Laos and China have officially kicked off 20 days of joint military exercises in Laos aimed at shoring up the ability of their armed forces to combat terrorism, media reports said Thursday.
The May 9-28 drills, called Friendship Shield-2023, come amid a larger push by Beijing to engage with its neighbors in Southeast Asia, prompting wariness of China’s growing influence in the region.
The exercises are being led by Major Gen. Phanh Seng Bounphanh, the deputy commander of the Lao People’s Army, and Major Gen. Yang Wenlin, deputy commander of the 75th Group Army of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Command, according to official Lao state media.
Some 200 Chinese troops and 700 Lao troops are taking part in the drills, which officially launched following an opening ceremony on Thursday. The exercises are being held at the Kommadam Academy of the Lao People’s Armed Forces and will train for joint attacks on transnational armed crime syndicates operating in a mountain jungle environment.
The rare joint exercises represent an upgrade in security cooperation between Laos and China, whose militaries have previously carried out joint humanitarian medical rescue exercises in Laos.
In addition to live arms fire, individual training, detachment tactics, and combat support, the joint drills will also include sports competitions and cultural exchanges between the two militaries, as well as training to provide humanitarian assistance.
In preparation for the exercises in Laos, China’s military sent more than 300 assault vehicles, various types of ordnance, and equipment for mine clearance, explosive disposal and epidemic prevention.
Countering US presence
While the drills are billed as a way to strengthen the two countries’ military ties, one expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFA Lao that they are also aimed at joint security efforts to “counter the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia.”
An official from the Lao defense ministry, who also declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said that the exact location of the drills have yet to be revealed.
Members of the public interviewed by RFA said that the joint exercises will be useful, provided they serve as a cooperative exchange, rather than as a means by which China can bolster its influence and control in the region.
China has pushed to more deeply engage with its neighbors in Southeast Asia in recent months.
This year, China and Cambodia held joint exercises in Cambodian waters for the first time, also involving China’s Southern Theater Command. The Southern Theater counts within its area of operations the South China Sea, whose waters are the subject of a territorial dispute between China and several other countries in the region.
In November, Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed Laotian President Thongloun Sisoulith to Beijing for a state visit, during which the two sides pledged to work together to “build a shared future.”
The drills in Laos could raise concerns in Vietnam, which is Laos’ traditional fraternal, communist partner. In January, Lao Prime Minister Dr Sonexay Siphandone and his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Minh Chinh signed 10 agreements on future cooperation, including the creation of a mechanism for discussing economic diplomacy and training for diplomats and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during the latter’s first official visit to Laos.
Last month, the U.S. held its largest-ever annual drill with the Philippines, involving more than 17,000 personnel. Washington has expanded its military exercises in the region with annual war games in Indonesia and Thailand.
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