Indonesia: Reassessing ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum’ (Poros Maritim Dunia)

September 7, 2016

Indonesia: Reassessing  ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum’ (Poros Maritim Dunia)

China–In an Emerging Global Order

September 1, 2016

China–In an Emerging Global Order

by Katherine Morton

Image result for China in an Emerging Global World Order

China’s status within the prevailing global order has sparked one of the most contested debates in international affairs. For some, it evokes their worst fears over a rising revisionist power; for others it creates inflated expectations over what the Chinese leadership is willing to commit to within the global arena.

The tendency to exaggerate Chinese global influence is, in part, a reflection of the difficulties involved in gauging the extent to which China’s external commitments are driven by domestic political imperatives. China’s international behaviour is also often defined in relation to the United States, thus creating an image of a superpower in waiting that underestimates the complex realities of China’s expanding influence in the world. For some commentators, China’s rising international status presages the eclipse of a Western-dominated liberal order. In reality, China’s position within an emerging global order that is both inclusive and legitimate has yet to be clearly defined.

Existing accounts of China’s role in order building suggest three divergent approaches based upon opportunism, ambivalence and accommodation. The opportunistic approach is centrally focused upon material preponderance, rising nationalism and a strategic posture that seeks to achieve China’s rightful status as a powerful nation.

Ambivalence is most keenly expressed in China’s defensive approach towards global leadership and an inherent sense of historical entitlement that places nation-building before the obligation to deliver global public goods. This ambivalence also includes a continuing emphasis on reforming global institutions to simply accord with national interests.

Proponents of an accommodationist approach highlight Chinese efforts to seek social prestige by gradually increasing international commitments; taking responsibility across a wider spectrum of functional areas of cooperation; and enhancing China’s contributions to international peace, security and development in accordance with its perceived ranking in the global power hierarchy.

All three approaches are visible in practice, making it difficult to discern a clear position on the part of the Chinese leadership. Under the Xi Jinping administration it is possible to distinguish a new approach aimed at centralising China’s role in global order building. This involves placing China at the centre of new and existing institutions, promoting Chinese ideas and experiences, and advocating a new type of international relations with explicitly Chinese characteristics.

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Three trends in contemporary Chinese foreign policy support this new, centralising approach.

The first is China’s strategic reorientation. China’s overriding concern lies with the post-WWII US-led alliance system, which is primarily seen as a bulwark against the advancement of Chinese strategic interests. Chinese military and defence elites no longer tolerate the status quo. China’s strategic posture is now delineated on the basis of geopolitical imperatives that aim to place China at the centre of an East–West axis in both continental and maritime domains. China’s commitment to the defence of its periphery is underscored by the One Belt, One Road and its attempts to consolidate strategic space in the South China Sea.

The second trend is China’s leadership in global governance. At the diplomatic level, Chinese foreign policy discourse is now replete with references to the importance of a Chinese voice in global governance. Chinese representation in international institutions is spreading gradually across the economic, security and legal realms of global policymaking. Chinese commitments to peacekeeping and development have also increased exponentially in recent years. The United Nations remains China’s institutional focal point. But increasingly Chinese policy elites are more actively engaged in regional fora and informal institutions such as the G20. Chinese sponsorship of an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank attests to the determination of the Xi administration to place China at the centre of reforms in global economic governance.

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The third trend is China’s emphasis on civilisational revival as a counter-balance to ideological conflicts. Chinese policy and intellectual elites advocate the idea of a peaceful coexistence between civilisations based upon a pluralistic understanding of global political culture. A new civilisational politics aims to provide a means of overcoming the zero-sum predicament of power politics via the cultivation of global values linked to modernity. Ideas promoting gong sheng, the Chinese concept of symbiosis, seek to place cultural fusion between East and West at the centre of global relations.

What are the implications for the rules-based liberal order? China seeks to play a central role in the creation of a more inclusive and equitable global order that is aligned with its own national interests and worldview. But its new approach creates a legitimacy dilemma: China’s potential to contribute to the reform of global institutions and the re-making of international rules and norms requires social consent. This can only be fully realised if its search for power status is seen as legitimate in the eyes of other nations.

The Achilles heel of Chinese foreign policy is political legitimacy. Currently, both internal and external sources of legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party rely upon nationalism and economic performance. Waning external legitimacy is most evident in the case of China’s provocative stance in the South China Sea, which threatens to jeopardise its fledgling status as a responsible major power.

In the context of current structural power shifts within the international system, China’s active engagement in global governance is a positive sign of our collective potential to safeguard international peace and development. Beyond the parameters of national rejuvenation, if China is to play a central role in reforming international rules and institutions it will need to engage with the aspirations of other states andpeoples. This raises a fundamental question: where do individual rights and freedoms fit within the Chinese vision of a global rules-based order?

Katherine Morton is Professor in China’s International Relations, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield.

AEC building block of ASEAN community?

August 14, 2016

AEC building block of ASEAN community?

by Dr. Munir Majid

THE AEC (ASEAN Economic Community) could turn out to be the saviour of ASEAN. Whatever its shortcomings, it is real, unlike largely mere words of the ASEAN Political and Security Community, and the tamasha (carnival) of the socio-cultural communion.

Even so, there are developments worth noting which would make the AEC, or the ASEAN community, not what is envisaged in the fine official plans.But first let us acknowledge the so many things that are happening in the ASEAN economy, facilitated by economic ministers and officials, but most of all driven by business people who see its huge potential.

Business people appreciate all too well the size of the ASEAN market (at 640 million people, the third largest in the world), the total economy (US$2.6 trillion, the world’s seventh biggest), healthy growth rate of 4%-5% (which could make the ASEAN economy number four in the world in a little over a decade), and the powerful demographics (65% of the population under 35 years of age).

Despite complaints about non-tariff barriers and measures (NTBs and NTMs) that impede virtually zero tariffs for trade in goods in most places, despite still limited openness for trade in services, for investments in some strategic sectors, and for mobility of skilled labour, there is a dynamism in business activity not much seen elsewhere in a lacklustre global economy.

In economically under-rated Laos (with GDP of US$13.5bil the smallest in ASEAN, not counting Brunei), there is potential and activity that belie its size.

The proposed Kunming-Vientiane high speed railway, with a price tag over half the size of the country’s economy, will transform the country.Already, huge projects in special economic zones are taking place whose activities cut across mainland South-East Asia.

For Laos, conversion from being land-locked to being land-linked, is not just a slogan. The connectivity from north to south, and east to west, is driving economic activity in what is commonly called the Mekong sub-region way beyond it, even into extra-ASEAN territory. There is a “T” in the traditional CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) countries – Thailand – which is very much in the mix.

The kingdom has great ambition to be ASEAN’s logistical hub, based on its central location in mainland South-East Asia, bordering Malaysia, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, with access to the Mekong, the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea.

But not just Thailand. Under Prime Minister Modi India, which has been “Looking East” for a mighty long time, is moving to “Act East”.

Last November it was announced that India is providing a US$1bil line of credit for a 3,200km highway linking the country with Myanmar and Thailand. Once completed it would add to pre-existing, largely historical, land and maritime linkages.

Cambodia –The Hub of Mainland ASEAN

While significant, this is some way behind what is already happening in the CLMV ASEAN sub-region, which is served by improving north-south connectivity and the East West Economic Corridor stretching 1450km from Danang in Vietnam, through Laos and Thailand, terminating at Mawlamvine Port in Myanmar. Distance to global markets from Laos has already been considerably shortened, as with the other countries.

According to one calculation, with the East West Economic Corridor, existing global sea routes have been shortened by 3,000 nautical miles, “or a 10-day sea journey from east to west and vice versa” – generating enormous savings of freight and time costs for all investors along the region.

What with tax breaks and governmental support, many businesses are seizing the opportunity.This “Greater Mekong sub-region” is getting linked up with China, particularly the provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi. Its growth rate is higher than the overall ASEAN average.

This whole area, with the two Chinese provinces, has a population of more than 400 million people. One calculation has it that it is more than half the size of the ASEAN economy. Thus there is an economic reality in mainland Asean with a gravitational pull towards China.

Of course all this is part of the AEC scheme. Construction materials and equipment, for example, moving seamlessly from Thailand to Laos for development projects. Car parts going from Laos to Thai assembly plants. Connectivity across ASEAN member countries.

Open regionalism, linking up with China and to a lesser extent with India which, after all, is part of RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership).

Business is agnostic. Investments are being made. Economic activities are taking place. The Greater Mekong Sub-Region is throbbing.However, from the viewpoint of the AEC and Asean generally, a few points need to be observed. The first is that antecedent to Asean economic centrality there are centrifugal forces pulling outwards.

This means policies for an ASEAN single market and production base must be enhanced so that whatever hubs that develop occur also because of the Asean economy even if there will always be extra-regional and global market attractions as well. Therefore removal of all those NTBs and NTMs remains essential for natural economic flow.

The ASEAN Business Advisory Council, as the lead and apex private sector body, is pushing hard for elimination of NTBs and NTMs in four key sectors – healthcare, retail, logistics and e-commerce, and agri-food.

The working groups, which ASEAN economic ministers again agreed last week should be formed, must get cracking. The official sector is also doing its bit with the launch in Vientiane last week of the ASSIST (Asean Solutions for Investments, Services and Trade) web portal where sustained complaints against NTBs and NTMs will be posted.

This kind of name and shame way is a good start, but much more needs to be done particularly at the front end of such barriers.

A second observation to be noted is the possible bifurcation of ASEAN. Mainland and maritime South-East Asia not quite gelling together economically, with trade, investment and movement of peoples between the two areas becoming secondary or minimal as they forge different hubs and look more to extra-regional economic relationships.This would be nothing new for Singapore which has always looked outward.

Indonesia is huge enough to go ahead with its maritime development plans at whatever pace it can achieve.

The Philippines has always been a bit apart, but it is well integrated in trade with China whatever South China Sea problems it faces with the Asian giant. In any case, with a population in excess of 100 million there is plenty of unfulfilled potential in the domestic economy.

It is Malaysia that could be squeezed. With a relatively small population of just over 30 million, ASEAN offers the country a huge hinterland which it could benefit enormously from if the economy is not caught in the middle income trap, moves into higher value products and services, invests out of sectors it no longer is competitive in, and becomes a hub in modern services using advanced technology.

The great irony will be what is now called a two-speed ASEAN will become a two-part ASEAN, with mainland South-East Asia no longer looking like the poor cousin.

The final and most significant point to note is that the centre of economic gravity is China, whether for mainland or maritime ASEAN. Through sheer economic and financial resources, and total strategic commitment, such as through OBOR (one-belt-one-road) and the AIIB, it has caused a frustration of the ASEAN community, including of the AEC, without actually willing it.

This does not mean there will be no ASEAN community, based largely on economic foundation, but it will be one subsumed within a Greater China political economy, and not in the way intended.

This will be neither a good nor a bad thing. It all depends on the basis of relationships countries in the region, not just Asean, have with China, and what hold China would exercise over them.

The realist therefore might contend the ASEAN community 2025 Blueprints, including on the AEC, would need to take into greater account the Greater China superstructure than they have done. It would be useful if top ASEAN policy makers could have this conversation, but I doubt they ever will except in national confines.


ASEAN Chair Laos faces a serious test in Diplomacy

July 20, 2016

ASEAN Chair Laos faces a serious test in Diplomacy

by Caitlin McCaffrie


At a time when the region faces a multitude of challenges, some are questioning whether the chair is up to the job.

2016 is a big year for ASEAN. It began with the quiet launch of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which was followed by the Sunnylands Summit; the first time all ASEAN leaders met a US President on US soil. Now the region is facing intense scrutiny over its approach to the South China Sea dispute, as well as severe droughts threatening the Mekong region.

However, there are many who doubt whether this year’s chair of ASEAN is up to the job. The role of ASEAN chair rotates annually, and this year it has fallen to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic: a one-party, authoritarian state with no political opposition, dismal media freedom and rampant corruption.

ASEAN is a quiet organisation that takes pride in not making too many waves. It makes decisions by consensus, and all members have the equal capacity to block a policy proposal, with the chair mainly serving as a coordinator and host-nation for summits. For a long time, the identity of the chair was never cause for much international interest. That changed in 2012, when Cambodia took its turn.

2012 has gone down in ASEAN history as its least functional. It was the first time that the group failed to agree on language to include in their final joint statement concerning the South China Sea, a fact which has been widely attributed to Chinese pressure on Cambodia to stymie such language. At the time China was one of Cambodia’s biggest aid donors.

After Cambodia’s disastrous chairmanship, Brunei, Myanmar then Malaysia have taken the reins, without major incident. However, the South China Sea issue has been dominating regional debates this year, and the issue is currently before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague.

Laos takes over as ASEAN Chair from Malaysia

A ruling on the Philippines’ argument disputing the validity of China’s nine dash line claims is expected by June 2016, but China has refused to participate in proceedings and has made it clear it will not recognise any ruling made by the court.

In February ASEAN announced the group was “seriously concerned” over China’s actions in the South China Sea, however the real test will come after the ruling is issued. Should the PCA find in favour of the Philippines’ claim, as many are predicting it will, the question will be whether ASEAN will support the Philippines in any attempt to enforce the ruling against China.

Laos’ significant economic reliance on China will likely put it in the same position as Cambodia was four years ago. With Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines each claiming part of the sea, if Laos does bow to Chinese pressure on the nine dash line, ASEAN will face potentially destructive internal division.

Another issue that ASEAN would do well to tackle this year is the severe drought that has hit the Mekong region, where temperatures are soaring and the monsoon season has been delayed. On this issue, Laos may have to tread carefully, as their Don Sahong and Xayaburi dams are two of the most controversial of the 70 new dams expected to be operational along the Mekong by 2030.

Experts have suggested that the dams could jeopardise the livelihoods of the estimated 60 million people. Laos’ vested interest in hydropower brings its ability to deal with the drought impartially into question.

2016 is also a critical year for ASEAN as it has launched the AEC, a community 10 years in the making, whose future currently rests on Laos’ shoulders. The AEC is very ambitious for ASEAN, usually a cautious institution. However, the announcement of the launch of the AEC was only a first step, and it is still very much a work in progress.

Questions have been raised over whether Laos is equipped to deal with the range of issues it faces as chair this year. Already international media groups are asking whether they will be given sufficient access to cover the many ASEAN meetings which will be held in Vientiane. Laos is known for being a harsh climate in which to be a foreign journalist, announcing in January 2016 that the Foreign Ministry has to vet all articles produced by foreign media and journalists need to apply for visas 15 days in advance (when non-journalists can get a visa on arrival).

The Laos government denied it restricts foreign media, offering the illuminating statement: “We don’t have restrictions but procedures,” clarifying that the above rules only apply to film-makers, but that journalists covering the summits would need to be escorted by officers and have their questions and subjects vetted by the Foreign Ministry.

Some have labelled 2016 as Laos’ “coming of age”, and others have warned of the threat the country’s chairmanship poses to the region as a whole. Either way, it is certain that a great many challenges face Laos as it chairs ASEAN this year. There is certainly no guarantee that it is in a position to effectively manage the competing priorities of 10 member states.

Caitlin McCaffrie lives and works in Phnom Penh and has a major interest in Southeast Asian politics.


BREXIT and British Nationalism: Emotion versus Economics

June 3, 2016

BREXIT and British Nationalism: Emotion versus Economics

Danish experience and an anti-EU vote

by Joergen Oerstroem Moeller in Singapore

“There is no compelling economic case for ‘Brexit’. Economic facts point unequivocally to Britain losing from leaving. The size of the loss is open for dispute; the direction is not. By contrast, the economic arguments for departure are vague and half-formed. Some Brexiteers say the UK would be less constrained by red tape. Yet Britain already is one of the least regulated economies. There is not the slightest evidence why a departing UK would have more or better opportunities for non-European Union trade

In a media maelstrom people fall back on whom they trust. Voters all over the world are losing confidence in mainstream politicians, giving their support to so-called plain speakers who (however improbably) appear to care for ordinary citizens, like the UK’s Boris Johnson and America’s Donald Trump.”Joergen Oerstroem Moeller

It hardly helps the Remain camp that, in the past, Prime Minister Cameron has been less than clear about his commitment to Europe. Not so long ago he was seen as a eurosceptic.

As a dedicated European, I fear the Leave campaign (BREXIT) will prevail on June 23. This prognosis of the British referendum outcome is based on experience of four Danish votes on European issues – in June 1992, May 1993, September 2000 and December 2015 – two of which took place when I was state secretary in the Danish Foreign Ministry.

We can’t rely too much on opinion polls. According to an old saying, politicians shouldn’t call referendums unless, from the beginning, they can be sure of the outcome. Yet three of the Danish referendums led to a No vote, despite a big Yes majority when they were announced.

There is no compelling economic case for ‘Brexit’. Economic facts point unequivocally to Britain losing from leaving. The size of the loss is open for dispute; the direction is not. By contrast, the economic arguments for departure are vague and half-formed. Some Brexiteers say the UK would be less constrained by red tape. Yet Britain already is one of the least regulated economies. There is not the slightest evidence why a departing UK would have more or better opportunities for non-European Union trade.

Yet – precisely because so much of the argument turns on economic questions – I conclude that the answer might be No to the EU. Many voters agree neither that the referendum should be fought on economic issues, nor with Prime Minister David Cameron’s dire analysis of the consequences of EU rejection.

Forecasts from the UK Treasury are played down as high-level conjecture, hotly contested by other experts. Danish referendum experience tells us, alas, that anti-establishment dissenters refuting official theses command great media attention, leaving the electorate baffled and reaping great gains for the anti-government cause.

In a media maelstrom people fall back on whom they trust. Voters all over the world are losing confidence in mainstream politicians, giving their support to so-called plain speakers who (however improbably) appear to care for ordinary citizens, like the UK’s Boris Johnson and America’s Donald Trump.

Such no-longer-fringe politicians address issues such as migration. They ply the electorate with talk of the ‘good old days’– in Britain’s case, the empire and the special relationship with the US. In fact, almost all Commonwealth countries, along with President Barack Obama, have made clear they would prefer Britain to stay in. But that cuts no ice with the voters.

The populists’ trade is in lines such as, ‘There will be mistakes made in the future, but let them be our own mistakes.’ That counts for much more than statistics about growth and costs of living.

It hardly helps the Remain camp that, in the past, Prime Minister Cameron has been less than clear about his commitment to Europe. Not so long ago he was seen as a eurosceptic.

When the Prime Minister tabled his list of proposed reforms, this implicitly did not exclude recommending departure if the result was unsatisfactory. Cameron has frequently stated that Britain could survive outside the EU without dire hardship. All this resonates badly with his present tone sketching cataclysm outside the EU. Short though the electorate’s memory may be, voters remember enough of what Cameron said before to hold him to at least some of the findings.

The 23 June vote is politically and psychologically complex. It is not a general election where party loyalty plays a role and simple questions decide the outcome. A cocktail of sympathies, emotions and sentiments are at work, reflecting attitudes towards politicians, neighbouring countries and the world.

Reflecting this broad interplay of forces, pro-EU campaigners are deluded if they think they can win the referendum solely on economic arguments. They will have to engage on the emotional questions too. Otherwise, on 24 June, Britain may find itself out in the cold.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and Singapore Management University, and a former State Secretary at the Danish Foreign Ministry. This is No.75 in the series – the 100th article will appear on 23 June.

OMFIF’s series on the UK EU referendum presents a wide variety of perspectives from Britain and around the world ahead of the June 23 poll. We are assuring a balance between many different points of view, in line with OMFIF’s overall neutral stance on the issue.

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ASEAN: Laos–What’s Next?

May 21, 2016

ASEAN: Laos–What’s Next?

by Oliver Tappe

From transforming urban landscapes to high-speed rail and Chinese investment, in Laos development can be a double-edged sword.


In November 2015, the people of Vientiane and countless visitors celebrated the annual That Luang Festival, the largest religious festival in Laos.On the third day, the traditional game of tikhi, a kind of hockey (see Simon Creak’s excellent historical analysis of the ‘national game’ in his book Embodied Nation), was held between teams of government officials and local people.

According to a Vientiane Times article, the result of the match indicated the city’s fate in the year to come. A victory by the local people’s team would foretell 12 months of happiness and well-being for the citizenry. A win by the officials “was seen as an indication that the townsfolk would be fairly governed for the coming year, thus ensuring contentment whatever the outcome.”


It was a series of matches, and I did not follow all the results. That left me wondering what 2016 will bring for Laos: good governance, and/or prosperity?

In his speech on the occasion of National Day, only a few days later on 2 December, President Choummaly Sayasone made it clear that both would be the case. Forty years of rule by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party allegedly witnessed social and economic development – though with the goal of leaving the ranks of Least Developed Countries by 2020 yet to be achieved. “The people’s democratic political system has been improved and strengthened consistently,” said the President.

For Choummaly and the Party-State leadership, the last four decades appear a success story, a win-win situation for government and people, as represented by the auspicious tikhi game.

At present, ‘development’ manifests itself as a rapid transformation of Vientiane’s urban landscape and its rural outskirts. Construction sites for new roads and massive buildings dominate the municipality.

Chinese and Vietnamese investors have joined the current land run in Laos, one scandalous example being the grounds of the old National Museum, which will have to make way for a Chinese hotel complex (as will the National Library across Nam Phu Square). Thousands of Vietnamese labour migrants flock to the project sites, operating in a legal grey zone with the usual 30-day visa (and various additional “fees” for local authorities and police). They keep the border checkpoint at the Friendship Bridge busy with their frequent visa runs.

Visitors are struck by huge buildings suddenly appearing where there were rice fields before. The That Luang Marshes – traded with Chinese investors for a stadium on the occasion of the 2009 Southeast Asian Games – provide a surreal impression with their apparently over-scaled building projects.


Another “special achievement” (according to Choummaly) will be the new railroad crossing the country from Vientiane to the Chinese border as part of China’s ambitious Kunming-Singapore railway project.

The groundbreaking ceremony was held on National Day, of all days, with Somsavat Lengsavad – also responsible for the notorious Golden Triangle special economic zone in northwest Laos – acting as the real strongman of Lao PDR.

The scale of the project is stunning: 427 kilometres of rails, including 72 tunnels a totalling 183km; an estimated workforce of 100,000 (hardly to be recruited among the Lao population); and 150 hectares of land in Vientiane reserved for the new train station (for more detail see here and here).

All this will suffice to raise concerns among the Lao population, not least because of previous ‘development’ projects that often entailed land appropriation with only meagre and belated compensation.

Increasing state debt is another reason for scepticism. From the estimated costs of the railway project of US $6 billion, Laos will take a share of 480 million, which in 2013 would have made up more than 20 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Income!

China will provide an equivalent loan, to be covered by five potassium concessions. Potassium is in great demand as fertiliser for the Chinese agricultural sector. However, world market prices plummeted recently, so that Chinese companies will have to dig over quite a lot of soil to cover their costs.

Since large potassium reserves are located in the Vientiane Plain – densely populated and critical for wet-rice production – we can expect further dispossession and problems with wastewater and salinisation. The impending devastation of fertile soil in Laos for the export of Chinese fertiliser will be a sad irony.

Moreover, infrastructure and mining projects are important drivers of deforestation in Laos. It is no coincidence that the huge amount of illegal timber exported in recent years corresponded with an increase in Chinese and Vietnamese investments in mining, agriculture, forestry and hydropower in Laos.

In October 2015, a leaked, unofficial World Wildlife Fund report caused some commotion when calling attention to the rampant illegal logging going on in Laos – not uncommonly related to concessions where the respective companies extend their assigned logging areas far beyond the concession borders and into natural preservation areas.

In some cases, more than 90 per cent of the logging happened illegally. According to the WWF’s estimates, ten times more timber crossed the Lao-Vietnamese border than the official harvest in Laos.

Despite a logging ban issued in August 2015 by the Lao government, reports of trucks transporting timber across the border to Vietnam continue to raise concerns about ongoing deforestation. Logging in Laos – with 96 per cent of the total harvest exported to Vietnam and China – is largely uncontrolled, and includes protected species.

The Food and Agriculture Organization’s recent estimation of a 69.9 per cent forest cover – by taking a generous >10 per cent canopy density as vantage point – is certainly not very helpful for raising awareness of deforestation. Official data from Laos (>20 per cent canopy density) suggest a forest cover of about 40 per cent only.

All these data have to be taken with a pinch of salt, anyway, since they include tree plantations (like rubber) and regenerated (and even yet-to-be regenerated) woodland. Yet, it is evident that well-stocked forests with canopy closure of more than 70 per cent are rapidly disappearing, especially in southern Laos. Forest quality, in general, has also deteriorated in the last couple of decades, with dense forest having declined from 29 per cent in 1992 to 8.2 per cent in 2002.

It is hard to believe that illegal logging on such a scale could be possible without the collusion of Lao authorities. And it is very likely that the forest along the planned railroad track from Luang Namtha to Vientiane will disappear in a flash.

Who will benefit from these first results of the huge railway project? Probably not the local population in the Lao uplands. Some 3,058 hectares of land will be reserved for the project, with 50 meters on each side of the track fenced for security reasons – and deforested for sure. Somsavad’s  statement that the railroad will yield economic growth of 32 per cent, and be used by 4 million Lao passengers sounds bizarre (remember: Laos’ population is around 7 million).

Rather, the railroad will serve Chinese economic and geopolitical interests, not least given the immense corresponding Chinese investment in Thailand for the connection from Nongkhai to Bangkok (and further south towards Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Singapore).

Land grabbing, deforestation, and pollution will continue to disquiet the population of Laos. However, open criticism of the Lao government is rare, the disappearance of Sombath Somphone three years ago remaining a constant warning for any civil society actor. Not surprisingly, the Lao government refused to include the ASEAN People’s Forum (APF) in the ASEAN summit to be held in November 2016.

Among the official justifications given for not organising a meeting of Southeast Asia civil society organisations were the lack of preparation time and insufficient funding. In addition, a Lao spokesperson asserted that “foreigners would like to use the ASEAN Peoples Forum to criticise ASEAN governments, and ASEAN governments do not agree”, and that Laos could not guarantee the safety of “extremist” activists. This is alarming news for any civil society actor within Laos and beyond.

The first thing in 2016, though, is the next Party Congress where – as usual – little shifts in the central committee will fuel speculations about rifts within the Lao political elite. Certainly tensions between influential families exist, mainly related to their respective business interests – everyday staple for gossip among citizens and expats in Vientiane.

Yet it can be expected that the ruling Party will maintain its disciplining function and be careful to negotiate individual economic claims to uphold the illusion of a strong, united leadership. Again emphasis will be put on the solidarity between Party-State and the and the “Lao multiethnic people” for the goal of future prosperity.

As President Choummaly puts it: “The trust of our people in the new regime and future of the nation has been lifted to new heights.”

Oliver Tappe is a senior researcher at the Global South Studies Center at the University of Cologne, Germany.

Forty years of Lao PDR: what’s next?