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Hidden Gem Of Asia: ‘Neglected’ Laos Can Be A Strategic Partner For India To Dominate S.E Asia, Corner China

The small, landlocked Southeast Asian country of Laos shares borders with Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and China. Although a relatively small nation, Laos could be a strategic bastion for India for several reasons, including economic, geopolitical, strategic, and sociocultural potential.

Laos is a resource-rich country with significant deposits of minerals, including gold, copper, and coal, and abundant natural resources, including forests and water resources. Moreover, Laos is strategically located along the Mekong River, which provides an important trade route connecting Southeast Asia with China.

India could benefit from Laos’s plentiful natural resources and its position along the Mekong River by investing in infrastructure projects, such as roads, ports, and railways, to improve connectivity and trade between the two countries.

The country’s large resource reserves and strategic location make it an attractive destination for foreign investment.

India could leverage this growth potential by investing in infrastructure development, particularly energy, transportation, and communication. India’s expertise in these areas could also help Laos to overcome some of the logistical and infrastructural challenges it faces, such as poor road networks and limited electricity supply.

India’s extensive experience with hydropower would prove pertinent in helping harness the country’s immense hydel potential. India needs to gain the first-mover advantage in such sectors and consolidate its presence by investing in the creation of the fundamental infrastructure of the country, which would yield both nations immense long-term benefits.

As Laos gradually opens its market, it is a promising opportunity for both the Indian government as well as Indian companies to leverage their developmental experience to transform the sequestered economy by laying out fundamental infrastructure, providing vital technical knowhow, streamlining resource utilization, and creating innovative grassroots developmental solutions.

Laos is located in the heart of Southeast Asia and shares borders with five nations, making it an important geopolitical player. India has been seeking to expand its influence in Southeast Asia as part of its “Act East” policy. Laos could serve as a gateway for India to increase its regional presence.

Laos has traditionally had close ties with Vietnam, which could also prove advantageous to India in its efforts to deepen its engagement with Vietnam, a crucial ally in its geopolitical tug-of-war with China.

Developing infrastructure in Laos would also benefit India by skillfully manifesting its presence along a central stretch of the Mekong River, the lifeline of Southeast Asia, yielding key strategic, tactical, logistic, and resource benefits. Although Laos does not border any sea or ocean, its ensconced location makes it a secure bastion in proximity to China.

The relatively stable and neutral states of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand provide a political buffer, lowering the risks of conflict. A shared vital river basin further reduces the risk of intrusion, assault, or sabotage attempts by China.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith/PIB
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith/PIB

Laos shares a relatively small but strategically important border with China. India’s establishment of a diplomatic and economic stronghold would help it keep a closer watch over the southeastern frontiers of its archnemesis.

Laos has traditionally maintained a neutral foreign policy, which makes it a valuable partner for India as it seeks to balance its relationships with other countries in the region, such as China and the United States.

In addition, Laos is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which allows India to engage with other member states and participate in regional forums. India and Laos could work together to promote regional stability and advance shared interests such as economic development, energy security, and environmental sustainability.

For several reasons, Laos will likely accept India as a trustworthy strategic economic partner. India and Laos both have a colonial past, and investments and undertakings by India are likely to be viewed less suspiciously than those by former imperial-colonial powers.

India’s economic journey is a stepwise transition from a quasi-socialist, quasi-closed market to a liberalizing economy and open market. Laos, a socialist nation, is hesitantly looking at a similar gradual economic transition.

India has gone through decades of struggle with stagflation and could utilize its experience and policy insights to help streamline and stabilize the rather precarious trajectory of Laos’s economic development.

Further, India enjoys the convenient middle ground of being a fellow developing Asian nation in relative geographical and cultural proximity to Laos without being its direct neighbor.

This could enable it to enjoy significant familiarity and elicit trust from the country while avoiding competing interests and averting suspicions of undue influence or imperial motives which, for instance, would naturally arise with neighbor China.

Laos is a multi-ethnic country with a rich cultural heritage. India and Laos share historical and cultural ties, which could serve as a foundation for strengthening bilateral relations.

For example, Buddhism is the predominant religion in Laos. India could leverage its status as the origin of Buddhism and its key pilgrimage sites to deepen cultural exchanges and promote people-to-people contact between the two countries.

India could also share its experience in education, healthcare, and tourism to help Laos develop its human capital and promote sustainable economic growth. By fostering intellectual and cultural exchange, India could further its soft power and ideological interests in the country and the region.

Laos is unique among Southeast Asian nations because of its relative isolation from the rest of the region, its rugged terrain, and its small population. Laos has a distinct cultural identity and has historically been non-partisan and relatively inert in its international relations, allowing it to avoid conflicts between larger regional powers.

Despite its small size, Laos has played an active role in regional diplomacy, particularly as a member of ASEAN.

Although Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia are also essential partners for India in Southeast Asia, Laos has several advantages over these countries. First, Laos is located at the heart of the region, giving India a strategic foothold in Southeast Asia in its pursuit of expanding its presence.

Second, Laos has almost consistently maintained a neutral foreign policy over its history and has thus far been relatively insulated from foreign influence, making it opportune for a prompt congenial approach and gradual conditioning as an ally to India.

Finally, Laos has abundant natural resources, including minerals and water resources, which could benefit India significantly economically. As Laos struggles with rising inflation and slowing growth, Indian investments could revive the country’s cloistered economy.

Undertaking investments and projects in Laos would afford India a fresh geostrategic vantage point, novel perspectives, and mutualistic experiences of socioeconomic development.

Thus, India is interested in erecting its howdah in the land of thousands of elephants and affirming its stake as a regional superpower.

  • Pitamber Kaushik is a journalist, writer, educator, and independent researcher. His articles have appeared in over 260 publications across 50+ countries.
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