China and Laos pledged on Monday to step up military ties and international cooperation, marking the start of Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith’s first trip to China since taking office in April.
But an analyst said Sisoulith’s four-day trip was focused on soliciting Chinese investment.
In Beijing, Premier Li Keqiang told his Laotian counterpart that China was keen to maintain positive bilateral ties and continue to support Laos’s stable development.
The two nations also pledged to deepen cooperation on energy, finance and agriculture.
Sisoulith’s trip comes two months after Li visited Laos, one of China’s poorest neighbours, for the East Asia Summit, an annual forum for 16 countries in the region.
During Li’s trip, Laos and China signed more than 20 documents to boost cooperation, including work on a China-Laos railway, economic zones and hydroelectric projects.
According to the Ministry of Commerce, China has invested in 764 projects in Laos, ranging from mining and agriculture, to electricity and tourism schemes. In all, 522 projects are funded by China alone and 212 are joint ventures
Laos is also the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year and has hosted a series of summits for top leaders and diplomats.
One of the main issues in the region has been China’s claims to the South China Sea. In a case brought by the Philippines, an international tribunal in The Hague dismissed much of China’s sovereignty rights to the waters.
But Laos has sided with China over its South China Sea claims, in contrast to Singapore, which Beijing has accused of taking a hardline approach to the issue.
The United States has sought to lure Vientiane away from China’s sphere of influence, with US President Barack Obama visiting Laos in September.
But during an Asean summit in Vientiane that month, a final joint statement did not include any reference to the Hague ruling.
Du Jifeng, a research fellow at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the Laotian prime minister’s main focus was to seek investment and technology support from China.
“As a landlocked country, Laos has a limited role in influencing other Asean countries’ positions on South China Sea territorial disputes with China,” Du said.
He said Vientiane’s influence would weaken further after Asean’s rotating chairmanship went to another country next year.