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Politics

Kavi Chongkittavorn: New Lao leader in ASEAN driving seat

The emergence of Thongloun Sisoulith as the new leader of the People's Democratic Republic of Laos augurs well for the country's chairmanship of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year.

     Thongloun, who was elected prime minister on April 20 by the single chamber National Assembly, is the country's first leader with intensive diplomatic experience, having helped to end Laos' post-Cold War diplomatic isolation and oversee its integration with ASEAN during 10 years as foreign minister.

     Thongloun has a clear vision of what his landlocked country needs to do in raising both its own profile and that of ASEAN. The top priorities for Laos' chairmanship are narrowing the development gap between member states, promoting connectivity, and promoting small- and medium-sized enterprises. Vientiane also wants to improve trade facilitation, encourage more subsistence workers into the formal economy, and step up efforts to preserve and promote ASEAN's cultural heritage.

     Beyond these immediate aims, however, Thongloun will have to handle three important summits with the U. S., Russia and China. He has already shown that he has the required negotiating skills. At the Sunnylands U.S.-ASEAN summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama in February, Laos pushed successfully for a joint declaration on the basis of ASEAN centrality -- the idea that ASEAN represents the region as a whole in international relations. That document will serve as a foundation for stronger ASEAN-U.S. cooperation in the years to come.

     Under Thongloun's leadership, decision-making on domestic and foreign polices is likely to be faster and more efficient. As the most seasoned diplomat among the ruling Communist Party's 11 politburo members, he stands out as a capable coordinator and leader for his country in engaging with ASEAN. When Laos first occupied the ASEAN chair in 2004, there were just 400 ASEAN-related meetings; this year, at least 800 are scheduled, so better coordination and faster decision-making among ministries and with ASEAN colleagues will be crucial.

     The stakes are higher, too: The ASEAN Community -- an ambitious economic, political and cultural agreement cooperation agreement between the member states -- is in its fourth month, and Laos is presiding over a burgeoning organization with a combined population of 630 million people and almost unlimited potential. As a single unit, ASEAN would be Asia's third largest economy after China and India.

     Thongloun's first diplomatic outing will be a summit in Sochi, Russia, on May 19-20 to mark the 20th anniversary of ASEAN-Russia diplomatic relations. The Lao prime minister may not be the center of attention at this meeting, which is expected to mark the summit debut of Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic leader of Myanmar's new National League for Democracy-led government.

     Suu Kyi, who has taken the foreign affairs portfolio among other key roles in the administration, is expected to attend as foreign minister, accompanying Myanmar President Htin Kyaw. Two weeks ago, she also confirmed her participation in the ASEAN annual meeting scheduled for July 21-22 in Vientiane.

Comrades at Sochi

However, it will be Thongloun who will lead the ASEAN delegation in discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has confirmed that he will attend the summit. This is significant because Putin has missed the past two Russian summits with ASEAN. Russia, along with the U.S., joined the East Asia Summit -- an annual leaders-only security forum -- in 2010.

     Since then, however, Putin has failed to attend EAS meetings, while Obama has attended two out of three. Laos had good ties with the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, and there remains an affinity between post-communist Russia and the ongoing communist leadership in Vientiane. Thongloun speaks fluent Russian, Vietnamese and English.

     Finally, ASEAN and China are planning a commemorative summit to celebrate their 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year. The summit will be held back-to-back with the annual ASEAN Summit in early September in Vientiane, instead of in Beijing as originally planned. This could be the most difficult of the three summits, and the most important for ASEAN given the continuing maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China on the one hand and Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia -- all ASEAN member states -- on the other.

     Laos made a good start in this respect at an ASEAN Foreign Ministers' retreat in Vientiane in February, when it incorporated all the pertinent points raised by ASEAN members in a statement after the meeting. As a small and landlocked country, Laos has learned, throughout its long history, how to survive among its bigger neighbors, developing a pragmatic approach that will stand it in good stead as it seeks to achieve balance in ASEAN's relationships with the major powers.

     Thongloun also has much on his plate at home. Early in January, Laos produced a program labeled 2030 Vision that calls for the country to progress from the World Bank's list of least developed countries to its list of upper middle-income countries by 2020. That is a tall order, requiring Laos to more than triple gross national income per head in just five years -- from $1,160 to $4,125, as calculated by the bank's Atlas method.

     Given a series of economic reforms and accelerated efforts to create a fully market-based economy, Lao leaders are confident that the country can develop a niche within Southeast Asia that will lead to rapid economic growth. The new leaders in Vientiane are also enthusiastic about the strengthening of the rules-based government to ensure greater transparency and accountability.

     It remains to be seen how all these developments, coupled with the ASEAN chairmanship, will play out under the Thongloun-led administration. Obviously, he needs to build on the strong start made by Laos in the first quarter of the year as ASEAN chair. What is less obvious is whether and how he can succeed.

The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.

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