ASEAN Needs Laos leadership

Laos has announced a new leadership team amid calls for the country, as the ASEAN Chair for 2016, to unite ASEAN on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Laos changes leadership every five years. Two top posts were in the spotlight this time around as the incumbent president and
prime minister did not run again for the 11-member Politburo in the National Congress, held in January this year. Former vice president Boungnang Vorachith, a recently elected Party Secretary General, was endorsed to become the President in the first session of the National Assembly held on 20–22 April.

As part of the US’ so-called ‘pivot to Asia’, President Barack Obama hosted the US–ASEAN summit in February this year, with the aim of forging closer US engagement with ASEAN. The South China Sea territorial dispute was one of the major topics discussed. Yet a joint communiqué, the ‘Sunnylands Declaration’ released by the participating heads of states, did not specifically mention the South China Sea as a potential hotspot. Rather they called for countries to respect the sovereignty of each nation and adhere to international law, in comments seemingly directed at China.
China’s rise has profound implications for Laos specifically and the Asia-Pacific region more generally. China is now the largest investor in Laos, having overtaken Vietnam in 2013, and has also become the country’s biggest trading partner. Regionally, China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea has upset ASEAN members such as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Ahead of a much anticipated ruling by the International Court of Justice in a case brought by the Philippines on the issue, Beijing has begun to court smaller ASEAN member countries such as Cambodia and Laos, and even Brunei, to act
in China’s favour.

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Why it matters: ASEAN chairman is a difficult position to hold, as was shown by Cambodia during their chairmanship in 2012. The region as a whole is still finding the right rhythm in regard to its relations
with China and US. In regard to Laos, it is worth noting that while they are traditionally close to Vietnam which is currently locked in dispute over the South China Sea with China, they are seen to increasingly veer towards
China in recent years. This is not surprising given the fact that China is investing heavily in the country, including through mega infrasastructure development projects such as the Laos-China high speed railway.
This is a move that provides real benefit for the Laotian people. In this connection, the burden is not just on Laos to ensure that their chairmanship holds true to ASEAN spirit and centrality but also for other ASEAN
member states to ensure that ASEAN still matters for Laos.

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ASEAN Needs Laos leadership

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