

“The CR5-KT Group of China and Krung Thon Engineering of Thailand jointly constructed the facilities of the 11-km-long road with the bridge, with a combined budget of Thailand and China of US$44.8 million (1.38 billion baht) plus a consulting fee of 2.5 million baht. For the financing of the bridge, Beijing has granted a loan of US$20 million through the Lao government in 2008 for spending on bridge construction, and the Thai government also spent about 700 million baht. Trade with Burma and Laos along the Chiang Rai border from January to November 2010 was worth 18.27 billion baht, with Thai exports accounting for 15.51 billion, raising the country's trade surplus by 38.6 percent to 12.76 billion.” \~\

Laos Relations with China

Pro-Soviet and pro-Vietnam Laos broke off relations with China after China fought a brief war with Vietnam in 1979. Relations with China were restored after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 2003, China has ranked first in Laos in the number of direct investments projects. Since 2008 it has ranked first in total amount of money spent. China built the new stadium in Vientiane used to host the Southeast Asia Games in December 2009.

In the mid 1960s, the Chinese government supported the Communist insurgents in Vietnam, Cambodia Burma and Laos. In 2001 Chinese leader Jiang Zemin visited Laos. In 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao also visited the country. China is building roads and a bridge in northern Laos and is engaged in other infrastructure projects. China built a $7.2 million cultural center in Vientiane. Reuters reported: “Resource-hungry China is one of the biggest foreign investors in Laos. Beijing has poured money into rubber plantations, energy and infrastructure projects in remote corners of the country. An influx of newly-rich Chinese visitors has helped make tourism a key source of foreign exchange.”

Relations with China have traditionally consisted of trade and aid, largely in road construction in the northern provinces of Laos, without directly challenging the interests of Thailand or Vietnam in the central and southern regions. However, Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 to unseat then prime minister Pol Pot, provoked China into a limited invasion of Vietnam-- approximately nineteen kilometers deep--to "teach Vietnam a lesson." Laos was caught in a dangerous bind, not wanting to further provoke China, but not able to oppose its special partner, Vietnam. The Laotian leadership survived the dilemma by making slightly delayed pronouncements in support of Vietnam after some intraparty debate and by sharply reducing diplomatic relations with China to the chargé d'affaires level--without a full break. The low point in Sino-Laotian relations came in 1979, with reports of Chinese assistance and training of Hmong resistance forces under General Vang Pao in China's Yunnan Province. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

This hostile relationship gradually softened, however, and in 1989 Prime Minister Kaysone paid a state visit to Beijing. In 1991 Kaysone chose to spend his vacation in China rather than make his customary visit to the Soviet Union. Diplomatic and party-to-party relations were normalized in 1989. Trade expanded from the local sale of consumer goods to the granting of eleven investment licenses in 1991--including an automotive assembly plant. Following the establishment of the Laotian-Chinese Joint Border Committee in 1991, meetings held during 1992 resulted in an agreement delineating their common border. China's commercial investments and trade with Laos have expanded quietly, but not dramatically, in 1993 and 1994. Unlike its other neighbors, China has not historically dominated the Laotians. In the final analysis, China represents the most powerful remaining communist state to which Laos might turn for support against Thai or Vietnamese hegemony. *

In 2006 Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun wrote in the Thai newspaper The Nation: “Beijing has recently assisted in the improvement of Lao transportation infrastructure, particularly highways linking China with Thailand. This assistance has met with a favourable response from Laos, which is keen to promote itself as a "land-linked" country rather than a "landlocked" one. [Source: Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun, The Nation, December 4, 2006]

Initially Japan supplied support for construction of the East-West Corridor. In response China bgean supporting construction of the North-South Corridor from Kunming to Bangkok. One diplomat in Southeast Asia told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Japan planted the seeds but China likely will harvest the fruits.”

Chinese Companies Boosts Their Investments in Laos

In December 2012, Bloomberg reported: “A Shanghai-based firm has started construction on a $1.6 billion property project in Vientiane. Shanghai Wanfeng Group, the closely held developer of shopping malls in China, reached agreement with the Lao government in December 2011 to develop 365 hectares (900 acres) around That Luang Lake into a commercial, residential and tourist complex.[Source: Bloomberg, December 22, 2012 <>]

“Chinese firms, from dam builders to mall developers are boosting investment in Laos. China CAMC Engineering Co. (002051) completed the first phase of a $100 million residential project on a 1.6 kilometer (1 mile) section of the Mekong river waterfront in time to accommodate leaders attending the ninth Asia-Europe Meeting in November 2012. The Yunnan Provincial Overseas Investment Co., a Chinese government investment arm, is developing another property project in the city valued at $40 million. <>

“China’s total investment in Laos was $3.3 billion in 2012, making China the third-largest foreign investor in the landlocked nation of 6 million people, after Thailand and Vietnam, Xinhua news agency reported citing the Ministry of Trade.” <>

China Land Deal Draws Criticism in Vientiane

In 2008, Reuters reported: “In the eyes of Laos' Communist rulers, trading Vientiane's biggest wetland for a new sports stadium seemed like a good bargain. But the handover of the That Luang marsh to a Chinese-led joint venture has been the talk of this sleepy capital, fuelling rumors and resentment of Beijing's growing influence over its impoverished, landlocked neighbor. More surprisingly, the discontent has forced the Lao government, one of Asia's most secretive, to publicly explain the swap of a prime piece of land for a new sports complex that will host the Southeast Asian Games in 2009. "Many people are angry with the government," said Lin, whose home sits near the marsh on the outskirts of the city of 460,000. [Source: Reuters, April 7, 2008 ~~]

“Rumors about a Chinese takeover of the 20 square kilometer (7.7 square miles) wetland -- home to 20 species of fish, rice paddies and ringed by 17 villages -- began to swirl in September, 2007. "We heard that 4,500 families would come from China. Many people were worried," he said of fears they would be evicted. "My feeling is 'why do we have to give this land to China'? If we are not ready to host the SEA Games, why do we need it? The government just wants to improve its image." Rumors of a Chinatown rising from the marsh located near the Buddhist monument of That Luang, the country's national symbol, struck many residents as too close to home. ~~

“In a bid to defuse the controversy, Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad held a rare news conference in February where he denied plans "to bring 50,000 Chinese families to live in the area," according the Lao news agency KPL. He confirmed a Chinese-Lao joint venture was given a 50-year concession on 1,600 hectares (3,950 acres) of land in exchange for Beijing's financing and construction of the sports complex, which includes two indoor stadiums, swimming pools and tennis courts. The joint venture, 95-percent held by the Chinese, could sell industrial and residential units to Lao and foreigners, but he insisted Chinese buyers would get no special privileges. ~~

“Privately, government officials have warned foreigners about the sensitivity of the marsh development. "The first thing they said was 'don't call it Chinatown,"' one NGO worker said of a meeting with government officials.Talk of a Chinese enclave has probably been overblown, analysts say, but the government's rare PR campaign may also be aimed at internal critics of the plan. "I think it's more likely due to some opposition coming from within the party. They're not going to worry about the streets," said Martin Stuart-Fox, a retired professor and Laos expert. "If one member of the politburo cleared all this and the kickbacks were extensive to him and his patronage network, others may not be happy. They can simply use the China card and say this is not a good thing," he said. ~~

“Vientiane's mayor has said That Luang will be a model of good urban and environmental planning that will vault his city into the ranks of other regional capitals. "Many people have raised questions about whether the development of the marsh could damage the environment, but in fact it has already been polluted by local residents," Sinlavong Khoutphaythoune said. Human activity has shrunk the marsh over the years, but it still provides valuable agricultural land, flood control and natural treatment of city waste water, environmentalists say. A World Wildlife Fund study has valued the goods and services from the marsh at nearly $5 million, of which 40 percent directly benefited people in the area. "There are ways you could develop the area and keep many of the wetlands services it provides," said Pauline Gerrard, advisor on a project piloting the use of artificial wetlands to treat waste water flowing into the marsh. ~~

“The government has said the concession area will include a 450-hectare (1,110-acre) holding pond for flood control, but it's not clear how it would work within the marsh. Meanwhile, authorities have promised "reasonable" compensation for affected residents. But that has sparked more rumors that any payments would be a fraction of the value of the land, which some estimates put at $120 a square meter. Complicating any compensation effort is the fact that although families have lived around the marsh for decades, many do not have proper land certificates. "The government says bad people are spreading rumors, but we hear nothing about what will happen to our land," one man told Reuters from his two-room wooden home on the edge of the marsh. ~~

China and Vietnam Vie for Influence in Laos

In February 2011, Amelie Bottolier-Depois of AFP wrote: “Both Hanoi and Beijing vie for influence in one of the world's poorest countries. China's economic role in Laos has grown considerably in recent years as it eyes the tiny and impoverished nation's natural resources, including rubber, and the geographical access the country offers to Thailand. Its influence has prompted concern among some party members and Vietnamese who see Laos as an important part of their defence strategy. [Source: Amelie Bottolier-Depois, AFP, March 17, 2011 <<>>]

"The greater the Chinese presence, the more nervous the Vietnamese become," Martin Stuart Fox, a professor of history at the University of Queensland, told AFP. For the past five years, Vietnam has been one the top three foreign investors in Laos, along with China and Thailand. Their investments have outpaced foreign aid, on which the country relied completely until recently.” <<>>

In 2006 Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun wrote in the Thai newspaper The Nation: “Impoverished and landlocked Laos has lately been busy rolling out the red carpet to welcome the leaders of its two dominant neighbours, Vietnam and China. The competition for influence over Laos between these two historic rivals has been increasingly visible.Such competing leadership has emerged at a time when the country is transforming its foreign policy to cope with the new regional environment. [Source: Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun, The Nation, December 4, 2006, Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an independent writer based in Singapore <=>]

“In October 2006, Nong Duc Manh, secretary-general of the Communist Party of Vietnam, paid a visit to Vientiane ostensibly to strengthen bilateral ties and to offset growing Chinese influence. He reiterated his country's contribution to the Lao economy. The Vietnamese leader also highlighted the traditional bond of solidarity between the two Parties, the LPRP and the VCP, by using terms such as "the victory of the struggle for national independence" and "security and development of the two countries" in his discussions with his Lao counterpart. This linguistic precision, of historical importance, was employed to remind elderly LPRP cadres not to forget Hanoi's place in Lao policy. <=>

“Later in November, the Chinese Communist Party general secretary and President Hu Jintao also visited Vientiane in more grandiose style - and with lots of goodies in the bag for the Lao leaders. For China, Laos is not just another outlying neighbour sullied by poverty. Laos represents strategic interests for China for a number of reasons. Beijing hopes to out-manoeuvre Vietnam, a country which has historically been wary of China and whose modern relations have been marked by territorial and political disputes. But China has also obtained timber and mineral resources like copper and gold from Laos to feed its booming economy, and the country gives China land access to the Thai market and ports. <=>

“President Hu showered his counterpart with generous gifts such as a US$12.7 million economic-technical cooperation project, debt clearance for seven projects worth US$33 million, as well as Chinese support for low-interest loans in various joint programmes. China also launched a new radio service - the China Radio International (CRI) Vientiane 93.0 FM - to be broadcast in Lao, English and Mandarin Chinese. This is seen as a bold move to raise cultural cooperation to a new level. In the competition for influence in Laos, China recognises that a long-term strategy is needed. Beijing is welcoming younger Lao officials, who nowadays prefer to further their studies in China rather than in Vietnam. <=>

“As it is with other countries in Southeast Asia, China is wining and dining these officials, bringing them over to China, and putting them through training. Such a strategy is born out of the fact that the present Lao elite has retained close connections with Vietnam. China is therefore working on strengthening influence on the next generation. But in this tug of war between China and Vietnam, Laos is not at all passive. Taking the costs and benefits into consideration, Laos is more than willing to play one power against the other. At the end of the day, Laos is opening up to the outside world. It needs foreign aid and investment to boost the economy, to create jobs and to raise living standards. <=>

“While international donations often come with attendant pressure to reform legal, financial and political systems, both China and Vietnam provide aid without calling for major transformations that would reduce the LPRP's control of the political and economic life of the country. China, in particular, has become a model of a successful economy without having to sacrifice political domination. Laos and China have touted their growing strategic alliance as being based on the mutual economic need of both sides. China is destined to become Laos's new best friend, major trading partner and source of external funding. Vietnam will have to step up its game just to remain in the shadows as Laos' mentor and emergency ally, as it has done so often in the past. <=>

Laos Relations with Russia and the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union and Soviet bloc involvement with Laos originated as a secondary element in the East-West contest over the communist-led revolution in Vietnam and in the Sino-Soiet rivalry that this contest exacerbated. Even though the Laos subtheater was formally neutralized by the Geneva Agreement of 1962, the superpower involvement in Laos continued in the form of military supplies, advice, and diplomatic and propaganda support to the opposing sides up to the end of the war. The succeeding period of coalition government in Vientiane lasted fewer than two years and left the Soviets not only enjoying the prestige of supporting the winning party--the Marxist-Leninist LPRP, which by then had publicly revealed itself--but also holding the bag of vast economic development needs in a nation losing its most skilled persons across the border to the West. The Soviet Union had helped its friends prevail over the opponents of the revolution, but the Marxist-Leninist model for building up an overwhelmingly agricultural nation was not effective with the complaisant Lao peasantry. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Since 1989 aid from the Soviet Union and its successor states-- which once accounted for more than half the aid to Laos and approximately 1,500 technicians and advisers--has slowly dwindled. The memorial to Soviet efforts in Laos lies in dozens of projects such as bridges, roads, airports, hospitals, and broadcast facilities; in tons of military equipment, including MiG jet fighters and air transports; and in the hundreds of students with a faltering command of the Russian language, some of whom are trained for such jobs as railroad operator or circus clown, for which Laos has no market. *

The Laotian leadership has resolutely sought to take up the slack among its previous bilateral and multilateral donors. By 1990 bilateral external assistance disbursed by Russia was down to 36 percent of the total, from a previous 60 percent; Hungary, the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Mongolia, and Vietnam contributed a mere 3.7 per percent. The number of student fellowships--usually 300 per year--decreased dramatically. The downward spiral continued as the Russians shifted their dwindling influence in the region to cooperation with the five permanent members of the UN in settling the war in Cambodia. And, in a further move away from dependence, the coming generation of national leaders felt anxious about obtaining useful education in the West for their children, even if they could still get by with Vietnamese and French. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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