Vietnam’s longstanding rivalry with China, which has featured years of tense standoffs in the South China Sea, is also playing out in another nearby forum – Laos.
Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s recent official visit to Laos shows how Vietnam is trying to maintain its traditional position and influence there in the face of China’s expansion in the region, experts have told VOA.
Relations with Laos are considered one of Vietnam’s top foreign policy priorities, and the timing of Phuc’s Aug. 9 visit reflects the traditional regard the countries show each other. It was the first foreign visit by a senior leader of Vietnam since its 13th Party Congress in late January and Phuc’s first foreign trip as president.
Phuc was the first foreign head of state to visit Laos after its 11th Party Congress in mid-January. Phuc’s visit came six weeks after a visit to Vietnam by ruling Lao People's Revolutionary PartyGeneral Secretary and President Thongloun Sisoulit.
“This proves that both countries give the highest priority to consolidating and developing the great friendship, special solidarity, and comprehensive cooperation between Vietnam and Laos, and demonstrating the unique relationship that is faithful and attached to each other like brothers,” Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Quoc Dung said in an interview.
According to Le Hong Hiep, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, Phuc’s choice of Laos as his first country to visit after taking office shows the importance that Vietnam attaches to relations with Laos, and its desire to maintain its traditional position and influence there.
“For Vietnam, relations with Laos and Cambodia play a very important role in all aspects, especially in terms of security and defense. Maintaining good relations with these two countries as well as keeping influence to the maximum extent can therefore be Vietnam's top foreign policy priority,” Hiep said.
“Over the last 10 years, this goal has been facing significant challenges due to China's increasing strategic competition in these two countries,” he added.
China, he said, is richer, with more money to invest in relations with Laos and Cambodia, “especially through aid packages, concessional loans and infrastructure investments.”
China's territorial ambitions and recent aggressive moves in the South China Sea have Vietnam worried, according to Hoang Viet, a lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City University of Law. Memories persist of Chinese support for the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia in the late 1970s before being ousted by a Vietnamese invasion.
Viet referred to rumors that China has established a secret military base at Ream, on Cambodia’s southwestern coast. If the rumors are true, he said, “it will adversely affect the security and defense of Vietnam, as China intends to establish military bases in the world.
“In addition, China is also taking many actions that threaten Vietnam's sovereignty, territorial integrity as well as maritime interests in the East Sea [South China Sea]. Therefore, if China can repeat the case of the Khmer Rouge in Laos and Cambodia, it will be a disadvantage for Vietnam,” he said.
China has displaced Vietnam as Laos’ biggest investor. According to the Lao deputy prime minister and minister of planning and investment, Sonexay Siphandone, China is currently undertaking a total of 813 projects worth over $16 billion.
"China also plays a significant role in special economic zone investments, with the Lao government having authorized 89 projects” worth over $215 million, Sonexay reportedly told a workshop between Lao and Chinese entrepreneurs on Aug. 17.
Vietnam worries too as it sees Laos reaching out not only to China but to Russia and other countries. “Laos also wants to become more independent, thus trying to gradually reduce its dependence on Vietnam,” Viettold VOA.
Viet, who watches international developments and Vietnam’s diplomatic affairs, said current Lao leaders are more pragmatic than their predecessors.
“All of these things have made Vietnam-Laos relations not as deep as before. This is very evident in the economic field. Many economic projects between the two countries have been signed for a long time, but the movement is very slow,” he said.
Being economically weaker than China, Vietnam has a different approach to maintaining and developing close relations with Laos.
“Vietnam does not have many resources to compete with China economically but is also trying its best to do so through some private investment or selective aid packages … Vietnam also tries to take advantage of historical heritages, such as traditional relations, scholarship programs for students, or other economic cooperation activities, to develop relations with the two countries,” Hiep said.
Links with Laos and Cambodia are also important to Hanoi’s competition with China in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and over South China Sea issues.
Laos and Cambodia will continue as important areas “where strategic competition between Vietnam and China will continue to increase in the near future,” Hiep told VOA.