Learning new steps in dance of diplomacy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 August, 2009, 12:00am

When prominent US senators start popping up in Laos, you know something is up.

Landlocked between its giant neighbours, China, Thailand and Vietnam, and home to fewer than seven million people, Southeast Asia's sleepiest state rarely surfaces in the headlines, and certainly not in Washington.

Yet the capital Vientiane was the first stop on the 11-day tour of the region by Jim Webb, whose visit to Myanmar this weekend is generating considerably more attention.

It was no accident. Senator Webb's Laotian interlude highlights broadening US policy trends under way in the region. Washington's attempts to re-engage under the administration of US President Barack Obama means they must play catch-up with China in some quarters, and Laos is a glaring example.

'It is vitally important that the United States re-engage with Southeast Asia at all levels,' Senator Webb said before meeting defence, investment and foreign ministry officials.

'Our relations with Laos have never been fully repaired since the end of the Vietnam war more than 30 years ago. I look forward to working with Lao officials in order to bring our two countries together economically, culturally and diplomatically.'

As a senator, Mr Webb does not speak directly for the Obama administration, but as a well-connected Democrat who heads a key Senate subcommittee on East Asia, he is influential and at least partly reflective of current Washington thinking.

Nowhere in the region has China's diplomacy over the past decade been as arguably striking or successful as in Laos, a fellow Communist Party-ruled nation.

For decades within Vietnam's sphere of Soviet-linked influence, the former French colony viewed its northern neighbour with considerable suspicion.

But now it is Hanoi that is looking askance as Beijing courts its ally with trade deals, extensive road projects across northern Laos to the China border and considerable diplomatic face-time at all levels.

With the engagement, has come labourers and other workers from Yunnan , and anecdotal evidence suggests many of them are settling down long-term with Laotian wives. Small Chinese-owned shophouses have spread across the capital, which neighbours northern Thailand on the banks of the Mekong.

Glossy mainland-produced propaganda magazines in Laotian circulate on the news-stands of Vientiane, extolling the virtues of Yunnan and mainland policies, and development.

Quite how the United States even starts to compete remains to be seen. As war veteran Senator Webb has noted, much of its involvement until now has been through the prism of issues dating back to the Vietnam war, when both Hanoi and Washington secretly spread their conflict to Laos as CIA-funded hill tribes battled Vietnamese troops and their Pathet Lao allies.

The environment, anti-terrorism and trade - Laos has yet to join the World Trade Organisation - are all avenues for enhanced co-operation.

Perhaps the greatest moves may come from the country's secretive Communist Party leadership. The fact that the country has survived as a sovereign state with its own cultural identity at all given its giant neighbours is testimony to its hard-won skills in playing larger nations off against each other.

It may not just be a case of Washington starting to court Laos, just as it has courted Hanoi in recent years, but Vientiane sending encouraging signals in the other direction. It takes two to tango, after all.

While it has undoubtedly welcomed Beijing, Laotian foreign policy in the past suggests there are always limits. How Beijing and Washington juggle and share influence in Laos are among the first signs of a game being played out on a wider regional stage.