What is China’s PLA doing in Laos?

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Police officers take part in a joint anti-terrorist exercise between Chinese and Laotian police in Xishuangbanna of southwest China's Yunnan Province, Sept. 13, 2016.  Photo: Mur Photo via AFP/ Chen Haining

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the world’s largest fighting force with over 2.3 million soldiers, is fast expanding its operations in its near abroad.

A 90-person PLA medical team recently concluded a little noticed goodwill mission in neighboring Laos. Dubbed “Train of Peace 2017”, the team of Chinese army medics and physicians brought medicine, equipment and a newly deployed 14-tent field hospital to the landlocked country of nearly seven million.

This came as good news considering Laos’ rudimentary healthcare infrastructure and grinding poverty rates. From July 27 to August 6, the Chinese goodwill team distributed 20,000 boxes of medicine, received over 6,500 patients and performed more than a dozen surgeries for senior Lao commanders as well as junior officers, all free-of-charge.

Based in the Lao capital Vientiane and the northern municipality of Luang Namtha bordering China, the mission catered first to members of the Lao People’s Armed Forces and their dependents. In particular, PLA doctors made special rounds to the Lao army’s 11th regiment, 703th regiment and the Vientiane garrison command.

Laos' President Bounnhang Vorachith (L), shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) ahead a bilateral meeting at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on May 16, 2017.   / AFP PHOTO / POOL / WU HONG

Laos’ President Bounnhang Vorachith (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) at a bilateral meeting in Beijing on May 16, 2017. Photo: AFP/Wu Hong/Pool 

On August 2, the PLA team unveiled with Lao colleagues a China-donated clinical medicine training center at the army general hospital, the first and only institution of its kind in the Lao military’s health system. Overall, the “Train of Peace” mission received positive reviews from Lao service members and civilians alike, state media reported.

While Chinese media portrayed the mission as purely humanitarian, the geopolitical reality is more nuanced. Laos’ position at the head of China’s One Belt One Road ambitions for mainland Southeast Asia was also likely a motivating factor behind the PLA’s humane outreach.

The proposed Kunming-Singapore railway, designed to pass through Laos and on to mainland Southeast Asia, will conceivably provide China’s landlocked southwestern regions another outlet to the ocean while augmenting Beijing’s regional influence.

It is thus in Beijing’s interest to be on good terms with the Lao ruling elite to ensure the project moves ahead smoothly. Construction of the US$5.56 billion railway’s Lao section began last December and is expected to take five years to complete. The project will be 70% funded by China and is Laos’ largest ever infrastructure undertaking.

While the railway is a source of excitement for many Lao urbanites, it is a cause of unease in the countryside among villagers situated in construction zones, particularly for those who claim they have not received fair compensation from the government for their relocation.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY "LAOS-CHINA-TRANSPORT-SOCIAL,FEATURE" by Amelie Bottollier-DepoisThis picture taken on March 13, 2011 shows Chinese workers who carry out drilling works for soil analyses in preparation for the building of a railway linking China to Laos walking inside Bopiat village in the Northern province of Louang Namtha.  The people of Bopiat have particular reason to resent the Chinese workmen drilling in the centre of their village in the mountainous far north of Laos. Around a thousand of them have been told to move because their homes lie in the path of a planned high-speed railway line, funded by Beijing, that will cut across Southeast Asia's smallest economy from the Chinese border to Vientiane. AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH Nam / AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH NAM

Chinese workers prepare for the building of a railway linking China to Laos walking inside Bopiat village in the Northern province of Louang Namtha. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

All this is being brushed aside in the name of future economic gains. But the railway could create new problems as well, critics say. Improved infrastructure will also undoubtedly benefit the burgeoning cross-border drug trade, of which Laos is a major transit point.

On August 5, Chinese border guards in Yunnan province’s Mengla County captured smugglers returning from Laos with over 100 kilograms of raw opium. The bust comes amid growing bilateral exercises, including joint maneuvers held last September between 280 police officers in the name of counterterrorism, that have brought the two sides’ security forces closer together.

Like other communist armies, the Lao military adheres strictly to a party-control model. Building military-to-military relations therefore is critical to the furtherance of China’s interests. Besides allowing PLA servicemen a first-hand understanding of Laos, the “Train of Peace” mission also looked to cultivate personalized links between Chinese and Lao militaries that could be of future use.

Police officers take part in a joint anti-terrorist exercise between Chinese and Laotian police in Xishuangbanna of southwest China's Yunnan Province, Sept. 13, 2016. A total of 280 police officers from Yunnan's Xishuangbanna prefecture and Luang Namtha Province of Laos participated in the 90-minute drill, which started at 10 a.m. on Tuesday.

A joint anti-terrorist exercise between Chinese and Lao police in Xishuangbanna of southwest China’s Yunnan Province, Sept. 13, 2016. Photo: Nur Photo via AFP/Chen Haining

But how would China’s initiative impact Vietnam, which also shares strong ties with the Lao military as a fellow communist state? Indeed, some analysts wonder if the “Train of Peace” initiative is part of a wider Chinese effort to enhance ties with the Lao military at the expense of Hanoi.

The special relationship between the Lao and Vietnamese armed forces was cemented during the Lao civil war, in which the then North Vietnamese army played an indispensable role in helping Lao revolutionaries to eventual victory.

Today, the Lao army still relies heavily on the support of Vietnam, seen in the frequent exchanges between the high commands. Thousands of Lao officers have received training at Vietnamese military academies over the years.

As Chinese power expands southwards, Laos and Vietnam are both grappling with how to balance an increasingly confident and economically dominant China. While Laos welcomes aid from everywhere, its communist leaders are known to be weary of over-dependence on a single donor. China is currently Laos’ biggest foreign donor and investor.

This picture taken on May 31, 2016 shows a Chinese-run construction site along the Mekong River in Vientiane. Grain by grain, truckload by truckload, Laos' section of the Mekong river is being dredged of sand to make cement -- a commodity being devoured by a Chinese-led building boom in the capital. But the hollowing out of the riverbed is also damaging a vital waterway that feeds hundreds of thousands of fishermen and farmers in the poverty-stricken nation.  / AFP PHOTO / LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA

A Chinese-run construction site along the Mekong River in Vientiane. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha 

Yet some Lao leaders are known to be skeptical about China’s ultimate intentions.

Indeed, the director of the Lao military’s general political department might have taken an indirect shot at China during his August 2 visit to Hanoi, at which he underscored the Lao and Vietnamese armies’ role in guarding against unnamed “hostile forces’ sabotage plots trying to split the special solidarity between Laos and Vietnam.”

Although the PLA’s military mission to Laos might be seen as an attempt to isolate Vietnam, particularly as the two countries joust over disputed territories in the South China Sea, China is playing a bigger game in Laos with infrastructure investments that aim to deepen its trade and influence in Southeast Asia.

While the PLA’s “Train of Peace” aimed specifically at improving ties with the Lao military, its wider aim was to build bridges that will help China extend its power well beyond landlocked little Laos.

Follow the author on Twitter @MrZiYang

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