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Laos - Vietnam Relations

Vietnam-Laos ties have blossomed over the years, with Vietnam emerging the second largest investor in the neighboring state, after China, another major ally of Laos. In 2009, Vietnamese companies invested U.S. $1.4 billion in Laos while Chinese investments totaled U.S. $932 million. Vietnam's relationships with Laos did not differ substantially from their historic patterns. Contemporary Vietnamese attitudes reflected the conviction of cultural and political superiority that had prevailed during the nineteenth century when weaker monarchs in Laos had paid tribute to the Vietnamese court in a system modeled on Vietnam's own relationship to China. By the 1980s, Laos had once more become Vietnam's client states. Laos, with a communist party long nurtured by the Vietnamese, entered the relationship with docility.

The communist victory in Vietnam in 1975 was accompanied by similar communist successes in Laos and Cambodia. The impression of the noncommunist world at the time was that the three Indochinese communist parties, having seized control in their respective countries, would logically work together, through the fraternal bond of a single ideology, to achieve common objectives. In contrast to its relationship with Cambodia, Vietnam's relations with communist Laos have been fairly stable. Historically, the ethnic tribes comprising present-day Laos had been less resistant to Vietnamese subjugation, and relations had never reached the level of animosity characteristic of the Vietnam-Cambodia relationship.

Although Hanoi was a signatory to the Geneva Agreement of 1962 that upheld the neutrality of Laos, it failed to observe the agreement in practice. During the Second Indochina War, for example, the North Vietnamese obtained the cooperation of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (Pathet Lao) in constructing and maintaining the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an unauthorized road communications network that passed through the length of Laos. Thousands of Vietnamese troops were stationed in Laos to maintain the road network and provide for its security. Vietnamese military personnel also fought beside the Pathet Lao in its struggle to overthrow Laos' neutralist government.

Relations with Vietnam had secretly set the strategy for the LPRP during the struggle to achieve full power, and the "sudden" opportunity to establish the LPDR in 1975 left no leeway to consider foreign policy alignments other than a continuation of the "special relations" with Vietnam. The relationship cultivated in the revolutionary stage predisposed Laos to Indochinese solidarity in the reconstruction and "socialist construction" phases and all but ensured that relations or alignments with China and Thailand would be wary and potentially unfriendly. Further, the LPRP, unlike the Cambodian communists under Pol Pot, was far too accustomed to accepting Vietnamese advice to consider striking out on its own.

The final seizure of power by the hitherto secret LPRP in 1975 brought both a public acknowledgment of the previously hidden North Vietnamese guidance of the party and genuine expressions of gratitude by the LPRP to its Vietnamese partners. The challenge facing the ruling group--the construction of a socialist society-- was seen as a natural extension of past collaboration with North Vietnam. The revolution was simply entering a new phase in 1975, and the LPRP leaders congratulated themselves upon ousting the "imperialists" and looked forward to advice and economic as well as military support, which was not available from any neighbor or counter-revolutionary state.

LPRP leaders were accustomed to discussing policies as well as studying doctrine in Hanoi. They formalized governmental contacts with their mentors at biannual meetings of the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam starting in 1980 and through the joint Vietnam-Laos Cooperative Commission, which met annually to review progress of various projects. Other levels of cooperation between Laos and Vietnam existed, for example, party-to-party meetings and province-to-province exchanges, as well as mass organizations for youths and women. Meetings of the commission were held regularly.

The primary channels for Vietnam's influence in Laos, however, were the LPRP and the LPA. In the LPRP, long-standing collaboration and consultation at the very top made special committees unnecessary, whereas in the LPA, the Vietnamese advisers, instructors, and troops on station constituted a pervasive, inescapable influence, even though they scrupulously avoided public exposure by sticking to their designated base areas. Cooperation in the military field was probably the most extensive, with logistics, training, and communications largely supplied by Vietnam throughout the 1970s and 1980s (heavy ordnance and aircraft were provided by the Soviet Union).

The phrase "special relations" came into general use by both parties after 1976, and in July 1977, the signing of the twentyfive -year Lao-Vietnamese Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation legitimized the stationing of Vietnamese army troops in Laos for its protection against hostile or counterrevolutionary neighbors. Another element of cooperation involved hundreds of Vietnamese advisers who mentored their Laotian counterparts in virtually all the ministries in Vientiane. Hundreds of LPRP stalwarts and technicians studied in institutes of Marxism-Leninism or technical schools in Hanoi.

Cooperation persisted after the war and the Lao communist victory. In 1976, agreements on cooperation in cultural, economic, scientific, and technical fields were signed between the two countries, followed in 1977 by a twenty-five-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. The treaty was intended to strengthen ties as well as sanction Vietnam's military presence in, and military assistance to, Laos. Following Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, Laos established links with the Vietnamese- supported PRK in Phnom Penh. Meanwhile, Hanoi maintained 40,000 to 60,000 troops in Laos. In 1985 the three governments discussed coordinating their 1986-90 five-year plans, and Vietnam assumed a larger role in developing Lao natural resources by agreeing to joint exploitation of Laotian forests and iron ore deposits. Nevertheless, such growth in cooperation prompted some debate on the Lao side over the country's growing dependence on Vietnam.

The resources that Vietnam was able to bestow upon its revolutionary partner, however, were severely limited by the physical destruction of war and the deadening orthodoxy of its economic structures and policies. However, it could put in a good word for its Laotian apprentices with the Soviet Union, which in turn could recommend economic assistance projects to its East European satellite states. Yet, Vietnam's influence on Laos was determined by economic assistance and ideology as well as by geographical and historical proximity. The two nations fit together, as the leaders liked to say, "like lips and teeth." Vietnam provided landlocked Laos a route to the sea, and the mountainous region of eastern Laos provided Vietnam a forward strategic position for challenging Thai hegemony in the Mekong Valley.

During the 1980s, Vietnam's regional opponents attributed to it a neocolonial ambition to create an "Indochina Federation." This phrase can be found in early pronouncements of the ICP in its struggle against the French colonial structures in Indochina. The charge, exaggerated as it was, lost its currency once Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia in 1989 and subsequently from Laos. Laos's dependence on Vietnam since 1975 could then be perceived as a natural extension of their collaboration and solidarity in revolution rather than as domination by Vietnam.

With the departure of Vietnamese military forces--except for some construction engineers--and the passing of most senior Vietnamese revolutionary partners, the magnetism of the special relationship lost its grip. Further, Vietnam was never able to muster large-scale economic aid programs. It launched only 200 assistance projects between 1975 and 1985, whereas the Soviet Union generated considerably more in the way of contributions. In 1992 the long-standing Vietnamese ambassador to Laos, a veteran of fourteen years' service, characterized the relationship as composed "d'amitié et de coopération multiforme entre les pays" (of friendship and diverse cooperation between the two countries). This pronouncement was far less compelling than the "objective law of existence and development" formulation sometimes expressed in the past.

Although Vietnam's historical record of leadership in the revolution and its military power and proximity will not cease to exist, Laos struck out ahead of Vietnam with its New Economic Mechanism to introduce market mechanisms into its economy. In so doing, Laos has opened the door to rapprochement with Thailand and China at some expense to its special dependence on Vietnam. Laos might have reached the same point of normalization in following Vietnam's economic and diplomatic change, but by moving ahead resolutely and responding to Thai and Chinese gestures, Laos broadened its range of donors, trading partners, and investors independent of Vietnam's attempts to accomplish the same goal. Thus, Vietnam remained in the shadows as a mentor and emergency ally, and the tutelage of Laos shifted dramatically to development banks and international entrepreneurs.

At a 2007 conference in Danang inaugurating the "East-West Economic Corridor" (EWEC), Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs predicted that the boom in trade and investment generated by the 1,450 km Burma-to-Vietnam corridor would render Danang an international hub of trade, finance, and industry. Although the bridges, the state-of-the-art tunnel, and the all-weather road that knit Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam together have been built, initial hopes for a surge in investment and trade along the route remain unfulfilled. For a number of reasons, including the fact that the road traverses very undeveloped regions, not much has come to Vietnam via the EWEC except a modest number of Thai tourists.

While Laos' cheap land and labor are attracting Vietnamese resource-extraction firms, these firms are stymied by the same obstacles hindering other development along the EWEC. Poor harmonization of border procedures and opaque Laotian investment requirements -- not to mention the context of the lightly populated, poverty-stricken area traversed by the route -- conspire to make the EWEC more of rural road project than an economic corridor, according to Vietnamese Government (GVN) officials as well as Vietnamese and international investors. While Danang officials acknowledge the EWEC's thus-far unfulfilled potential and appear willing to subsidize social and economic development along the Laotian portion of the corridor, they are also lobbying multilateral development banks to line up support for a more southerly "EWEC 2" that they claim would provide immediate benefits by connecting existing economic centers and following the route that trucks actually take.

The Vietnam-Laos relationship was the common invaluable treasure of the two nations and an important element ensuring the success of the revolutionary cause of each country, said a joint statement issued on 22 June 2011 in Vientiane, Laos. The joint statement, which was released at the end of the three-day visit to Laos by Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, noted that the Party, State and people of Vietnam and Laos affirmed the importance, strategic significance, as well as determination to maintain and promote the bilateral traditional friendship, special solidarity, and comprehensive cooperation in the new stage.

The two sides noted they were pleased and proud that along with the two peoples’ great achievements, the traditional friendship, special solidarity and comprehensive cooperation, closeness and trust between the Vietnamese and Lao Parties, States and peoples, which were fostered by Presidents Ho Chi Minh and Kaysone Phomvihane and unceasingly consolidated and developed by succeeding leaders and peoples, have been deepened and gained important outcomes in all spheres.

Laos signed an agreement in 2012 to build a railway connecting Thailand and Vietnam, just after sealing plans for a rail link to China, in ventures that will cost a combined whopping U.S. $12 billion. By linking the landlocked nation to its giant neighbor China and mainland Southeast Asia, officials say the high-speed rail network will help open up the impoverished and resource-starved nation to development.

Thongsing Thammavong, the former president of the Lao parliament, was named successor to incumbent Bouasone Bouphavanh in a surprise announcement in December 2010 amid speculations of a leadership split between pro-China and pro-Vietnam camps within the dominant communist party. The 56-year-old Bouasone quit about six months before the end of his term and after more than four years of steering the Southeast Asian state. Laos' newly appointed prime minister was more pro-Vietnam than his predecessor but may have to contend with giant neighbor China's rapidly rising influence on his country. Thongsing was first nominated to the Lao People's Revolutionary Party’s central committee while he was undergoing political training in Hanoi.

In 2012 dissident groups called on the authorities in Laos to rescind a 35-year-old bilateral treaty with Vietnam, claiming that Vietnamese soldiers remain in the country under the pact and should be expelled. On the 35th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, the French-based Lao National Council for Democracy and the U.S.-based Lao New Generation Movement said the agreement had robbed Laos of its sovereignty. The treaty signed on July 18, 1977 provided for the stationing of Vietnamese army troops and advisers in Laos after the end of the Vietnam War.

"The Vietnamese government has, in fact, flouted all the Lao peace treaties and independence agreements by retaining an army of over 70,000 soldiers in Laos and occupying the border regions by setting many thousands of Vietnamese families to plunder our heritage and exploit our mineral resources," a statement from the Lao National Council for Democracy said.

Representatives from Southeast Asia countries met in Laos in January 2013 to discuss development projects on the Mekong River. A key issue for the Mekong River Commission has been evaluating a planned hydropower dam in Laos that environmentalists worry could damage river ecosystems that millions of people downstream depend on. During this weeks talks, representatives from Vietnam and Cambodia objected to how Laos carried out the consultation process before starting construction on the Xayaburi dam - the first to obstruct the main stem of the Mekong river.

For all the hype about a "special relationship," the Lao-Vietnamese ties are a marriage of convenience, not love. Politics forms its base, not economics or culture. The Lao are anxious to promote trade and investment from Vietnam, but after more than thirty years the economic links between the two are still frail. Officially Vietnam is Laos' fourth-largest investor, but in reality there is little to show for it except a handful of factories of questionable profitability and a new hydropower project, the 250MW Sekaman 3, now under construction in remote Sekong province. On the street level, the Vietnamese are not popular with the Lao; many Lao blame the rising crime problem (and their missing dogs) on Vietnamese immigrants, an unknown number of whom are here illegally. The widely-held beliefs that the Lao leadership gives the Vietnamese special treatment over even the native Lao, and that the Vietnamese are pulling the strings of government, privately rankle even Lao officials who publicly extol their Vietnamese "brothers."





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