Tiny Laos is often seen as sparking little interest in a dynamic Asian region, but 30 years after the communists took power, it is at the heart of a struggle for influence among its neighbours, led by giant China.
Chinese investments, the daily traffic of people along the border with southwestern China’s Yunnan province and the rising number of Chinese vehicles in northern Laos show Beijing has a keen eye on the Laotian market.
“We can speak of a direct influence of the Chinese economy in the northern provinces of Laos, especially when considering all the aspects of agricultural development,” says Olivier Evrard, an ethnologist and Laos expert.
Laos, the poorest country in the region, has little to contribute either in terms of industrial capacity or mineral resources, but its location in the heart of Indochina makes it hard to ignore.
“There is a really interesting strategic game going on here between Thailand, China and Vietnam for influence,” says a foreign diplomat based in Laos.
So what is exactly at stake?
In short, the Chinese want to gain access to the port in Bangkok, the Thais play on their cultural closeness to the Laotians to multiply their investments, and the Vietnamese want to retain a 30-year political alliance with Vientiane.
Having been in voluntary isolation until the early 1990s, Laos is slowly opening up to the outside world, but wants to maintain caution as it deepens ties with countries in the region and pursues economic opportunities.
“We are seeking by all means to keep a balance in our relations with our neighbours,” says foreign ministry spoksperson Yong Chantalangsy. “If not it could lead to problems”.
Vientiane is partly counting on its membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which it earned in 1997, to ensure its stability.
“Our presence in Asean gives us additional guarantees that we won’t be caught up in the sphere of one country or another,” Yong says.
Some experts say a huge struggle for influence over Laos is going on between China and Vietnam — both communist countries but more rivals than allies.
Laos is carefully courting both states, sharing their ideology, a communist party monopoly over power and opening to capitalism.
“On the intellectual and ideological level, the Laotian leaders are closely treading the Chinese and Vietnamese paths, the only option for the regime’s survival,” says a keen observer of Laotian affairs.
In this regard, many analysts see a gradual erosion of the influence of Vietnam, which trained most of the Laotian communist party cadres during the war and helped it to seize power in 1975.
“The traditional very strong and almost exclusive ties between Laos and the Vietnam military are now being slowly broken down by the Lao being courted by the Chinese,” says the Vientiane-based foreign diplomat.
“Despite the highly distorted trade and investment figures that the Lao produce to demonstrate their fraternal ties with their brothers in Hanoi, the actual level of trade and investment from Vietnam is very low,” he adds.
The two sides have many party-to-party exchanges, but communist solidarity may not be enough.
“What really worries Vietnam is that the aid money that Vietnam is giving will not end up in any kind of concrete influence over the Laos leadership in the end,” says David Koh of the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
“With China becoming a player now, a readjustment of the balance in Vietnam-Laos relations might be in the making. It would be an interesting theatre to watch.” – AFP