Laos probably hoped for more from last week's ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting.
In the lead up to the event held in the Laos capital of Vientiane, many wondered if the South China Sea dispute would wreak the same havoc as it did at the Cambodia meeting four years ago, when a failure to agree meant hat, for the first time in 45 years, no joint communique was issued.
This time around, a joint communique was agreed upon. The recent UN arbitration on the South China Sea case brought by the Philippines against China was not mentioned, as Cambodia opposed the proposed wording. The statement did, however, cite the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and as such was a partial win for the Philippines and Vietnam.
However Laos, rarely in the international spotlight, has interests that extend well beyond playing part time arbiter in a dispute it is not directly involved in. As Prashanth Parameswaran wrote on The Diplomat last week:
The priorities that Lao officials outlined this year also reflect the country’s sense of what it would like to promote in the regional agenda... the focus on narrowing the development gap and a work plan for the Initiative for ASEAN Integration... directly benefits Vientiane.
On the rare occasions the international community considers Laos politics, the focus is generally on the pro-China and pro-US factionalism. This basic, single point of analysis has left some time long observers despairing. University of Queensland Emeritus Professor Martin Stuart-Fox has long decried the simplistic idea of US-China competition within Lao’s 41-year ruling Communist Party, noting that Laos has been balancing its trilateral big power relations (Thailand, China and Vietnam) for centuries, and often done quite well out of it. If anything, there is more a of a pro-Vietnam versus pro-China split in the Party. (The same speculation over factionalism afflict lower level analysis of Vietnam, though this is arguably for more concrete reasons given Vietnam has grown closer to the US since China's aggression in the South China Sea.)
For the record, at a party congress earlier this year. Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith was elected Lao Prime Minister. As Foreign Minister he was seen as something of a multilateralist, improving ties with neighbours Vietnam and China as well as the US, and the rest of Southeast Asia. As noted on the CogitAsia blog: 'While many commentators look for signs of pro-Vietnam or anti-China leanings in the new government, Thongloun has been regarded as a relatively neutral leader in the Politburo'.
However the Party has more on its mind than geopolitical allegiances.
One of the smallest and poorest of ASEAN members, the country's international 'coming out' began with the hosting of the Southeast Asian Games in 2009, followed by the chairmanship of the ASEAN-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in 2012. Laos would clearly like a bigger international profile, keen to be known as the nation that is 'land-linked' as opposed to 'land-locked'.
Sticking points for the country are its hydro dams like the Xayaburi — Laos has been arguing with Vietnam for years over what that would do to Vietnam’s river systems — and human rights. The disappearance of NGO worker Sombath Somphone has yet to be explained, and freedom of speech has not improved in recent years.
Laos wants to make good, or better, on its hopes of being 'land linked' and serve as a useful conduit and trade route between larger countries. More generally, it wants to increase development, and views ASEAN integration and groups like the ASEAN Economic Community (EAC) as useful, especially as most of its trade is within ASEAN. There have been meetings about this, of course, but issues between China and its neighbours tend to suck up all the airtime, leaving little time to consider how smaller nations can grow their economies within a regional framework, or how a one party state much smaller than its communist neighbours manages economic transition.
China has been extremely useful as Laos pursued development but now Laos has an appetite for some cross-regional discussion of how to further that development, it seems China is getting in the way.