By Samuel Glickstein —
Laos assumed the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in January 2016, and with it the responsibility for maintaining ASEAN unity. However, maritime disputes in the South China Sea threaten Vientiane’s ability to present a united ASEAN voice, with Vietnam, China, the United States, and Japan each trying to steer ASEAN in a different direction. Laos must preserve its ties with these countries while fulfilling its obligation as chair of ASEAN to manage the disputes between claimants. Laos has taken a two-pronged approach to a difficult diplomatic position – engaging all parties while focusing on issues that will not stir controversy.
Vietnam wants to deepen relations with Laos and counter China’s growing footprint in the country. Hanoi is concerned that high-interest loans from China could push Laos into debt and financial dependence, a condition that would challenge Vietnam’s influence over one of its oldest allies and give China greater sway over ASEAN affairs. Though Vietnam does not necessarily expect Laos to support its maritime claims in the South China Sea, Hanoi also does not want Laos to back Beijing’s position.
China is Laos’s biggest foreign investor and hopes to parlay its economic power into political influence. Beijing would like to see Vientiane support its claim that South China Sea territorial disputes should be handled bilaterally rather than between China and ASEAN as a whole. Further, China wants Laos to refrain from endorsing the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s upcoming ruling on its “nine-dash line” claim over the South China Sea under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The court is expected to rule against China and Beijing rightly fears a united ASEAN on these issues will make it more difficult for Beijing to assert its position, especially in multilateral forums.
The United States and Japan have also increased their engagement with Laos. President Barack Obama will attend the East Asia Summit in Vientiane from September 6-8 and is expected to announce an increase in funding for unexploded ordnance clearing in Laos, from $19.5 million in 2016. In May, Japan pledged $7 billion in aid over three years to countries in the Lower Mekong basin and Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida met with Lao prime minister Thongloun Sisoulith in Vientiane. Washington and Tokyo would like to see Laos lead a strong and united ASEAN in discussions about disputes in the South China Sea and have attempted to persuade Laos and other ASEAN countries to declare the Permanent Court of Arbitration decision binding.
Laos, though, cannot afford to antagonize either Vietnam or China and hopes to enhance ties with other countries as well. Therefore, Vientiane has adopted a policy of international engagement and seeks to avoid contentious topics in ASEAN meetings. Laos demonstrated this in its reaction to Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s claim in April that Beijing had reached a “consensus” with Cambodia, Brunei, and Laos that the South China Sea dispute is not an issue between China and ASEAN “as a whole” and should not impact China-ASEAN ties.
At first, Laos neither confirmed nor rejected Wang’s statement, which preserved the country’s flexibility. Then Laos’s new president, Bounnhang Vorachit, who earlier studied in Vietnam, visited Hanoi shortly after Wang’s remarks. The visit resulted in pledges of cooperation and unity between Bounnhang and Vietnam president Tran Dai Quang. Laos’s response demonstrated it could maintain ties with competing countries while remaining neutral on contentious issues.
The second component of Laos’s response to diplomatic pressure is to change the subject. The theme of Laos’s ASEAN chairmanship is “Turning Vision into Reality for a Dynamic ASEAN Community,” and Vientiane hopes to achieve greater integration of ASEAN by pushing for further implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community and the “ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together” declaration rather than focus on topics that could split the group. Laos lists narrowing the development gap between ASEAN member states, facilitating trade, deepening ties between ASEAN and external partners, and preserving ASEAN cultural heritage as some of its priorities as ASEAN chair – it is unlikely that Hanoi, Beijing, or any other country vying for influence will take issue with fighting poverty and protecting history.
Laos will likely sustain its approach of engagement and diversion for the remainder of its chairmanship. Although the impending international court ruling will test this strategy, Vientiane will try to maintain its balanced response, likely by refraining from publicly endorsing the tribunal ruling to appease Beijing and by pressing for ASEAN unity to make a minimal statement to mollify Vietnam, the Philippines, the United States, and Japan. Laos may create an ASEAN proclamation similar to the joint statement from the ASEAN foreign ministers’ retreat in February, which reflected Vietnam’s concerns over “land reclamations and escalation of activities” in the South China Sea and endorsed peaceful resolution of disputes “in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law.” This statement, though, did not name any of the claimants or suggest how ASEAN should respond if a country violates the law.
Laos’s policy of engagement and avoiding controversy will protect the country’s relationships and preserve its position in the region. Those looking for forceful statements endorsing the tribunal ruling or calls for multilateral negotiations to resolve the South China Sea dispute, though, may need to look elsewhere.