More than most countries, Laos suffers the constraints of physical location in shaping its foreign policy. Historically, the landlocked Laotian kingdom of Lan Xang, situated along the middle stretch of the Mekong River, had to contend with the predatory kingdoms of Burma to the north, Vietnam to the east, and Siam (present-day Thailand) to the west. After these kingdoms' seventeenth-century period of ascendancy, the lowland Lao kingdom broke up into the principality of Louangphrabang (Luang Prabang), which survived by offering tribute to both east and west, and Vientiane and Champasak (Bassac), which were reduced by the end of the eighteenth century to tributaries of Siam. Vietnam then asserted suzerainty over Xiangkhoang and Khammouan to the west. Thus, the foreign relations of the Laotians reflected their geography--landlocked and narrowly confined by valleys and mountains that supported a limited, overwhelmingly agricultural population exposed to more numerous and productive neighbors. In addition, the lack of national cohesion among various tribal groups subsisting in the mountains diminished the thrust of Laotian statehood.
Starting in 1893, Laotian kingdoms were subjected to the "protection" of France, which reasserted Vietnamese claims against Siam to all Laotian territories east of the Mekong River and in Xaignabouri and Champasak. This period of subordination was followed by the intervention of the United States and Thailand after 1954, succeeded by Vietnamese communists after 1975. More recently, since 1989, foreign policy has veered back toward more independence, in relinquishing both Marxist-Leninist ideology and the special influence of Vietnam.
The geographical and demographic confines of Laos have not been the only constraints on its foreign policy. Given the weakness of the state, the international environment has largely determined both the opportunities and the limits of national strategy. The most obvious recent example is the economic collapse and political breakup of the Soviet Union and the consequent retrenchment of its economic assistance throughout Indochina. This series of events helped cause Vietnam's withdrawal of its troops from Cambodia and Laos by 1990, which encouraged Thailand to reenter Indochina as a field for business. In turn, Vietnam sought to normalize relations with China, which also withdrew its military support from Cambodia.
These policy shifts redefined the conceivable strategies for a government concerned with economic development and political leeway. The shibboleths of Marxism-Leninism and state-organized agriculture and industry were no longer appropriate. In need of economic advice and investment, Laos looked beyond Vietnam and the Soviet bloc, to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other international organizations, and aid from a few Western nations and Japan. Besides increasing dramatically the presence of Thai traders and investors, Laos responded positively to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and advice from various United Nations (UN) agencies. At the same time, it began to establish a legal foundation for the protection of business risk-takers. Thus, the road to "national uplift" no longer stretched through the alien fields of Soviet/Vietnamese collectivism; people in Mekong Valley towns could see more products in their markets, and peasants began to believe that communal agriculture was a government imposition not likely to return.
Despite the security gained during the French protectorate, Laos lost ground economically because of its slowness in absorbing European technology and in developing trade beyond its borders. By and large, it failed to tap the mineral resources beneath its mountains, except for tin, which was mined by the French, and to investigate its oil potential. It did next to nothing to build an infrastructure for international trade. Even if a railroad system and reliable roads had been built, Laos still would have confronted potential controls over its access to the sea from Thailand or Vietnam. However, the hydroelectric capacity of the country has provided a major export that Thailand cannot afford to do without.
Because the rugged Annamite Mountains separate the Mekong Valley from Vietnamese population centers to the east, physical communication with the Thai nation to the west has always been easier, even before the Friendship Bridge across the river was completed in April 1994. Thus, the threat of Thai intervention across the Mekong River cannot be treated lightly by the LPDR's military planners, particularly under dry season conditions. At the same time, the ease of Vietnamese infiltration through the Annamite Mountains was thoroughly demonstrated during the years of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which led across southeastern Laos into the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).
The basic goals of foreign policy have not differed from one regime to another. National security or survival are fundamental concerns, and both the RLG and the LPDR have striven to preserve a Laotian state, even though their philosophies for organizing and serving the people differed fundamentally. In the 1990s, ideology shifted away from relentless Marxism-Leninism to "state capitalism" and single-party "democracy." Such formulations place Laos outside any rigid ideological camp and leave the national agenda open to the general promise of economic development. Officially, the government has dedicated itself to a foreign policy of peace, "independence, friendship and non-alignment," with the instrument for achieving those conditions being the LPRP.
In the 1940s, the ICP provided the most assertive challenge to colonialism. With the ending of French and United States dominance over the Laotian peoples, the communist-inspired LPRP has wrestled with the next challenge--economic and national development. The success of that undertaking and the survival of the party that has assumed it remains in the balance in the 1990s. The key to success, however, lies in developing and maintaining fruitful foreign relations.
A serious need for skilled technical and economic personnel still hinders the government's dealings with international agencies and businesspeople. Thousands of the most trained and enterprising citizens fled the country after 1975. A related problem for foreign policy makers is the relative lack of young university graduates who are fluent in English and familiar with international economics. The several thousand Laotian students sent between 1975 and the late 1980s to the Soviet Union and its East European allies for several years of training often have returned without tangible or relevant skills. The hundreds of training years provided in the Soviet Union did not produce a solid base of junior diplomatic officers intellectually prepared to move easily among UN economic development agencies or in Western state capitals. In the 1990s, education in Western states has become essential for advancement. As the horizon broadened for Laotian diplomats and businesspersons, elite families in Laos sought training in United States or Australian universities. Thailand is also willing to pick up some of the demand for educational opportunity, and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states are also a potential source for scholarships.
Recruitment of a professional foreign service is no easier in these circumstances. Moreover, party experience seems to count more heavily than sophistication in language and diplomatic training, even in the realm of foreign relations.
The retarded economic diversification and development of Laos constrained its foreign policy opportunities and generated its dependency in succession upon France, the United States, and the Soviet bloc. Following the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, Laos has become heavily dependent upon the advice and contributions of UN agencies and the readiness of regional states such as Australia, Japan, and Thailand to invest in its economy. Sweden has also made significant economic contributions.
There has been a dramatic shift away from maintaining basic solidarity with a military/political bloc of mentors--first, the United States regional security alliance and then the "special relations" of Vietnamese-influenced Marxism-Leninism--to maximizing donor-recipient relations with UN agencies, state donors, and private investors. Although the universe of relations has not essentially grown, especially with Russia cutting back on its assistance, the expectation of genuine economic progress has begun to creep into economic dealings with outsiders. By moving resolutely and responding to Thai and Chinese gestures, Laos has broadened its range of donors, trading partners, and investors. The presence of Thai traders and investors has dramatically increased.
The degree to which Laos has depended upon outside donors and investors, and which ones, has been a function not only of need but also political choice, a dependence that was carefully controlled during Kaysone Phomvihan's tutorship. Without his pervasive leadership, foreign economic relations might have fallen victim to internal rivalries between ministries and factions within the party.
However, through legislation enacted by the National Assembly in 1991 of a basic criminal and investment code and the creation of a judiciary, Laos opened its doors wider to serious investors. In addition, the stabilization of foreign exchange rates and inflation signaled major steps toward engaging constructively with countries outside the ideological blocs within which it used to confine itself. The new institutions require a few years of serious testing, but a Burma-like return to stagnation seems unlikely, even with Kaysone's departure from the helm. The tantalizing images of Thailand's growth and prosperity, conveyed by television along the Mekong border, and increasingly easier travel across the river--in both directions--makes the economic policy of openness seem all but irreversible.
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