HANOI: Laos President and Communist Party chief Bounnhang Vorachit on Monday (Apr 25) arrived in neighbouring Vietnam for his first overseas visit since assuming the party’s top post in January.
Mr Vorachit held talks with Vietnam’s Communist Party boss Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and is scheduled to meet President Tran Dai Quang on Tuesday.
Vietnamese media hailed the visit as a signal of the two nations’ special friendship even as questions remain over Laos’ close ties with China, with whom Vietnam is locked in a maritime dispute over the South China Sea.
Mr Vorachit’s trip comes in the wake of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Vientiane over the weekend, where he told reporters that China had come to a “consensus” with Laos, Cambodia and Brunei on the sea spat. A Xinhua report said China and the three countries agreed the territorial dispute was not an issue between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) "as a whole", and should not affect China-ASEAN relations.
Analysts Channel NewsAsia spoke to cautioned that China’s statement should be taken with a pinch of salt.
None of the three countries have come out to confirm nor repudiate China and they’re not likely to, said Dr Le Hong Hiep, visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. But the Laotian leader’s visit to Hanoi will be an opportunity for Vietnamese leaders to clarify and for Laos to reassure its longstanding partner about what was really said in meetings with China, he added.
China’s large land reclamation projects and increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea is seen to have had an alienating effect in the region and observers say this is making ASEAN countries think twice before adopting an obvious pro-China position.
It is something of an open secret within Vientiane's diplomatic circles that Laos President Vorachit has close ties with Vietnam, so a more balanced approach to China could be expected from the new leadership, said Dr Tran Viet Thai, deputy director of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies in Hanoi.
Laos is the chair of ASEAN this year, where the maritime spat has become the most contentious issue in recent years testing successive hosts’ ability to maintain ASEAN unity. Four out of ten ASEAN member states have claims in the South China Sea.
Mr Vorachit is scheduled to meet Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang on Tuesday before wrapping up his visit in Ho Chi Minh City on Wednesday.