South China Sea, investment schemes and Beijing ties ... what to watch as Laos prime minister begins his visit in China

Southeast Asian nation one of the poorest in the region and Beijing’s ally in disputes over the South China Sea

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 November, 2016, 11:19am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2018, 4:43pm

The Prime Minister of Laos, Thongloun Sisoulith, begins a four-day visit to China on Monday.

It will be his first official visit to the mainland since he became prime minister in April.

He will meet with Chinese leaders in Beijing and also visit Hunan province, the foreign ministry said.

His visit is viewed as part of efforts to further ties between Asia’s largest economy and one of its poorest countries.

Who is Thongloun Sisoulith?

Born in the Houaphan province in Laos, the 71-year-old prime minister first attained high office as deputy foreign minister in 1987.

He became deputy prime minister from 2001 and also served as foreign minister between 2006 and this year.

Thongloun is one of the 11 members of the Politburo of the governing Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.

He studied in the former Soviet Union and speaks Russian, English and Vietnamese.

His wife is the adopted daughter of former revolutionary leader Phoumi Vongvichit.

Thongloun’s elevation to the role of prime minister was widely seen as an attempt to improve the nation’s ties with other nations because of his diplomatic experience.

Can Obama help Laos emerge from China’s shadow?

Laos has increasingly come into the international spotlight over the past year. It is acting chair of Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year. It has also hosted a series of summits for top leaders and diplomats in the region, including the East Asia Summit in September.

The event was attended by US President Barack Obama, the first US head of state to visit the Communist nation.

What is the state of Laos’s relations with China?

The Prime Minister’s visit to China comes six months after Laos’s President Bounnhang Vorachit paid a visit to Beijing in early May.

China is one of the largest foreign investors in landlocked Laos, according to official figures from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, China is investing in 764 schemes in Laos, ranging from mining, agriculture, electricity and tourism projects . Among them, 522 projects are funded by China alone and 212 are joint ventures.

Beijing looks to Laos as ballast in Southeast Asian affairs

Unlike Somsavat Lengsavad, a deputy prime minister known for his pro-Beijing foreign policy, diplomatic observers see Thongloun as seeking a balance between regional powers. It means Laos wants to closely engage with China while seeking more contact with other regional powers, including the US and Japan.

What is Laos’s stance on disputes in the South China Sea?

Among the 10 members of Asean, Lao has sided with China over its claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea.

This compares with the Philippines and Vietnam, two rival claimants who have taken a more hardline approach with Beijing.

Laos pushes ahead with plan for third contentious dam on the Mekong

President Obama’s visit to Laos in September was viewed by analysts as part of efforts to lure the country away from China’s sphere of influence.

But during an Asean summit that month, hosted by Laos in its capital Vientiane, a final joint statement excluded reference to the international court ruling that dismissed China’s claims to the contested waters.

China’s Premier Li Keqiang also paid an official visit to Laos in September after attending the summit.