Laos starts off as Asean chair with ministers' retreat

New Lao Politburo chief Bounnhang Vorachit.
New Lao Politburo chief Bounnhang Vorachit. PHOTO: REUTERS

Asean Community Vision 2025 and South China Sea dispute among discussion topics

Laos kicks off its Asean chairmanship today with an agenda-setting foreign ministers' retreat in Vientiane, its capital on the east bank of the Mekong River.

Analysts say this year could be a coming of age for the "lower-middle income economy", where poverty continues to be widespread, but which is one of the fastest-growing economies in the region.

Laos last chaired Asean in 2004. Its economy grew by an average of 7 per cent annually in recent years, mostly on the back of its natural resources, a construction boom in Vientiane and rising tourism.

 

The year will culminate with the Asean and East Asia Summits in September - held earlier than usual because of the United States election in November.

Mr Barack Obama is expected to attend the summit, which may be his last major international meeting as US President.

Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan is among those attending the retreat - which is also the first Asean ministerial-level meeting to be held since the establishment of the Asean Community at the end of last year.

The foreign ministers "will discuss the implementation of the Asean Community Vision 2025... (and) will also exchange views on Asean's external relations, and on regional and international issues", Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a brief statement yesterday.

The Asean Community Vision 2025 emerged from the 2013 Asean summit. It aims to develop a "politically cohesive, economically integrated, socially responsible, and a truly people-oriented, people-centred and rules-based Asean", the 10-member group's official website states.

An issue that has divided Asean, the South China Sea dispute, will figure in the discussions too, officials say.

China - an Asean dialogue partner - claims almost the entire South China Sea, but its claims overlap with those of several Asean countries, most critically Vietnam and the Philippines.

Analysts have noted that Laos, which was perceived to be drifting into China's sphere of influence, appears to have changed course and returned to its traditional closeness to Vietnam and to balancing other major powers.

New Lao Politburo chief Bounnhang Vorachit studied in Vietnam and speaks fluent Vietnamese. He is expected to be president when the new Laotian government is formed at the end of next month.

While the Laos political system is opaque, with only news reports in state media to go by, recent reports indicated that the government wants good relations with the US and Japan, observers say.

"Vietnam is a strong counterforce to China, it is seen as a trusted friend," a Vientiane-based diplomat said. "Laos has always walked a tightrope, and it will hide behind the Asean consensus."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2016, with the headline 'Laos starts off as Asean chair with ministers' retreat'. Print Edition | Subscribe