In historic visit, Clinton reaches out to Laos

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The U.S. is spending $9 million this year on cleanup operations for unexploded ordnance in Laos, but is likely to offer more in the coming days.

It is part of a larger Obama administration effort to reorient the direction of U.S. diplomacy and commercial policy as the world’s most populous continent becomes the center of the global economy over the next century. It is also a reaction to China’s expanding influence.

Despite America’s difficult history in the region, nations in Beijing’s backyard are welcoming the greater engagement — and the promise of billions of dollars more in American investment. The change has been sudden, with some longtime U.S. foes now seeking a relationship that could serve at least as a counterweight to China’s regional hegemony.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has made significant strides toward reform and democracy after decades as an international pariah, when it was universally scorned for its atrocious labor rights record and its long repression of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy movement. The Obama administration is expected to ease investment restrictions in the country this week.

Vietnam, threatened by Beijing’s claims to the resource-rich South China Sea, has dramatically deepened diplomatic and commercial ties with the United States, with their two-country trade now exceeding $22 billion a year — from nothing two decades ago. Clinton on Tuesday made her third trip to the fast-growing country, meeting with senior communist officials to prod them into greater respect for free expression and labor rights.

Landlocked and impoverished Laos offers fewer resources than its far larger neighbors and has lagged in Asia’s economic boom. It remains one of the poorest countries in Asia, even as it hopes to kick-start its development with accession soon to the World Trade Organization.

In recent years, China has stepped up as Laos‘ principal source of assistance, with loans and grants of up to $350 million over the last two decades. But like many others in its region, Laos‘ government is wary of Beijing’s intentions. And it has kept an envious eye on neighboring Vietnam’s 40 percent surge in commercial trade with the United States over the last two years, as well as the sudden rapprochement between the U.S. and nearby Myanmar.

Persistent human rights issues stand in the way of closer relations with Washington. The U.S. remains concerned about the plight of the ethnic Hmong minority, most of whom fled the country after fighting for a U.S.-backed guerilla army during the Vietnam War. Nearly 250,000 resettled in the United States. The U.S. has pressed Laos to respect the rights of returnees from neighboring countries.

Washington also has been seeking greater cooperation from Laos on the search for U.S. soldiers missing in action since the Vietnam War. More than 300 Americans remain unaccounted for in Laos.

And it is pressing the government to hold off on a proposed $3.5 billion dam project across the Mekong River. The dam would be the first across the river’s mainstream and has sparked a barrage of opposition from neighboring countries and environmental groups, which warn that tens of millions of livelihoods could be at stake.

The project is currently on hold and Washington hopes to stall it further with the promise of funds for new environmental studies.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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