Laos’ 2024 ASEAN chairmanship: Charting a unique course amid global challenges

Laos leads ASEAN in 2024, prioritizing ‘Enhancing Connectivity and Resilience.’ Navigating South China Sea tensions, Myanmar’s crisis, and fostering regional harmony, Laos faces formidable tasks.

Laos is currently leading the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with a focus on the theme “Enhancing Connectivity and Resilience” for the year. This theme suggests that ASEAN, under Laos’ chairmanship, aims to address complex challenges in Southeast Asia and the broader Asia-Pacific region while also expanding its presence on the global stage.

The emphasis on enhancing connectivity likely involves efforts to strengthen physical infrastructure, digital links, and interpersonal connections among ASEAN member states. This can contribute to regional economic integration and development. In contrast to its earlier roles as chair in 2004 and 2016, 2024 is anticipated to present even greater challenges for Laos as it guides ASEAN. The upcoming year is expected to be marked by heightened complexities and difficulties, necessitating adept leadership and strategic decision-making from Laos.

Additionally, supporting Laos in its efforts to boost tourism, as outlined in the Visit Laos Year 2024 program, requires collective action. Member states may consider collaborative marketing campaigns, the exchange of best practices in tourism management, and initiatives to enhance travel infrastructure within the region. This joint effort can help showcase the diverse cultural and natural attractions of Laos, ultimately fostering increased tourism and economic benefits for the entire ASEAN community.

Laos is placing significant importance on enhancing its standing and influence among major powers as it assumes the role of hosting and chairing meetings in various ASEAN-led mechanisms. One key event mentioned is the East Asia Summit, which brings together leaders from major powers such as the U.S., China, Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, Russia, and New Zealand, all converging in Vientiane.

Despite having a smaller population and economy compared to the founding nations of ASEAN, Laos has demonstrated its capability and competence in previous chairmanship. The country, despite being the only landlocked nation in the region, has effectively taken on the responsibilities of leading ASEAN in the past.

However, it would be unrealistic to anticipate that Laos, despite its past successes, will single-handedly provide breakthroughs to address the longstanding issues within ASEAN. This acknowledgement is particularly relevant when considering that larger and more economically developed nations in the region, such as Indonesia, have also faced challenges in achieving significant advancements or solutions to perennial problems.

 

Myanmar Crisis

In a recent summit, ASEAN leaders decided Myanmar, stating that the country’s military regime would not be permitted to host any summits or meetings for an unspecified duration. This decision extends to the year 2026 when the Philippines is slated to assume the ASEAN chairmanship, replacing Myanmar in the original rotation.

The decision reflects the regional unease and disapproval of the political situation in Myanmar, particularly following the military coup in February 2021. By imposing restrictions on Myanmar’s hosting privileges, ASEAN leaders are collectively expressing their stance against actions that undermine democratic principles and human rights in the region.

Up until the present moment, General Aung Min Hlaing, the leader of the junta in Myanmar, has shown a clear inability to adhere to the Five-Point Consensus, which serves as the foundation for resolving the crisis in the country. This consensus notably involves the urgent cessation of violence within Myanmar and the initiation of a dialogue involving all relevant parties.

During the latest summit in Jakarta, the leaders of the region established a troika on Myanmar, consisting of Laos as the current chair, Indonesia as the previous chair, and Malaysia as the chair for 2025. The primary objective of this troika is evident: to prevent the current chair, Laos, from violating ASEAN’s decision regarding Myanmar.

While Laos has expressed its commitment to the “full and effective implementation of ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus (5PC)” for Myanmar, the evolving situation in Myanmar may present challenges that render the existing consensus inadequate, particularly in the event of significant changes such as the country breaking up. Despite Laos’ traditionally conservative approach, it may require greater flexibility, adaptability, and creativity to devise new solutions that effectively address the emerging complexities and uncertainties in Myanmar.

In the face of a potentially transformed situation, Laos, in its role as ASEAN chair, will need to lead the regional bloc in intensifying humanitarian efforts within the affected states. This could involve addressing pressing issues such as the widespread displacement of the Myanmar people, which may necessitate a more comprehensive and innovative approach to addressing the humanitarian crisis.

 

South China Sea Dispute

As tensions escalate between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, there is a growing realization that ASEAN cannot afford to remain a passive observer. The concern is raised that, being a landlocked country, Laos may face challenges in exerting significant influence on the South China Sea issue and ensuring the relevance of ASEAN in the resolution process.

Although Laos itself is not a claimant state in the territorial dispute, several ASEAN member states, including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, have claims over parts of the resource-rich South China Sea. China, on the other hand, is known to pursue various diplomatic strategies to influence ASEAN countries, seeking to potentially soften the regional bloc’s stance on this longstanding issue.

Laos’ position as a non-claimant state allows it to maintain a neutral stance, emphasizing the importance of upholding the unity of ASEAN while navigating the complex dynamics of the South China Sea dispute. Despite its geographical constraints, Laos may find itself under pressure to play a proactive role, particularly in advancing negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC).

 

Other issues and matters

The anticipation of North Korea conducting more intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests is likely to heighten tensions in the region. This could prompt middle powers, particularly South Korea and Japan, to respond with increased military actions. , Laos, as the ASEAN chair in 2024, has an opportunity to contribute positively to the resolution of the Korean Peninsula dispute. Its role as a facilitator, coupled with its diplomatic background, commitment to neutrality, and established relations with North Korea, positions Laos to play a constructive role in creating a conducive atmosphere for dialogue and negotiation within the ASEAN framework.

Additionally, the outcome of the upcoming high-stakes election in Taiwan next month has the potential to exacerbate tensions in the Taiwan Strait further, where again Laos will have to take critical actions to bring harmony among the countries.

While Laos has good intentions and a strong desire to be an effective chair of ASEAN in 2024, the existing realities and challenges on the ground make the task ahead quite formidable for Vientiane.