Engaging Laos: Strategic Part of the ASEAN Puzzle

By Murray Hiebert & Greg Poling

Thongloun Sisoulith, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic at the UN. Source: United Nations Photo’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

In July 2010, Lao deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs Thongloun Sisoulith paid an official visit to Washington. He remains the highest-ranking Lao official to visit Washington since the communist takeover in 1975. During his visit he invited Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to reciprocate with a stop in Vientiane. While 2011 may be difficult to schedule, it would behoove Secretary Clinton to make time for a trip to Laos in the near future.

Laos is not a big country. It has 6.5 million people, a $7.5 billion economy, and exports of $2.5 billion. Nor is its strategic weight compelling when considered alone. However, U.S.-Lao relations have been on an upswing in recent years, and the trend seems to be growing stronger. Although the Lao have never hosted a cabinet-level official from the United States, they have seen several high-level visits of late. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Joseph Yun visited in June. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell visited in March 2010 for the third U.S.-Lao Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue and will host his Lao counterparts in Washington in October for the fourth.

The Obama administration has made it clear that U.S. strategic priorities have irrevocably shifted toward Asia, and ASEAN has clearly become the preferred mechanism for leveraging U.S. political and diplomatic clout in the region. Increasing engagement with all of ASEAN’s members increases U.S. clout in ASEAN forums.

Laos’s standing as an ASEAN member is reason enough to seek improved relations, but its upcoming 2016 chairmanship of the group raises its profile further. It is largely the chair’s prerogative to set the agenda at ASEAN meetings and steer the discussions. The remarkable initiatives of Vietnam and Indonesia in pushing the envelope of ASEAN norms of noninterference and consensus building are unlikely to be followed by the next two chairs, Cambodia and Brunei. If the United States wants ASEAN to evolve into a more effective regional architecture for resolving disputes and maintaining stability in Asia, it needs to invest now in building bridges with future chairs.

And then there is the elephant in the room of U.S. relations with Southeast Asia – China. The United States does not need to worry about wresting Laos from the Chinese orbit. What it should do, however, is seek to provide the Lao leadership with additional options and channels for development and growth. Greater U.S. engagement can be achieved in several areas, including economically through an expanded trade and investment framework agreement. More focused capacity-building efforts could be provided to support Laos’s bid to join the World Trade Organization, as part of the Lower Mekong Initiative, and to take steps to realize a U.S.-ASEAN free trade agreement. While they are loath to express such a sentiment publicly, Lao leaders want strategic balance as much as any of their neighbors. Political engagement through higher-level visits and expansion of cooperation along the lines of that with Vietnam will help Laos maintain this balance, which is clearly more supportive of U.S. strategic goals than a Laos increasingly dependent on Chinese largesse.

Laos does not enjoy the prominence of Indonesia or Vietnam. Yet it does have strategic value that the United States would be foolish to ignore. The key to maximizing that value is to send a clear message to Vientiane that it will not be overlooked. There are few moves that can send such a message as effectively as a visit by the secretary of state.

Murray Hiebert is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Greg Poling is a research intern with the Southeast Asia Program.

Murray Hiebert

Murray Hiebert

Murray Hiebert serves as senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.


1 comment for “Engaging Laos: Strategic Part of the ASEAN Puzzle

  1. Andre Sauvageot
    September 29, 2011 at 17:38

    This piece is brilliant! First it captures the criticality of the US-ASEAN relationship in terms of the strategic requirement of both to manage the relationship with China so as to both encourage to the extent feasible a constructive relationship, while also strongly discouraging China’s use of violence and the threat of violence in its pursuit of hegemony in the Eastern Sea. The very term “South China Sea” is an unforunate psychological concession to the Beijing imperalists.

    In recent months China has used its military might to invade Vietnam’s EEZ, over its Continental Shelf in gross violation of the UN 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2002 “Code of Conduct” which China signed with other Easten Sea countries. Shortly before the Shangrila conference in Singpore on Eastern Sea issues last June, 3 Chinese naval vessels appeared in the middle of the night and harrassed a Vietnamese ship, the “Binh Minh 02” conducting seismic surveys for PetroVietnam well within the 200 Nautical Mile limit in its own soverign waters. They cut the Binh Minh 02’s cable! Why this act of violence so close to an internnational conference on the Eastern Sea? Surely to test international reaction or the lack thereof.

    Secondly, the article captures the high degree of constructive cooperation between Vietnam and Indonesia, the two most populous among the 10 ASEAN States. The cooperative spirit began during the Suharto period, in part because Indonesia perceived (correctly in my view) China, not the Soviet Union as a greater long-term strategic challenge in the region. However, the Carter Administration “blessed” China’s brutal 1979 invasion of Vietnam, in retaliation against Vietnam for rescuing the Khmer people from the “Killing fields” and death camps/torture chambers of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Carter even lobbied (successfully) the United Nations to keep “Democratic Cam Pu Chias” (Pol Pot’s) UN membership. But Indonesia, inspite of US pressure, kept the door open to Vietnam, with visits to Hanoi (Foreign Minister Mochtar, and General Merdani, Armed Forces Chief) and made construtive suggestions to reduce the violence in Cambodia and provide more effective food aid inside the country rather than just on the border.

    Thirdly, the article adumbrates correctly the positive role that tiny Laos can play in a grand U.S. strategy to build contructive peace-preserving relations in the Pacific. The Vietnam–Laotian relationship is VERY CLOSE and legitimatly with a long relationship built on trust, cooperation and common interest.

    It is strongly in the U.S. interest to pursue the path charted by this excellent article. Fortunately, some the signals from the Obama Administration suggest that both the President and his Secretary of State “get it” and are less inclined that former presidents, e.g., Carter, to be a “doormat” for China.

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