By our envoy in Asia, Emanuele Giordana
Vientiane, Laos – When the Russian Defence Ministry announced on 9 January that Moscow had received 30 vintage T-34/85 tanks from Laos, some may have thought it was a sign of Lao-Russian friendship manifested in more than formal support for the invasion war in Ukraine. But this is not the case and, if anything, the opposite is true – even though Vientiane was among the 35 capitals (141 in favour, 5 against) that abstained in the first UN resolution in March last year condemning the Russian invasion and calling for its withdrawal (as reiterated – with the same positions – by another resolution in October).
The vintage tanks will be used in military parades, museum exhibitions and films about World War II. The tanks, which until recently were in the inventory of the Laotian army, were shipped to the Russian port city of Vladivostok to continue by train to the city of Naro-Fominsk near Moscow. All this, however, while Moscow is modernising the Laotian army. Folklore versus real weapons.
The Lao People’s Armed Forces (Lpa), informs the intelligence website Jane’s, has embarked on a modernisation plan, and as early as late 2018 a Laotian military source told Jane’s that Russia had started delivering upgraded T-72B1 tanks, pointing out that the Lpa would be the recipient of ‘several dozen’ of these tanks. The Laotian Defence Minister, Lieutenant General Sengnuan Xayalat, told Russian broadcaster Zvezda that the Lpa would receive Russian-made weapons and platforms, including ‘new T-72 tanks’. It is believed, Jane’s recalls, that the Lpa still has around 10 T34/85s in service, vehicles that were built in Czechoslovakia under licence in the mid-1950s. Models that later underwent minor upgrades.
Laos is a good ally of China, and makes no secret of its good relations with Moscow. But, as we can see, we are not talking about transfers of military technology from Laos to Russia but rather the opposite. The Lpa has a numerically substantial conscript army (men and women) based on compulsory military service of at least 18 months. The heavy vehicles (tanks, armoured personnel carriers, etc.) are mainly Soviet-made and only partly Russian (even Ukrainian), while most of the armament (light and heavy) is Chinese-made (with rare exceptions). The same applies to aviation, practically all of which is of Soviet origin. The navy, on the other hand, has mostly Chinese and Vietnamese equipment.
The very dates of purchase make it clear whose ally Vientiane really is. An increasingly close alliance since Laos is the least problematic country on the southern border for the Chinese, who do not have very good relations with either the Vietnamese or the Burmese generals. Not to mention the western neighbour, India, with which relations are always very tense.