Thailand cautiously bridges gulf with Laos

Despite the often shrill rhetoric and shooting clashes that punctuate conflicts in Indo- China, subtle diplomacy sometimes still works to ease tensions in the area.

The most notable example of this Thailand and Laos, which are cautiously moving to improve relations. Thailand reopened its border with Laos Aug. 28 at the key trading point of Nong Khai.

The Thai move, coming after weeks of diplomacy, ended the total border closure and trade ban imposed after the death of a Thai soldier in a shooting incident on the Mekong River June 15. Still unknown is whether other points along the 870-mile border will be opened.

Thailand justified the reopening because of unspecified steps taken by the Laotian government and because of the need to alleviate the economic hardships imposed on the Lao people by the closure.

But the move also seems to have demonstrated a diplomatic "pragmatism" on the part of Thailand, Laos, and perhaps even Vietnam.

Thai policymakers are believed aware that by pushing Laos too hard, they may force their neighbor into greater economic dependence on Vietnam. That could lead to a more unified, Vietnamese-dominated Indo-China federation, which would pose a greater threat to Thailand.

Laos has been eager to stimulate trade with Thailand and generate much-needed foreign exchange. In the view of some diplomats, this is aimed at preventing overdependence on Vietnam. Thus despite a penchant for echoing Hanoi's anti-Thai propaganda line, Laos is keeping a friendly door open to its southern neighbor.

And the Vietnamese apparently have been willing to tolerate Laos's independence, analysts say, because it reduces the burden on Vietnam's strained economy.

Laos and Thailand may represent a "special case." But their diplomatic warming also may reflect the subtle combination of shooting and talking emerging between Vietnam-led Indo-China and its neighbors.

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