Laos strikes careful balance on South China Sea disputes as ASEAN chair

By Ge Hongliang
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Global Times, May 9, 2016
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General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) and Lao President Bounnhang Vorachith is currently visiting China at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also general-secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee.

Laos is a socialist country, like its neighbor Vietnam, in Southeast Asia. Bounnhang's visit is the continuation of close exchanges between the leadership of both sides and between the LPRP and the CPC.

Given the simmering tensions in the South China Sea and Laos' chairmanship in ASEAN this year, Bounnhang's visit has special significance.

In recent years, Laos, a landlocked Southeast Asian country, has become a minor focus of attention thanks to the South China Sea disputes. On April 23, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held talks with his Lao counterpart Saleumxay Kommasith and the two sides reached some consensus over the South China Sea issue.

They agreed that the territorial disputes over some islands, rocks and shoals in the South China Sea are not an issue between China and ASEAN as a whole, and should not affect the development of China-ASEAN relations. Laos understands China's declaration that excludes a compulsory arbitration in 2006 under the Article 298 of the UNCLOS. They also agreed that territorial and maritime disputes should be resolved through consultations and negotiations by parties directly concerned under Article 4 of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

The Chinese public and the media view Laos' stance in the South China Sea as support for China's territorial claims. By contrast, Secretary-General of ASEAN Le Luong Minh and senior diplomats from Singapore and Indonesia have reportedly criticized Laos. Le believes that Laos should not negotiate with China over South China Sea issues that touch upon the interests of other ASEAN members. The diplomats view China's diplomatic efforts as a move to divide ASEAN.

Due to the South China Sea disputes, doubts have arise as for whether Laos can fulfill its role of ASEAN chairmanship. This reminds people of similar criticism toward Cambodia when it chaired this regional bloc in 2012.

Both Laos and Cambodia have adopted a mild or even detached approach toward the South China Sea issue. Chairing ASEAN can hardly change Laos' stance, but it can put Laos under mounting pressure within regional multilateral frameworks due to the subtle changes in the South China Sea situation.

As the first chair after the ASEAN Economic Community was established in 2015, Laos has undertaken the task of pushing forward the community building within ASEAN and is not supposed to go beyond ASEAN's concerns over the South China Sea issue.

As for China, it should be aware of the change after ASEAN foreign ministers issued the Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea right after their meetings in 2012.

Maintaining stability and peace in the South China Sea matters to the common interests of China and ASEAN. It is also part of the efforts to establish a China-ASEAN Community of Common Destiny. China, Laos and other ASEAN members should shake off the shackles of the South China Sea disputes on China-ASEAN ties and march toward the China-ASEAN Community of Common Destiny.

During this process, the China-proposed 21st Century Maritime Silk Road will serve as an important mechanism. China and Laos have reached consensus in building this project, but a number of difficulties remain.

Given its slow development of the market economy, Lao economy stays vulnerable. The country has underdeveloped transportation and infrastructures, and is easily shaken by the markets and the influx of capital. How to work these conditions into the buildup of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road will test the governance and diplomatic wisdom of Laos' ruling party and the government.

To address these difficulties requires closer cooperation of China and Laos. They can cooperate on various projects such as the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation and the China and Laos Mohan-Boten Economic Cooperation Zone.

The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road requires not only China, but all countries along the route.

Therefore, an intimate working relationship between China and ASEAN countries, including Laos, is particularly vital.

The author is a research fellow with the Charhar Institute and the College of ASEAN Studies at Guangxi University for Nationalities.


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