The People's Kingdom of LaosCam

With China investing heavily in both Southeast Asian nations, will Laos and Cambodia ever form a union that provides the PRC with a direct route to the Gulf of Thailand?

A while back I read the fantastic book Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall, one of those eye-opening reads that provides pure clarity on the world around us. In layman’s English, it details how successful countries have natural borders of rivers, oceans and mountains, and how geography can be used to explain most development, and conflict.

So when I saw the above map, part of a story about how Laos’ PRC-indebted economy should serve as a warning for Cambodia’s own deepening relationship with China, it made me wonder if a future union between the two states would ever be possible, and whether this is already the longterm strategic goal of the policymakers in Beijing.

Debt has been a major concern for Lao’s one-party government after signing up to large concessional loans from China to build hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure projects partially funded under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

As of last year the debt that Laos owes China amounts to about 45 percent of the nation’s GDP, which is at around US$20 billion a year (US$2,600 per person).

That remarkable figure of 45 percent illustrates the less-than altruistic nature of Xi Jinping’s much trumpeted Belt and Road development program. While important infrastructure is being funded by China’s billions (and in many cases, being built by Chinese workers as well), the roads, railways, ports and airports don’t come for free.

Caught between the twin Southeast Asian juggernauts of Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia is playing a high-stakes game of yoking its future to the PRC, while still hoping to keep them at arms length. Laos, however, has already been railroaded. In this case, quite literally, with a Chinese-made high-speed train soon to be carving its way from Yunnan through Luang Prabang (where I saw the tracks and local station already under construction on a trip three years ago) and down on to the capital.

When the line opens within the next year, Chinese travelers will be able to whisk down from Kunming to Vientiane in a matter of hours. The alliterative propaganda tells you the project is essential to turn Laos from a landlocked country to a land-linked one, but the fact that means integrating it into China’s 30,000 km long high speed railway network is more important. It is perhaps the first step of the country’s colonization.

If that sounds alarmist, bear in mind that back in 2008 a Chinese company bought 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline on a 99 year lease. The ostensively tourist-focused development includes a deep sea port and international airport, without any clear demand for either - likewise the empty golf course that surrounds the vacant resort. The timing on the lease struck a distinct chord with me, after all, it was on 1 July 1898 that an opium-fueled British navy (I mean economically, in case you’re now picturing European sailors high as kites) forced the Qing dynasty to lease them Hong Kong’s New Territories for 99 years. Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon peninsula were actually ceded to the UK in perpetuity, but were returned along with the rest in 1997.

Even though the People’s Republic of China was only founded in 1949, the country’s rulers (admittedly their civilization does go back thousands of years) do have long memories. Having finally reclaimed the parts of China stolen by outside nations - Taiwan notwithstanding - the idea of a 99 year territorial lease likely remained in the mind (indeed, the almost forgotten French Chinese territory of Guangzhouwan was on very similar terms). The concept of Neocolonialism is not new (apparently Jean-Paul Sartre coined the term in 1956), and is certainly not exclusive to China, but providing investment in return for resources does seem to be a core part of the Belt and Road.

Which brings me back to the headline of this piece. It doesn’t seem too farfetched to imagine that it would be to the PRC’s benefit to have a land corridor it could easily access, taking a curved journey from southwest China to the Gulf of Thailand, and conveniently splitting Southeast Asia in two. And the idea of a combined Cambodia and Laos is equally as plausible - after all, they were both part of the French Union indochinoise as recently as 1954. Replace Saigon with Beijing, and history may repeat itself; so if the People's Kingdom of LaosCam ever comes into existence, remember you heard it here first. Perhaps I’ll write a book about it - with thanks to Tim Marshall.