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What Will a Biden Presidency Mean for U.S.-Vietnam Relations?

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From former enemies, the United States and Vietnam became partners when they formed a comprehensive partnership in 2013. Under the Trump administration, U.S.-Vietnam relations have made remarkable progress. As Joe Biden is set to become the 46th president of the United States, U.S. foreign policy is expected to shift significantly. What will it mean for American-Vietnamese ties?

What will change?

Vietnam’s human rights record is the most sensitive issue in its relations with the United States. Although Washington recognizes that Hanoi has made some progress, concerns remain in freedom of expression, freedom of religion, ethnic minority rights, and labor rights. Members of the U.S. Congress, especially those whose constituencies include substantial Vietnamese American populations, have put pressure on the U.S. government to criticize Vietnam’s human rights practice.

The Trump administration, however, has downplayed the promotion of human rights in its relations with Hanoi. President Trump has not raised the issue to Vietnamese leaders even though he had the opportunities to do so during his speech at the2017 APEC Summit in Da Nang, when he met President Tran Dai Quang afterwards, and during his second visit to Hanoi in 2019. The subject of human rights is also absent in the statement from the Press Secretary commemorating 25 years of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam, which talks about people-to-people ties, trade and investment, legacy of war issues, military ties, and peaceful resolution of disputes.

Unlike Trump, Biden pledges to prioritize U.S. commitments in “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad”. In fact, Biden was U.S. vice president when the United States paid attention to Vietnam’s human rights practice. President Barack Obama discussed human rights issues with Vietnamese leaders during his remarks to welcome President Truong Tan Sang to the White House in 2013, his meeting with General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong at the Oval Office in 2015, and his speech to the people of Vietnam during his visit to Hanoi in 2016.

More important, Biden vows to renew U.S. democracy at home and promote it abroad. He asserts “democracy is not just the foundation of American society” but also “the wellspring of our power.”For Biden, democracy is his and his country’s value. These are the reasons to believe that the Biden administration will address Vietnam’s human rights record in its relations with Hanoi.

One of the main irritations in bilateral trade relations is  U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam. The figure has grown steadily since 1997 and surpassed $20 billion since 2014. From $39.5 billion in 2018, it grew up to $55.8 billion in 2019, and despite the disruptions in trade caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the figure reached$42.36 billion as of August 2020.

Trump has repeatedly complained about Vietnam’s large trade surplus with the United States. In February 2020, his administration removed Vietnam from the list of self-declaring developing countries that receive preferential trade benefits under the World Trade Organization. Although the Treasury’s report in January 2020 found that Vietnam exceeded the threshold for only one of the three criteria for currency devaluation—the bilateral trade deficit, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) launched another investigation into Vietnam’s alleged currency undervaluation under Section 301 in October 2020. In the latest move, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced on November 4th, 2020 that it would impose tariffs on passenger vehicles and light truck tires from Vietnam.

It is likely that the Biden administration will take a softer approach in dealing with Vietnam’s trade surplus. It will have several options, including keeping the tariff against Vietnam, filing a case at the World Trade Organization, seeking compensation through negotiation, or just simply dropping the case. It is important to note that the increase in the U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam is partly due to the U.S.-China trade war. Moreover, Biden does not believe in trade barriers and protectionism, so it is unlikely that his administration will further impose tariffs on Vietnam.

What will continue?

In the context of U.S.-China strategic competition, Vietnam has become increasingly important in U.S. foreign policy. The Trump administration identified Vietnam as an emerging economic and security partner in the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy, the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy, and the 2019 Indo-Pacific Report.

China’s provocative and unilateral actions in the South China Sea have driven Vietnam closer to the United States at a remarkable pace. From former enemies, the two countries became comprehensive partners in 2013. The Trump administration has strengthened its relations with Hanoi in various aspects and promised to enhance their comprehensive partnership in a joint statement issued in 2017. Vietnam is now the 10th trading partner of the United States.

Biden makes it clear that “the United States does need to get tough with China… The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors”. He promises to deepen partnerships to advance shared values in a region and uphold diplomacy as U.S. primary tool of foreign policy. For him, the answer to the China threat is “more friendships, more cooperation, more alliances”. Therefore, Biden will continue to strengthen U.S. partnership with Vietnam.

During the Vanguard Bank incident in early July 2019, in which the Chinese survey ship Haiyang  Dizhi 8 and its armed escorts entered Vietnam’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the Trump administration issued a series of strong statements criticizing China for its coercion and interference with Vietnam’s long-standing oil and gas activities .

In July 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo issued a statement on U.S. position on maritime claims in the South China Sea. The statement makes it clear that “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them”. It also aligns the U.S. position on China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea with the 2016 Tribunal’s decision. The statement further confirms “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law”.

As China’s assertive pursuit of its claims in the South China Sea threatens the freedom of the seas that is essential to U.S. national interests, Biden will continue a tough stance on China and support other claimants in the South China Sea, including Vietnam.

Under the Trump administration, U.S.-Vietnam defense ties have grown dramatically. The United States has helped Vietnam improve its law enforcement capability and maritime security. The U.S. Coast Guard transferred a Hamilton-class cutter to the Vietnam Coast Guard in May 2017 and promised to deliver a second one sometime in 2020. Washington also provided 18 “Metal Shark” patrol boats to Hanoi between 2017 and 2019. Then-U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Vietnam twice in 2018. The U.S. Navy has sent two aircraft carriers to Vietnam’s port—the USS Carl Vinson in March 2018 and the USS Theodore Roosevelt in March 2020. Vietnam joined the Rim of the Pacific exercise in 2018 and was invited to participate again in 2020 (but did not participate because of the COVID-19 pandemic). As concerns about China remain, it is expected that the United States under Biden will continue to strengthen defense ties with Vietnam.

The two countries are heading toward the direction for a strategic partnership. However, the pace to get there depends on how Hanoi will improve its human rights record and how the Biden administration will handle the U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam.

Bich T Tran is a PhD candidate at the University of Antwerp and a Researcher at the Global Affairs Research Center, Ryukoku University.

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Southeast Asia

Maximizing Indonesia’s Public Diplomacy Through Indonesia’s First Mosque in London

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Indonesia and UK have established bilateral cooperation in December 1949 in which the bilateral cooperation includes economic cooperation, tourism, energy, education, and industry. The existence of these forms of cooperation shows that the UK and Indonesia already have ties and must maintain their relations. The relationship between the two countries continues to develop, and not only state actors can cooperate, but non-state actors, especially the international community, and assist the role of the state (one track diplomacy) in carrying out diplomatic activities. One aspect that greatly contributes to shaping the characteristics of the international community in carrying out communication activities, and indirectly can be a strategy to introduce the characteristics of the state through social and cultural aspects. Currently, the social and cultural aspects have become aspects that greatly contribute to forming a mutual understanding of the international community, establishing harmonization among the international community. However, the international community can carry out a people-to-people strategy formed by Indonesia to the UK is to establish the Indonesian Islamic Center (IIC) mosque located in Colindale, London.

The first Indonesian mosque built in London has a plan to accommodate a capacity of around 500 worshipers (Kristina, 2021). The existence of the mosque can be a strategy for Indonesian Public Diplomacy in introducing the characteristics of Indonesian mosques and can be a strategy for interacting with the international community in London by spreading the good image of the state especially Indonesia to the international community. As for spreading Indonesia’s good image, Indonesia must be able to implement the diversity aspect. The Indonesian must be able to show the nature of religious tolerance towards all people. the existence of an Indonesian mosque in England, it is hoped that with this existence, the mosque will not only be visited by the Indonesians but also given the freedom for all Muslims who want to worship in the mosque regardless of where they come from, besides that, Indonesian must reflect a good nature to the international community by not discriminating against anyone who wants to worship in the mosque. The data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) explains that the number of Muslims in the UK in 2019 reached 3 million people and in some areas in London almost 50% of the population is Muslim (Windiyani, 2019). Therefore, the diversity of people from countries who worship at the mosque, so that can be a strategy that can be maximized by Indonesia to make it a tool of Public Diplomacy (Second Track Diplomacy) which is the second path carried out by non-state actors who can contribute to smooth the goals of a country. Through the good image delivered by Indonesian in London, it can be added value for the Indonesians in spreading the advantages of a country. Not only introducing the characteristics through the architect of the mosque building but the Indonesian in London must participate and contribute to providing good service for the international community in London. Thus, it will have a positive impact on Indonesia that Indonesia can be known as a country that is harmonious, tolerant, and upholds peace to everyone without discriminating against the identity of each individual. The formation of the first mosque in London, in the future, can become a forum for the Indonesians by holding various religious activities and gathering between Muslims in order to establish good relations. In addition, Indonesia’s first mosque in London can also be used as a forum for teaching and learning process such as reciting Al-Qur’an together in the mosque it is an opportunity for the Indonesian who is in London to do good things by conducting activities at the mosque with local and foreign Muslims. 

The construction of Indonesia’s mosque in London is a good first step to maximize Indonesia’s nation branding to strengthen Indonesian identity with the presence of Indonesia’s mosque in London. In addition, the existence of Indonesia’s mosque in London, it can enhance and promote the socio-cultural aspects of Indonesia to the International community. Which will have an impact on improving and achieving the partnership between Indonesia and UK. Indonesia and the UK have 7 characters, including point 7 on social and cultural aspects which explains that there is a cultural partnership to create a mutual understanding of each other. In order to maintain the relations and facilitate cooperation between the two countries, it is necessary for involving various actors, both from state actors namely the government, and non-state actors, namely the international community. By maximizing the contribution of the two actors, the relations between the two countries will be harmonious and bilateral cooperation will run smoothly in the future. However, building a mosque requires contributions and involvement from various parties to assist in the construction process. Where the existence of Indonesia’s mosque in London is a form of representation of Indonesia abroad, consequently, it needs to be maximized both in the development process, the architect used, and adequate funding. Through the fulfillment of this point, the existence of Indonesia’s mosque in London will be achieved and the strategy to maximize Indonesian identity through the presence of Indonesia’s mosque will also be achieved well. Both in terms of promoting Indonesia’s mosque and the interaction of the international community there. These two things are important things to be realized that can be used as a strategy to maximize Indonesia’s performance and good representation in the international community. The formation of a good image of a country will have a good impact in the future. Which a country will always be remembered as a harmonious country, uphold peace, and be seen as a good representative of the country. Through this formation, it will help the role of the state to smooth the cooperation formed between countries through the establishment of Indonesia’s first mosque in London.

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Cambodian Prime Minister’s Visit to Myanmar: Weakening Role of the ASEAN?

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Image source: Wikipedia

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen recently visited Myanmar for two days despite a wave of condemnation that his visit undermines ASEAN and legitimizes Myanmar’s deadly regime. Hun Sen is currently the chair of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2022, and is expected to lead ASEAN in diplomatic activity on how to navigate Myanmar’s political situation. As expected, Hun Sen was welcomed by the Myanmar officials, including Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, and was given a guard of honor. Accompanying Hun Sen are donations of medical equipment to fight Covid-19, comprising three million face masks, 200,000 N95 masks, 100,000 goggles, 30,000 personal protective equipment (PPE) suits, 30,000 face shields, 3,000 plastic boots, 50 ventilators appropriate for an ICU setting, 50 patient monitors and 50 oxygen concentrators. He was the first foreign leader to visit the country since the Myanmar military overthrew the democratically elected party and jailed it’s leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Since Feb 1, at least 1,435 people have been killed by the Tatmadaw in ruthless crackdowns on democracy protests. Conflict has also escalated in the nation’s border zones creating a humanitarian disaster where tens of thousands of people have been fleeing for their lives. Prompted by Myanmar’s exclusion from the bloc’s summit in 2021, the premier has repeatedly signaled his intent to bring the country back into the ASEAN fold, arguing that the economic union was “incomplete”.

Why has the Cambodian Prime Minister visited Myanmar, a nearly pariah nation in the world? Traditionally, Cambodia is a time-tested ally of Myanmar. This country has remained behind Myanmar solidly in times of crisis and challenges. Particularly, the current Hun Sen leadership is close to the military Junta of Myanmar. Cambodia has a different view about Myanmar and it’s a deeply pro-Junta as Hun Sen believes that ASEAN did not operate very smoothly in 2021 on the Myanmar issue. As the ASEAN chair, Hun Sen is determined to find a way to halt the violence and maintain the “ceasefire” in Myanmar while pursuing the bloc’s five-point consensus and bringing in humanitarian assistance. In his words, we cannot stand by passively while Myanmar falls apart and that we must find a way to resolve the stand-off between the opposing sides there and take advantage of all opportunities to pursue negotiations.

Although apparently the Cambodian leader focuses on political crisis in Myanmar, he has no concern for democracy, human rights and brutality of the military regime. He has no concern for the Rohingyas or any minority groups, which suits interests of Myanmar regime and its allies. Cambodia has launched a diplomatic blitz to rehabilitate the Junta first in ASEAN and then at the global level. Before taking over the revolving annual chairmanship of ASEAN, Hun Sen declared that he wanted the Burmese junta to be represented at the bloc’s meeting. In responding to questions of whether Cambodia can resolve the issue of the Myanmar junta, Hun Sen mentioned that any resolution would have to come from Myanmar itself, saying that the regional bloc was only one part of helping the member nation find a solution. “It isn’t based on whether Cambodia can resolve it or not, but Cambodia will try to compromise the situation of Myanmar to return it to a better situation.

Hun Sen is trying to use his personal influence as one of the oldest leaders in the region who is in power for more than 36 years and who even supported Vietnam’s invasion of his country in 1978. His own leadership in Cambodia is also deeply criticized, so his diplomatic role can also help him legitimizing his power in one of the small but historic nations on earth, Cambodia. Hun Sen often refers to ASEAN’s long-held convention of not interfering in each other’s internal affairs as an excuse of not creating any pressure on the Junta government. He plainly promotes the idea that under the ASEAN charter, no one has the rights to expel another member.

Support for the Hun Sen Initiative

The visit of Hun Sen enjoys support from some members of ASEAN and outside. Cambodia enjoys strong endorsement from two powerful regional partners of ASEAN and members of ASEAN Plus Three, China and Japan. In a statement of Japan’s MOFA, it is stated that Japan welcomes Cambodia’s active engagement as ASEAN Chair on the situation in Myanmar, and both ministers shared the view to coordinate closely. Another close ally of Myanmar, China, is also strongly in favor of Hun Sen and Cambodia, as well as Myanmar. The Chinese foreign ministry official, Wang Wenbin states that China appreciates Myanmar’s readiness to create favorable conditions for ASEAN’s special envoy to fulfill his duty and [he] works toward effective alignment between Myanmar’s five-point road map and ASEAN’s five-point consensus. In his words, “China will fully support Cambodia, the rotating chair of ASEAN, in playing an active role and making [an] important contribution to properly managing the differences among parties of Myanmar”. Members of ASEAN such as Thailand and Vietnam have strong support for Hun Sen visit. Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn said that ASEAN member-state Thailand’s top diplomat had sent a “congratulatory message” saying, “he strongly supported the outcomes of the Cambodia-Myanmar joint press release”.

Against the Visit

Rights groups are calling the visit a charade. They openly argue that by failing to insist that he would meet with all parties to the conflict, including imprisoned political leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, PM Hun Sen has demonstrated a clear authoritarian orientation that all issues can be sorted out in closed door talks between dictators. They argue that such kind stance of Hun Sen threatens to undermine the very fragile ASEAN decision that Myanmar political authorities cannot participate in future ASEAN events unless they abide by the 5 Point Consensus agreed by junta supremo General Min Aung Hlaing in April 2021. Activists also argue that with the false confidence generated by this ill-advised visit, the serious worry is the Tatmadaw will see this as a green light to double down on its rights abusing tactics seeking to quell the aspirations of the Burmese people. The worrying fact is that ASEAN has been making some efforts to stabilise the political conflict in Myanmar since the 2021 coup, but many view Hun Sen’s visit undermines this progress. Understandably, anti-coup activists and leading members of Myanmar’s shadow government, the National Unity Government, have also condemned the visit across social media. The most outspoken ASEAN members against the visit are Indonesia and Malaysia who led the process in 2021 to keep the Junta leader, General Min Aung Hlaing out of ASEAN process for his blatant breach of 5-point consensus to which he was also a party.

Who has benefited from the Visit?

Undoubtedly, it is the military Junta of Myanmar who has gained exclusively from this visit orchestrated by the pro-Junta members within and outside of ASEAN. Myanmar and Cambodia are particularly happy with the outcomes of the visit. In the first place, the Myanmar Military has already achieved a huge diplomatic advantage from the visit of Hun Sen as he became the first foreign leader to visit Myanmar and meet the regime’s leader, Min Aung Hlaing, since the military overthrew the country’s elected government in February 2021. Meanwhile, the two leaders discussed bilateral relations in a 140-minute meeting in the capital of Naypyidaw and they agreed that the ASEAN Special Envoy could be involved in the Myanmar peace process. Myanmar believes that Cambodia will rule with fairness during its chairmanship this year of the ASEAN. To Myanmar, there were “good results” from the Cambodian leader’s visit that boosted the military leadership as they argue that international pressure on Myanmar had not dialed down, but Myanmar would not bow to it.

Despite the satisfaction of Myanmar and Cambodia, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah criticized Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen for taking unilateral action in meeting the leader of Myanmar’s junta. The foreign minister further added, “We would expect that he could have at least consult – if not all – a few of his brother leaders as to what he should say.” He reminded that ASEAN position would not change that until there is clear progress on the five-point consensus Myanmar’s representation at the Asean summit and related summits at the end of the year should remain non-political. Indonesia is another powerful member of ASEAN also criticized that visit and identified it as a futile exercise.  

Another immediate outcome of the visit is postponement of the first ASEAN meeting known as The ASEAN Foreign Ministers Retreat (AMM Retreat) initially scheduled on Jan. 18-19, 2022, in Siem Reap province under Cambodia’s 2022 chairmanship. Although COVID 19 was shown as a reason behind this decision, it is the division among the bloc’s members over Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar has played a vital role behind this new development. Discords within ASEAN over Hun Sen’s trip to Naypyidaw and a potential invitation to the Myanmar junta’s foreign minister to attend the ASEAN diplomats’ retreat might be why some ASEAN members chose not to attend the meeting. Precisely, the issue is members’ intense disagreement over ASEAN chair’s invitation to the Myanmar military-appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin have created an impasse. It may be mentioned that Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore had backed shutting out the coup leader from the regional bloc’s top summit in 2021 when Brunei was the Chair of the bloc.  Analysts fear that the postponement effectively delays the official endorsement of Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn as ASEAN’s new special envoy for Myanmar.

By visiting Myanmar and meeting with Min Aung Hlaing, Hun Sen legitimized him and at the same time, weakened the role of ASEAN in playing a constructive role in the Myanmar crisis. The military leader in Myanmar had promised, among other things, to end violence and give an ASEAN special envoy access to all parties in the Myanmar political crisis, but he has done none of those things. Hun Sen has reversed the stance of the previous Chair Brunei, which created positive pressure on the Myanmar regime. Now the visit has questioned the credibility and limit of ASEAN to continue its meaningful and effective diplomatic role in mitigating the crisis in Myanmar, which has adverse impact on the future of democratic movement and the possible repatriation of the Rohingyas.

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Laos Prime Minister visit to Vietnam

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Lao Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh (front, centre) arrives at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi on January 8 morning (Photo: VNA)

Laos Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh along with a high-ranking delegation visited Vietnam from January 8 -10 to strengthen ties with its neighbour country. The official visit of Laos Prime Minister to Vietnam ushered in a new phase of interactions and outlook in friendship between the two neighbourly countries of Indochina. The Laotian prime minister would also usher in the era long celebration of the friendship between Laos and Vietnam in the year 2022. Given the fact that the two countries of Indochina have suffered the after effects of the pandemic COVID-19 in the year 2021, and have decided to enhance their partnership in select areas for protecting the mutual interest and forging cooperation between the parties, the government and developing people to people interactions. Vietnam has taken cognisance of the fact that the neighbouring countries require support both in terms of medicines, diagnostics and other health equipment which was required during the times of crisis.

Vietnam had given medical equipment and diagnostics kits  worth US$2.2 million to Laos, and also sent a few of its medical personal to assist the Laotian patients and Vietnamese  overseas citizens in Laos. At the times of crisis, even Laos has given Vietnam nearly US$300,000 for pandemic containment response and even the private sector in Laos came forward for giving 1.4 billion dollars  to the Vietnamese communities located closer to the  border of the two countries.  Between Laos and  Vietnam there has been economic and development cooperation  under that there are more than 209 projects under which Vietnamese firms  have invested more than $5.16 billion in Laos.

In terms of education, training and developing capacities the two countries have assisted each other and Vietnam has offered more than 1200 scholarships to Laotian  officials and students for enhancing their knowledge and capacities.

Since last year the interaction between the two countries has been more profound and there has been a visit of party general secretary, presidents, and prime ministers of the two countries. In August 2021 Laos general secretary and president Thongloun Sisoulith paid an official visit to Vietnam. During the visit the discussions were held with regard to improving ties and elevating ties to the next level. One of the important agenda points which have been discussed was bringing about reforms and ensuring national construction and defence between the two countries. The party general secretary appreciated the extensive reforms which have been carried out in Vietnam in the last three and a half decades after Doi-Moi(economic reforms programme initiated in 1986). The two sides also discussed developing conducive conditions for mutual development and ensuring stability and prosperity in Southeast Asia. The issue of development in Mekong subregion and developing interactions at World Trade organizations were in the agenda too. One of the important highlights of the visit was strengthening cooperation and coordination with Cambodia so as to promote the CLV developmental triangle area. Laos and Vietnam also share the resources of Mekong River and it has become imperative for the two countries to develop institutional links and coordination mechanisms in this context. The two sides were also keen on developing defence ties and addressing challenges such as cross border crime an undertaking joint border patrol.

Following this visit, President Phuc visited Laos in his new term and the discussions were held between the two counterparts on COVID-19 pandemic cooperation and undertaking special efforts particularly in regional organisations as well as in the United Nations. During that visit nearly 14 cooperation documents were signed between the two ministries particularly in the fields of security, defence, drugs control, power exchange, and mineral exploration. The visit also opened new vistas of cooperation between the two sides and but trust the need for special solidarity and comprehensive cooperation. During the visit the 43rd meeting of the Vietnam Laos intergovernmental committee was also held and the two sides also decided on the cooperation strategy for the next decade (2021 to 2030). In fact, one of the important highlights of the visit of president Phuc has been the wide coverage which has been given by the media in Laos and also highlighting the special friendship between the two nations.

This visit of the Laos Prime Minister forms the basis of solidarity, political acknowledgement, and confidence between the two parties in the Indochina. Vietnam has also helped Laos in building its National Assembly which was worth 111 million USD dollars. Vietnam showed urgency and immediate support when Laos was facing widespread effects of COVID-19 pandemic. In one of the statements which was made by the Ambassador of Laos in Vietnam, he stated that this visit will build up foundation for a comprehensive partnership between the two nations in the year 2022. He added that this visit will help in deepening ties related to science and technology, culture, education, knowledge building security and defence ties as well as political interactions. The two countries have convergence is with regard to developing the age end of ASEAN meetings in the year 2022 as well as looking for better development avenues in the Mekong subregion. The Vietnam Laos friendship and solidarity year 2022 would help in better management of trade relationship, use of Vietnamese sea ports by Laotian businessman and exploring transport connections through the East West corridor.

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