Laos assures US it will help counter Chinese assertiveness

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 January, 2016, 9:51pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 January, 2016, 9:51pm

The prime minister of communist Laos assured US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday that his small nation will help counter China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Laos this year takes the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), with the group’s heads of state scheduled to hold a special meeting next month in Sunnylands, California, at the invitation of President Barack Obama as part of his foreign policy to reach out to the region as a counterweight to China.

Kerry’s visit to the landlocked nation of fewer than seven million people was meant to pave the way for the summit, with a goal of making sure Laos holds the group. Kerry arrived in the Laotian capital on Sunday.

Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong “was very clear that he wants a unified Asean and he wants maritime rights protected and he wants to avoid militarisation and avoid the conflict”, Kerry told reporters. “And that will develop as we go into Sunnylands, and there will be a greater, I’m sure, articulation of that unity going forward.”

Asean nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines have become increasingly concerned with China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, including building man-made islands and airstrips in contested areas.

But other Asean nations are more pro-China, including Cambodia, which blocked Asean from reaching consensus on the South China Sea during its 2012 chairmanship of the group. Cambodia is Kerry’s next stop on an around the world diplomatic marathon that will also take him to China.

Murray Hiebert, a Laos expect at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, noted that “these statements by Lao leaders aren’t totally ­surprising”.

He noted that a Communist Party congress in Laos last week removed a party chief generally considered as pro-Chinese and replaced him with one who appears to be more evenhanded in his views about China and Vietnam, Laos’ other big neighbour and fellow member of Asean.

We still have concerns about human rights and freedom of expression and other issues, and I raised those
John Kerry

Later this year, Obama will become the first US president to visit Laos for the Asean summit. Laos is one of the last few communist nations remaining in the world. The country has moved away from a hard line communist system in the past two decades, but like its close ally Vietnam, it retains a one-party political system and its government has been criticised for being intolerant of dissent.

In addition to meetings with Thammavong and Thongloun Sisoulith, the deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Kerry was scheduled to meet members of Obama’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative.

Kerry and Laos’ leaders discussed increased US funding for a variety of projects here. They include the removal of unexploded bombs dropped by American planes during the Vietnam war, which still cause casualties.

Kerry said relations with Laos are improving after a period of war and mutual suspicion.

“We still have concerns about human rights and freedom of expression and other issues, and I raised those,” Kerry said. “But it is also, you know, we are partnering on a wide range of issues.”

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said he hopes for more human rights pressure on Laos as the country prepares to host world leaders all year.

“The international community should demand Laos’ leaders end their restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, stop their crushing censorship of the media, and permit freedom of association for workers to form independent trade unions,” Robertson said.