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“Let us mend the wounds of the past together so that Laos can begin a new legacy of peace,” he said.

The U.S. is spending $9 million this year on cleanup operations for unexploded ordnance in Laos and 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 also is a reaction to China’s expanding influence.

‘Domino theory’

The last U.S. secretary of state to visit Laos was John Foster Dulles in 1955. His plane landed after a water buffalo was cleared from the tarmac.

At that time, the mountainous, sparsely populated nation was near the center of U.S. foreign policy. On leaving office, President Eisenhower warned his successor, John F. Kennedy, that if Laos fell to the communists, all Southeast Asia could be lost as well.

While Vietnam ended up the focal point of America’s “domino theory” foreign policy, Laos was drawn deeply into the conflict as the U.S. helped support its anti-communist forces and bombed North Vietnamese supply lines and bases.

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 boost 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 past 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 past 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 guerrilla 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.