New Laos boss visits Hanoi allies

Presidential Palace, Vientiane. Source: Flickr

Laotian President Bounnhang Vorachit has arrived in Vietnam for his first overseas trip since taking office in January.

Vorachit held talks with Vietnam’s Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and is due to meet President Tran Dai Quang today (Tuesday).

Hanoi’s media said the visit was a sign of the neighbours’ special friendship despite Vientiane’s deepening ties with Beijing, with whom Vietnam is locked in the bitter South China Sea dispute. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Vientiane over the weekend, where he told the media that China had come to a “consensus” with Laos, Cambodia and Brunei over the issue.

The Chinese official news agency Xinhua reported that China and the three Asean members had agreed that the arguments surrounding the sea should not affect China’s overall relations with Asean.

None of the three nations, which have no claim to the sea, have commented on the report.

China’s attempts to form a pact within Asean amounted to interferance with the domestic affairs of the bloc, its former secretary general Ong Keng Yong told a conference in Jakarta.

Ong of the Singapore Rajaratnam School of International Studies said: “It has always been in the parameter of the Asean-China declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea. So for this kind of announcement that two of the non-Asean claimant states have said certain things about Asean’s position, I think it’s very surprising.”

Ong added: “We have agreed among ourselves in Asean that the dispute [has] to be worked out bilaterally, China-Brunei, China-Philippines and so on and so forth, but as far as the Asean position is concerned, Laos is the chairman this year maybe as chairman it has decided to say something on behalf of the group.”

Vorachit’s Hanoi expedition will presumably allow the Vietnam’s Communist elite to clarify what was said and for Laos to reassure its longstanding partner.

China’s land reclamation and militarisation of the South China Sea has made several Asean members reticent about adopting an obviously pro-Beijing position.

Dr Tran Viet Thai of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies in Hanoi said Vorachit had close ties with Vietnam and Laotian relations with China may cool in the months to come.