Friday, April 11, 2008

Laos: A Cry to Heaven Part 3 - Geopolitics & Money

Note: I was getting really bummed out for several days in trying to successfully bring this sad story about the Lao Hmong to an end and press on with new material. But then I read some news today about the continuing struggles of desperate people trying to escape the oppressive regime in Burma (CNN) only to lose their lives through suffocation in an overheated, abandoned freight container at the Thai border. The independent Thai newspaper The Nation (Bangkok) has a good editorial about the tragedy “Deaths of Burmese bring shame on us”. The Irrawady news magazine published an earlier report titled “Migrants are Not Commodities” about Thailand’s love-hate relationship with illegal and legal migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. Human trafficking for prostitution and dirt cheap (slave) labor is becoming a huge problem down in paradise.

The Lao Hmong refugees featured in this series of posts have been on the run since 1975 after suffering decades of civil war and the loss of over one third of their people, and they continue to fight for their lives to this very day. Who am I to think that I should give up on their story when they have been able to hold on for so long?

One thing that I have learned about this little known humanitarian crisis is that nothing is as simple as it seems. The historical and cultural relationships between the various ethnic groups of the Mekong region, the way governments function domestically and interact with neighboring countries, the geo-politics of foreign governments and international aid and development organizations, foreign investors and businesspeople: all play an important role in the lives of “the forgotten veterans” and the 500 million other people living in SE Asia today.

So let’s press on, shall we, and see where this interesting story leads us.

Part 3 of “Laos: A Cry to Heaven in the Land of a Million Elephants”
Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series

The growing political and economic relationships between the Lao PDR, China, Thailand, and Burma (Myanmar) have been garnering attention in the international press over the past several months, especially after the successful conclusion of the Greater Mekong Sub-region Summit in Vientiane, Laos in March. According to an April 7th Associated Press article, Laos Fears China’s Footprint, the People’s Republic of China has been the subject of deep concern among citizens in the Lao capital Vientiane. Their angst is over a dubious “land for loans” deal between the Lao regime and the Chinese government in exchange for building a new sports complex on prime natural wetlands on the outskirts of the Lao capital. Reuters reports these same fears extend to villagers living in rural parts of the country because of growing foreign investment in rubber plantations and the agri-business sector. The Lao Deputy Prime Minister was forced to give a rare public news conference in February to defuse Vientiane residents’ fears of a “Chinese invasion”. KPL Lao News Agency had reported that a rumored 50,000 Chinese workers were poised to move into the capital city of 460,000 residents.

This has not been a good week for China in the world press and international news media as we all know, and to make matters worse India is continuing to move in on China’s economic and political territory in Southeast Asia.

So where does America and other countries fit into this picture of renewed economic growth and progress toward better governance in the Mekong region? I would have guessed that the U.S. has little influence over certain Mekong countries due to the terrible legacy of the Vietnam War and thorny issues such as UXO (unexploded ordnance) cleanup and MIA/POW’s. The same legacy would presumably apply to France (1st Indochina War) and America’s close allies in the Vietnam War: South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand.

Presuming that the U.S.A. has limited political and economic leverage with key GMS countries (Vietnam, Laos and Burma) would be logical, but ill informed. Here are two views from one well know Southeast Asian scholar that tell a different story.

Shifting Alliances and Economic Opportunity in Southeast Asia
(Continued from Part 2)

China is very eager to increase trade with the GMS countries and expand its influence there. In a report published in 2005 by Dr. Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, he states the following:

China and Vietnam's Tug of War over Laos by Dr. Ian Storey
AsiaMedia newsletter at UCLA Asia Institute – June 7, 2005

In at least one Southeast Asian country -- Laos -- the competition for influence is not between the US and China, but between historic rivals China and Vietnam, writes Ian Storey

Much has been written on the competition for influence in Southeast Asia among the Great Powers, particularly the United States and China, and how Beijing has made significant inroads in this respect over the past few years. However, in at least one Southeast Asian country – Laos – the competition for influence is not between the U.S. and China, but between historic rivals China and Vietnam. The United States is not a major player in Laos – its interests are narrowly focused on resolving Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) issues left over from the Vietnam War, and securing Laotian cooperation in the "war on terrorism." In fact, until December 2004 Laos was one of only three countries (the other two being North Korea and Cuba) denied Normal Trade Relations (NTR) with the United States. Although Japan is the largest provider of aid to Laos, it has not translated this largesse into political influence.

The Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) is a small, underdeveloped country situated in the heart of mainland Southeast Asia. As the only landlocked country in the region, it is bordered by China, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia. Subsistence farming employs more than 80 percent of its 5.7 million people, reducing Laos to the status of one of the poorest countries in Asia. Laos is ranked 135th in the United Nation's 2004 Human Development Index of 177 countries, the lowest of any member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Laos joined in 1997. The LPDR has a per capita income of around $300.

Laos is one of only five remaining communist countries in the world. Since its foundation in December 1975, the LPDR has been ruled by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). For the first decade of its existence, Laos had a "special relationship" with Vietnam which was built on the close links forged between the LPRP and Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) in the 1930s. These links enabled Hanoi to exercise a controlling influence over the Lao communist movement during the "thirty years struggle" (1945-1975), despite the fact that Beijing essentially underwrote the Pathet Lao's (the LPRP's military wing) war effort. In 1977, Laos and Vietnam entered an alliance which caused severe strains in Lao-PRC relations. These strains were exacerbated in 1978 when Laos supported Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia.

From the mid-1980s, however, Laos sought to decrease its dependence on Vietnam by reaching out to the United States, China, and ASEAN countries. Vientiane's motive was primarily economic: aid from the USSR and Vietnam was drying up, and Laos looked to more economically advanced countries to help rejuvenate the moribund economy. In the post-Cold War era, three countries dominate Lao foreign relations: Vietnam, Thailand, and China.

Although Vietnam is no longer the cornerstone of Lao foreign policy, close personal relations between Laotian and Vietnamese leaders have ensured the survival of the "special relationship." It was Hanoi that enabled the LPRP to achieve power, something elderly LPRP cadres are not apt to forget. Although the 1977 alliance was allowed to lapse in 2002, the two countries continue to maintain close security links. Vietnam is also Laos' second biggest trading partner.

Thailand's interests in Laos are predominantly economic. Prior to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, cultural and linguistic advantages enabled Thailand to establish itself as Laos' primary economic partner. However, this situation was not met with unbridled enthusiasm by the Lao government, which feared becoming over-dependent on the Thai economy. These fears proved prescient; when the Thai economy buckled in mid-1997, the ripple effect on Laos in terms of lost trade and investment was severe. Nevertheless, Thailand remains Laos' leading trade partner, taking nearly 50 percent of its exports. But Bangkok's political influence is limited since Laotians perceive Thais to be overbearing and arrogant, and Lao nationalism tends to orient itself against Thailand.

In 1988, Beijing and Vientiane normalized relations, and since the Asian Financial Crisis China's profile in the LPDR has increased considerably. China's interests in Laos are threefold. The first is China's strategic imperative of fostering close relations with all countries along its borders. Beijing's ultimate aim is to displace the political influence of other countries in Laos, primarily Vietnam but also Thailand. Second, Laos' geographic position makes it a useful conduit through which Chinese goods from its Southwest provinces can flow into the Thai market. Since 2000, Beijing has paid special attention to the development of Laos' transportation infrastructure, particularly highways linking China with Thailand. Vientiane itself has been keen to promote itself as a "landlinked" country rather than a landlocked one, though it recognizes that China and Thailand stand to gain the most. Third, the PRC has expressed a strong desire to increase imports of natural resources from Laos, including timber, iron ore, copper, gold, and gemstones.

END excerpts___ Links to external websites added to original text for clarity

Now have a look at the Geopolitical Strategic View of the region from the same expert two years later in a paper published for the US Army War College – Strategic Studies Institute.

The United States and China-ASEAN Relations: All Quiet on the Southeast Asian Front by Dr. Ian Storey, October 2007


While the overall security situation in Southeast Asia is something of a mixed bag with grounds for both optimism and pessimism, one of the most encouraging trends in recent years has been the development of the Association for Southeast Asian Nation’s (ASEAN) re-lations with major external powers. Relations between China and ASEAN in particular have demonstrated a marked improvement over the past decade, thanks to a combination of burgeoning economic ties, perceptions of China as a more constructive and responsible player in regional politics, and Beijing’s “charm offensive” toward Southeast Asia. Overall, the development of ASEAN-China relations poses few security challenges to the United States: Good relations between China and ASEAN enhance regional stability, and a stable Southeast Asia is clearly in America’s interests, especially with Washington focused on events in the Middle East. Although ASEAN-China relations are very positive, this does not necessarily mean the United States is losing influence in Southeast Asia, or that ASEAN members are “bandwagoning” with China. In fact, they are hedging by keeping America engaged and facilitating a continued U.S. military presence. While ASEAN-China relations are relatively benign today, several sources of potential friction could create problems in Sino-U.S. relations: these are Taiwan, Burma, and the South China Sea dispute. This monograph examines each of these scenarios in turn.

Depending on one’s perspective, Southeast Asia in the early 21st century is either a glass half full or a glass half empty. The glass is half full in the sense that for the majority of countries in Southeast Asia, these are relatively stable, peaceful, and prosperous times. The economies of the region have either recovered fully, or are well on their way to full recovery, from the disastrous 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis. Singapore and Malaysia have registered strong economic growth, while Vietnam has become the darling of foreign investors, and in 2006 its gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate was second only to the PRC in Asia. Indonesia and the Philippines are experiencing good levels of growth (5-6 percent), while even Laos and Cambodia are achieving respectable levels of GDP growth. At the political level, the region has witnessed smooth leadership transitions in several countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam) and, most importantly, democracy is being consolidated in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest, and arguably most important, country. Indonesia is also witnessing perhaps the world’s most successful peace process in Aceh. At the security level, although territorial disputes continue to simmer, there is no danger that any of these will result in outright conflict. Indeed the chance of interstate conflict between the ASEAN states is almost (but not entirely) unthinkable. Transnational terrorist networks such as Jemaah Islamiyah have been disrupted (but not destroyed); piracy attacks are down thanks partly to the cooperative efforts of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia; and in the Philippines, there are cautious grounds for optimism that a peace deal for Mindanao can be concluded in 2007. At the corporate level, ASEAN has embraced a vision for the future—the ASEAN Community 2015—and efforts are underway to frame a charter for the next ASEAN summit in November 2007 which will give the organization legal underpinnings for the first time ever.

However, these developments do not mean that this observer has adopted a pollyannaish view of Southeast Asia. The glass is half empty in the sense that the region faces a host of serious security challenges, particularly transnational threats such as terrorism; communal and sectarian violence; and illegal trafficking in drugs, small arms, and people. Politically, the September 19, 2006, coup in Thailand, and continued rumors of coups in the Philippines, underscored the fragility of democratic institutions in Southeast Asia. Except for one or two countries, poor governance—corruption, lack of transparency and accountability, political instability, absence of rule of law, and ineffective government—remains widespread across the region. And while Aceh is a success story, the level of violence in Southern Thailand is escalating at an alarming rate. Moreover, some countries in Southeast Asia show characteristics of near-state failure, with Burma being the leading example. And while ASEAN has adopted a clear blueprint for the future, it remains to be seen whether the radical proposals suggested at the ASEAN Summit in Cebu, the Philippines, in January 2007, will survive the negotiations and expected opposition from newer members such as Burma.

One area where optimism is well-founded is ASEAN’s relations with major external powers such as the United States, China, Japan, and India. Relations between ASEAN and these countries have arguably never been better, particularly at the government-to-government level. ASEAN as a group conducts regular meetings and summits with its external partners, and several—including China, Japan, and India—have already acceded to the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) which is basically a code of conduct that governs relations among the ASEAN states and external powers. ASEAN remains in the driver’s seat in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and East Asia Summit (EAS) processes. Trade between the ASEAN states and China, Japan, and the United States is booming, and free trade negotiations between the member states and these countries will likely bolster this trend. At the security level, there is unprecedented cooperation between the ASEAN members and extra-regional powers, particularly over transnational security threats.

As both sides are happy to concede, relations between ASEAN and the PRC are at an historic high. Trade and investment ties are booming, and the PRC is widely perceived in Southeast Asia as the Asian growth engine that is largely responsible for helping the ASEAN economies recover from the 1997 economic crisis. The two sides have concluded a raft of agreements, developed a roadmap for future relations, and relegated formerly contentious security issues to the backburner. Overall, the burgeoning relationship between ASEAN and China is, I would aver, good news for the United States. The United States has a vested interest in a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Southeast Asia. It allows the United States to focus on more pressing issues in the Middle East (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions) and Northeast Asia. Indeed, the security dynamics in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia are very different. Whereas in Northeast Asia the major security issues stem from bilateral disputes and rivalries (i.e., North and South Korea, China and Taiwan, China and Japan), in Southeast Asia security issues are largely internal in nature (separatism, insurgency, and terrorism). By and large, these are not issues that create severe tensions between Southeast Asian states and external powers, and, on the contrary, they have engendered good cooperation.

There are, in my view, few potential challenges for the United States vis-à-vis improved ASEAN-China relations, at least in the short-to-medium term. Although China’s economic, political, and even military profile has been rising in Southeast Asia for more than a decade, this does not mean that the ASEAN states have lost interest in the United States, or that the PRC is on the cusp of becoming Southeast Asia’s regional hegemon. Southeast Asian countries value the United States as a trade and investment partner and, perhaps more importantly, still view it as Asia’s key off-shore balancer.

End excerpts____

At the end of the day, it’s all about the money. Commerce, trade and political stability will trump ‘human rights’ concerns every time.

Also have a look at the following articles and reports:
Heritage Foundation: Enabling ASEAN’s Economic Vision
China Development Brief: Communist capital flows downstream: China’s aid to Laos

End Part 3: A Cry to Heaven in the Land of a Million Elephants

Part 4 coming soon

Technorati tags:

No comments: