South East Asia is a thriving region with a large population and significant economic and political potential. Strengthening influence in South East Asia is an important task for the world’s leading powers. The main partner of Russia in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is Vietnam. However, other ASEAN countries are also important for Russian foreign policy. Russia has achieved significant success in building relations with Vietnam’s nearest neighbour, Laos.
The history of Russian-Laotian relations in many ways is similar to the history of Russia’s relations with Vietnam. The civil war in Laos from 1960-1973 was fought parallel to the war in Vietnam and was closely intertwined with it. Together they were part of the Second Indochina war, in which communist forces of the Indochina Peninsula fought against the pro-American forces. This war led to the emergence of modern Vietnam and Laos. As in Vietnam, the communist rebels of Laos who fought against the former government, supported by the United States, received substantial help from the Soviet Union. In the same way as in Vietnam, the war ended with a communist victory and the establishment in 1975 of a new state – of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR), which for many years had established close and friendly relations with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union played a significant role in the development of the new state, strengthening its economy, industry, science and defence.
After the breakup of the USSR in 1991 relations continued though not in the same scale as during Soviet times. In 1994 LPDR and the Russian Federation signed an Agreement on the Foundation of friendly relations. The parties retained common views on crucial international issues and continued cooperation in various spheres.
Since the beginning of the 2000s Russia and Laos began to increase cooperation. It has been especially rapidly evolving in the last few years in connection with the generally increased interest of the Russian Federation in South East Asia.
In October 2011, the President of the LPDR Choummaly Sayasone arrived in Russia. He met with the then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. One result of the visit was the signing of the Declaration on strategic partnership between Russia and the Lao PDR in the Asia-Pacific region. The two countries actively cooperate within the UN, the dialogue partnership Russia-ASEAN and other international organizations.
The Russian-Laotian educational and cultural exchange is active. For example, it is known that since 1975 to the present more than 10 thousand Laotian students have received education in Soviet and Russian Universities. In November 2013, in the capital of Laos Vientiane the Russian Centre of Science and Culture opened up. In November 2015, the Centre of Russian Language began work at the Laos National University.
The volume of trade between the two countries is not very large. A record rise of 148% was recorded in 2016, when the trade turnover exceeded $40 million. But the parties are working hard to develop trade, for which they established the ad hoc intergovernmental commission on trade-economic and scientific-technical cooperation. In addition, the small volumes of Russian-Laotian trade are compensated by the importance of spheres of interaction between these countries, including energy (including nuclear power) and defence.
In September 2017 Moscow was visited by a delegation of high-ranking representatives of the LPDR. The Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith led the group. During the visit, the head of the government of the LPDR met with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev. The meeting was also attended by other members of the Lao delegation and the representatives of various Russian agencies. As a result a number of documents on cooperation in strategically important areas were signed.
The head of the Russian Ministry of Energy Alexander Novak and the Lao Minister of Energy Khammany Inthirath took part in the negotiations. As a result the Ministry of Energy of the Russian Federation and the LPDR Ministry of Energy and Mines signed a Memorandum on cooperation in the field of energy.
At the same time Russia and Laos signed an agreement on the construction of the hydroelectric power plant (HPP) ‘Sekong-5′. It has been reported that the estimated cost of the project is $800 million and the share of Russian investments in it may be about 70%. The HPP will be built on Russian technology and fitted with Russian equipment, at that. It has been reported that the Russian company ‘Power Machines’, which produces equipment for HPPs, intends to supply its products for ‘Sekong-5′ to Laos for $100 million. Electricity from the station may be exported to neighbouring Thailand.
As for nuclear energy, in April 2016, the Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom signed a Memorandum on cooperation in the field of use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes with the Ministry of Energy and Mines of the LPDR. In accordance with the document, the parties intend to cooperate in research in areas such as radiation safety and nuclear medicine. Also, the Russian nuclear scientists intend to help train Laotian specialists. The possibility of joint construction of research and industrial nuclear reactors was discussed.
In September 2017, in the framework of the aforementioned Russian-Laotian talks the new document – the “road map” of Russian-Laotian nuclear cooperation was signed in Moscow. The Russian Federation and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic are going to discuss the possibility of constructing a nuclear power plant on Laotian territory, the creation of an associated infrastructure, as well as the supply and processing of nuclear fuel.
At the same time a contract was signed for military-technical cooperation between Rosoboronexport and the Ministry of Defence of LPDR. Details of the contract have not been disclosed, however it should be noted that the defence and military technology is one of the most important areas of Russian-Laotian cooperation. For a long time the USSR was an important supplier of weapons and instructors for the armed forces of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The degree of interaction between the Russian and Laotian militaries is still very high.
In January 2018, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu arrived in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic as part of his Asian tour, during which he also visited Myanmar and Vietnam. During a meeting with the Russian minister, the Prime Minister of Laos Thongloun Sisoulith said that everything in the armed forces of Laos is connected with Russia. He also said that Laos hopes for help from Russia in the future.
Such a statement by Thongloun Sisoulith allows us to count on the great future of Russian-Laotian cooperation in defence and Russian-Laotian relations in general. And the development of friendly relations with Laos, in turn, may allow Russia to achieve another important objective – comprehensive development of relations with ASEAN.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”