February 12, 2016

Leadership Changes and Upcoming Obama Visit Give U.S. New Opportunities in Laos

By:  Murray Hiebert, The Center for Strategic and International Studies (USA), February 4, 2016

Leadership changes announced at a recently completed congress of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and President Barack Obama’s planned visit to Vientiane in September, the first ever to Laos by a sitting U.S. president, give Washington an important opportunity to boost ties with this landlocked nation of less than 7 million people along China’s southern flank.

The first high-level U.S. engagement with Laos this year will take place in Rancho Mirage, California, on February 15-16, when Obama and Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong will jointly chair a summit discussion between Southeast Asian and U.S. heads of state. Laos is the ASEAN chair for 2016.

Secretary of State John Kerry visited Laos on January 25 to hammer out the summit’s format and agenda. Kerry landed in Vientiane just days after the communist Lao People’s Revolutionary Party completed its congress (held every five years) to select the party’s leadership and set political and economic development goals for the next five years. The country’s foreign policy direction is one area that could see some of the most noticeable shifts in the months and years ahead.

Vietnamese communist forces helped their Lao counterparts seize power in 1975, and Hanoi has since retained significant influence in Vientiane. But in recent years, Laos had drifted closer to China as Beijing stepped up its aid to and investment in the country. The party congress’s decision to remove Choummaly Sayasone as the party chief and replace him with current vice president Bounnhang Vorachith is widely interpreted in Vientiane as an effort by party leaders to pull the regime’s foreign policy back toward the middle between China and Vietnam, rather than tilting so firmly toward Beijing. Bounnhang received military training in Vietnam and studied at its party training school.

Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad, who ranked eighth in the Politburo and, like outgoing party chief Choummaly, was instrumental in granting large economic concessions to Chinese companies over the past decade, was also removed. There has been a palpable anxiety within the public as well as among party members that the ousted leaders had made Laos grow too dependent on China in recent years. Chinese companies, many of which are state-owned, have dramatically ramped up their economic footprint in the northern part of Laos.

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