China-Laotian Relations The Challenges of China Under “Belt & Road Initiative”
Laos is a landlocked country with mostly mountainous regions and limited natural resources. Such geographical conditions have primarily constrained the economic development and contributed to the closed and isolated economic model of Laos. Consequently, it has been labeled as one of the “least developed countries” by the United Nations. During the Cold War, Laos developed “Socialist Dependency” that relies on the aids and support given by other Communist countries. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, China was naturally perceived by the west as the “Socialist Big Brother” to sustain the dependency of other communist countries such as Laos, receiving huge sums of investments and aids, in exchange for political submission in international affairs. However, such perception might be over-simplified and does not reflect the full picture of the bilateral relations between China and Laos. This paper will argue that Laos’ reconciliation with China since the end of the Cold War has been driven by providing legitimacy to its own reform based on the China mixed model of development, in contrast to the outright rejection of communism in Eastern Europe. Apart from historical factors, this paper will also argue that China at least faces challenges in three different dimensions in the case of Laos during the process of regional integration under the grand strategy of “Belt & Road Initiative (BRI)”. First of all, in respect of geo-economic strategy, China requires Laos’ active collaboration to develop economic corridors and regional integration in Southeast Asia which lies in the heart of Maritime Silk Road of BRI and demonstrate as model to other parts in Asia. Secondly, Laos is at the same time using China to hedge against other neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam. This strategy of Laos could be clearer shown in the case of hydropower station construction. Last but not least, the promotion of soft power, which is arguably one of the objectives of BRI, has always been a challenge for China’s international development and relations, shared in both developed and developing countries. This difficulty is also shared in the case of Laos. Even though China might develop friendly relations with government officials and elites in Vientiane to extend Chinese investments in Laos, the attitude of local people in rural communities towards Chinese investment could be very different, which could ultimately be significant to the diplomatic efficacy of OBOR. Therefore, in disguise of the picture of the powerful rise of China, the relations with developing countries could not be taken for granted.
Keywords - “Belt & Road Initiative”, China-Laotian relations, Hydropower politics, Soft power, Southeast Asia