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Bilateral Relations

Relations with Vietnam

Relations with Vietnam had secretly set the strategy for the LPRP during the struggle to achieve full power, and the "sudden" opportunity to establish the LPDR in 1975 left no leeway to consider foreign policy alignments other than a continuation of the "special relations" with Vietnam. The relationship cultivated in the revolutionary stage predisposed Laos to Indochinese solidarity in the reconstruction and "socialist construction" phases and all but ensured that relations or alignments with China and Thailand would be wary and potentially unfriendly. Further, the LPRP, unlike the Cambodian communists under Pol Pot, was far too accustomed to accepting Vietnamese advice to consider striking out on its own. The final seizure of power by the hitherto secret LPRP in 1975 brought both a public acknowledgment of the previously hidden North Vietnamese guidance of the party and genuine expressions of gratitude by the LPRP to its Vietnamese partners. The challenge facing the ruling group--the construction of a socialist society-- was seen as a natural extension of past collaboration with North Vietnam. The revolution was simply entering a new phase in 1975, and the LPRP leaders congratulated themselves upon ousting the "imperialists" and looked forward to advice and economic as well as military support, which was not available from any neighbor or counterrevolutionary state.

LPRP leaders were accustomed to discussing policies as well as studying doctrine in Hanoi. They formalized governmental contacts with their mentors at biannual meetings of the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam starting in 1980 and through the joint Vietnam-Laos Cooperative Commission, which met annually to review progress of various projects. Other levels of cooperation between Laos and Vietnam existed, for example, party-to-party meetings and province-to-province exchanges, as well as mass organizations for youths and women. Meetings of the commission were held regularly.

The primary channels for Vietnam's influence in Laos, however, were the LPRP and the LPA (see Structure and Administration of the Armed Forces , ch. 5). In the LPRP, long-standing collaboration and consultation at the very top made special committees unnecessary, whereas in the LPA, the Vietnamese advisers, instructors, and troops on station constituted a pervasive, inescapable influence, even though they scrupulously avoided public exposure by sticking to their designated base areas. Cooperation in the military field was probably the most extensive, with logistics, training, and communications largely supplied by Vietnam throughout the 1970s and 1980s (heavy ordnance and aircraft were provided by the Soviet Union).

The phrase "special relations" came into general use by both parties after 1976, and in July 1977, the signing of the twentyfive -year Lao-Vietnamese Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation legitimized the stationing of Vietnamese army troops in Laos for its protection against hostile or counterrevolutionary neighbors. Another element of cooperation involved hundreds of Vietnamese advisers who mentored their Laotian counterparts in virtually all the ministries in Vientiane. Hundreds of LPRP stalwarts and technicians studied in institutes of Marxism-Leninism or technical schools in Hanoi.

The resources that Vietnam was able to bestow upon its revolutionary partner, however, were severely limited by the physical destruction of war and the deadening orthodoxy of its economic structures and policies. However, it could put in a good word for its Laotian apprentices with the Soviet Union, which in turn could recommend economic assistance projects to its East European satellite states. Yet, Vietnam's influence on Laos was determined by economic assistance and ideology as well as by geographical and historical proximity. The two nations fit together, as the leaders liked to say, "like lips and teeth." Vietnam provided landlocked Laos a route to the sea, and the mountainous region of eastern Laos provided Vietnam a forward strategic position for challenging Thai hegemony in the Mekong Valley.

During the 1980s, Vietnam's regional opponents attributed to it a neocolonial ambition to create an "Indochina Federation." This phrase can be found in early pronouncements of the ICP in its struggle against the French colonial structures in Indochina. The charge, exaggerated as it was, lost its currency once Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia in 1989 and subsequently from Laos. Laos's dependence on Vietnam since 1975 could then be perceived as a natural extension of their collaboration and solidarity in revolution rather than as domination by Vietnam.

With the departure of Vietnamese military forces--except for some construction engineers--and the passing of most senior Vietnamese revolutionary partners, the magnetism of the special relationship lost its grip. Further, Vietnam was never able to muster large-scale economic aid programs. It launched only 200 assistance projects between 1975 and 1985, whereas the Soviet Union generated considerably more in the way of contributions. In 1992 the long-standing Vietnamese ambassador to Laos, a veteran of fourteen years' service, characterized the relationship as composed "d'amitié et de coopération multiforme entre les pays" (of friendship and diverse cooperation between the two countries). This pronouncement was far less compelling than the "objective law of existence and development" formulation sometimes expressed in the past.

Although Vietnam's historical record of leadership in the revolution and its military power and proximity will not cease to exist, Laos struck out ahead of Vietnam with its New Economic Mechanism to introduce market mechanisms into its economy. In so doing, Laos has opened the door to rapprochement with Thailand and China at some expense to its special dependence on Vietnam. Laos might have reached the same point of normalization in following Vietnam's economic and diplomatic change, but by moving ahead resolutely and responding to Thai and Chinese gestures, Laos has broadened its range of donors, trading partners, and investors independent of Vietnam's attempts to accomplish the same goal. Thus, Vietnam remains in the shadows as a mentor and emergency ally, and the tutelage of Laos has shifted dramatically to development banks and international entrepreneurs.

Data as of July 1994

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