After Draining Its Coffers, “New Boss” China Holds Military Drills With Laos; Seeks Firm Grip Over South-East Asia

As it looks to expand its presence and influence in Southeast Asia, Chinese troops are conducting two-week military drills with Laos, a tiny landlocked country and Beijing’s closest friend and biggest borrower.

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After conducting similar training in Cambodia, Chinese troops arrived in Laos last week. The drills began on July 5 and are expected to run for two weeks until July 19.

Lt. Col. Santi Chanthalangsone, the head of Laos’ military training, stated that the Laos-China Friendship Shield-2024 exercise includes around 900 Lao military personnel and 300 Chinese troops. “Participants will focus on technical cooperation and how to use armed vehicles and weapons,” Chanthalangsone told local media.

He further said, “The Chinese side might have weapons and experiences that can be shared with us…The drill will help strengthen our military ties and organize and modernize our armed forces.”

The Chinese appear to have delivered on that expectation.

The Chinese PLA reportedly shared drone and anti-drone technologies with their counterparts in Laos, Chinese state-owned publication Global Times reported. The moves are said to attempt to integrate unmanned systems into combat. The sharing of drone technology is noteworthy because it coincides with an increase in unmanned warfare, as seen in several global flashpoints, both on land and at sea.

Also, the PLA Southern Theater Command announced in a press release on July 9 that the China-Laos Friendship Shield-2024 joint drill held a live-fire shooting session under the scorching sun on July 8 at Kommadam Academy in Laos.

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The release further noted that during the adaptive phase of the training, the joint drill involved live-fire shooting from light and heavy machine guns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, vehicle-mounted mortars, pistols, and assault rifles. Chinese soldiers trained Lao soldiers to shoot so they could become proficient with Chinese weapons, which included the PLA’s brand-new QBZ-191 assault rifle.

According to a Chinese expert, the PLA is actively testing its capabilities in foreign environments and situations by deploying unmanned devices in joint drills overseas. This was in addition to introducing unmanned equipment to friendly militaries to strengthen friendships, expand exchanges, and improve pragmatic cooperation.

Laos, for one, is strategically located along the Mekong River, which provides an important trade route connecting Southeast Asia with China. Laos stands out among the countries of Southeast Asia due to its small population, rough terrain, and relative isolation from the rest of the region.

Military drills between China and Laos signal a blooming relationship between the two states. This comes at a time when several Southeast Asian countries remain at odds with Beijing over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Additionally, China has been looking for deeper military-to-military collaboration with its neighbors in a bid to counter the growing US influence in Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region.

This is where countries like Laos come into the picture. In May last year, Laos and China conducted a joint attack on transnational armed crime syndicates operating in a mountain jungle environment. Later, in November, Laos joined military drills alongside Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam in China’s Guangdong province.

For the ongoing drills, most of the Chinese participants and military equipment were transported through the newly constructed Laos-China railway, largely funded by loans from Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

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Laos Is Dependent On China And How!

In recent times, Laos has steadily fallen into a debt crisis. Massive loans from China have plunged the country, one of Beijing’s closest allies in Asia, into a major debt crisis, sparking concerns about the country’s future.

As recently reported by EurAsian Times, Laos disclosed that its foreign obligations had almost doubled and needed more time to avoid default.

Following the disclosure, China responded it was assisting its neighbor in reducing its enormous debt load. A spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Beijing had engaged in “mutually beneficial cooperation” with developing countries like Laos, providing significant assistance for social and economic progress.

China is by far Laos’s largest creditor, accounting for more than half of the country’s $10.5 billion in external government debt. At the end of the previous year, the state’s total public and publicly guaranteed debt was $13.8 billion, or an astounding 108% of its GDP.

Due to its US$950 million in external debt obligations from the previous year, Laos postponed paying US$670 million in principal and interest.

Most of the state’s debt can be attributed to infrastructure agreements made as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing may be attempting to address a problem it helped create over a long period.

Communist-run Laos rose to prominence and started hogging headlines after building and opening a high-speed train route with China at an estimated cost of over US$6 billion. That created a debt issue even though many see it as the start of a great infrastructure push that would immediately connect Southeast Asia with the second-largest economy in the world.

Laos is facing increasing economic difficulties as its foreign reserves dwindle from the huge loans provided by President Xi Jinping’s government for the construction of roadways, trains, and hydroelectric dams as part of China’s BRI.

Experts have suggested that due to the significant debt Laos owes to China, it is improbable for the country to conduct military exercises with any other nation except China.