The Asia Pivot
Yet Another Southeast Asia Rebalance?

Is Laos ready to tilt towards the United States and away from China? Maybe, Reuters suggests:

[D]iplomats say Obama could be pushing on an open door in Laos, thanks to a change of government there in April.

They say the country’s new leaders appear ready to tilt away from Beijing and lean more closely toward another neighbor, Vietnam, whose dispute with China over the South China Sea has pushed it into a deepening alliance with the United States.

“The new government is more influenced by the Vietnamese than the Chinese,” said a Western diplomat in Southeast Asia.” “It’s never too late for a U.S. president to visit.”

Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit landlocked Laos, where the United States waged a “secret war” while fighting in Vietnam, dropping an estimated two million tonnes of bombs on the country. About 30 percent of the ordnance failed to explode, leaving a dangerous and costly legacy.

Laos has strategic importance to both Vietnam and China. Vietnam has a long land border with Laos that gives it access to markets in Thailand and beyond. For China, Laos is a key gateway to Southeast Asia in its “new Silk Road” trade strategy.

During the Obama Years, we’ve watched countries across Southeast Asia lean this way and that in response to China’s aggressive behavior in the region. Myanmar has, for the most part, been slowing and steadily tilting away from Beijing and towards the U.S. Indonesia has made lots of noises, but continued to try to stand up to China on its own. Vietnam has strengthened ties with Washington. Cambodia has stayed close to China, and Thailand seems to be closing the gap with Beijing after a coup left Bangkok and Washington estranged. And traditionally-neutral Malaysia has gotten more cooperative with the U.S.

As Reuters notes, it’s very difficult to read Laos, so any broader speculation as to the strategic implications is probably premature. But the dynamic between Beijing and Vientiane in the coming weeks is probably worth keeping an eye on.

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