Engaging Laos: Strategic Part of the ASEAN Puzzle
September 29, 2011
In July 2010, Lao deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs Thongloun Sisoulith paid an official visit to Washington. He was and 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.
In the lead-up to Clinton’s July trip to Southeast Asia for the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), rumors circulated that she would stop in Laos, but such a visit did not materialize. Still, Lao officials remain hopeful that they will receive a visit from the secretary this year. 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 Pentagon is also thinking strategically. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Robert Scher visited Vientiane in mid-September. Brig. Gen. Richard Simcock, principal director for South and Southeast Asia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, visited a few weeks earlier and was the first defense department official to be received by Laos’s deputy defense minister. Laos opened a defense attaché office in Washington in 2008, and the United States did the same in Vientiane in 2009. The Pentagon and the Lao Ministry of Defense have held bilateral defense dialogues annually in recent years, with the sixth taking place this month.
This uptick in diplomatic activity raises an important question: why Laos? Setting aside the unreliable figures from neighboring Burma, Laos is ASEAN’s poorest member, both per capita and in absolute terms. As Southeast Asia’s only landlocked country, it does not play a role in U.S. interests in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. In addition, it cannot match the resource wealth of neighboring Burma or Vietnam and is only a minor trading partner of the United States.
For decades, the U.S.-Lao relationship has been dominated by two Vietnam War legacies: POW/MIA recovery and unexploded ordnance (UXO). These issues remain vital. The United States has an obligation to recover the remains of the 327 Americans still missing in Laos and assist with the UXO problem, which it created.
However, the past should not continue to determine the future of U.S.-Lao relations. This decade has witnessed the rise in importance of Southeast Asia, and therefore Laos, in U.S. strategic calculations.
The Obama administration has made it clear that U.S. strategic priorities have irrevocably shifted toward Asia. With Secretary Clinton’s perfect attendance record at the ARF meetings, former secretary of defense Robert Gate’s participation in the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM+), and President Obama’s upcoming participation in his first East Asia Summit (EAS) and third U.S.-ASEAN leaders’ summit in Bali in November, 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 no accident that the United States’ impressive diplomatic gains in the region over the last two years have coincided with the chairmanships of Vietnam and Indonesia, two of ASEAN’s heavy hitters and rising stars. The United States made improving relations with Indonesia and Vietnam a priority in recent years and reaped the benefits not only in bilateral cooperation, but in gaining a more receptive audience at ASEAN forums.
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. It is certainly not in the United States’ interests to be seen as confronting or containing China. But it is also not in its interests to cede the field. If the last year has proven anything, it is that China’s neighbors are at once eager for Chinese trade and investment, and profoundly nervous about its long-term political and strategic intentions in the region. The United States has made a good start with reengaging Laos in the past few years, but more could be done.
Historically, Vietnam has been Laos’s closest political ally and Thailand its largest economic partner. For years, this situation meant the United States had little reason to worry about Laos, as its leaders studiously worked to maintain good relations with both U.S.-allied Thailand and communist Vietnam. However, this equilibrium has of late started to turn on its head. In a few years, skyrocketing Chinese investment has allowed China to overtake Thailand as the largest economic presence in the country, and a concerted diplomatic effort has allowed it to rival the decades-old dominance of Vietnam in Lao politics.
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 the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Greg Poling is a researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.