BANGKOK — When President Obama becomes the first American president to visit communist Laos this week, he will arrive in what is the most heavily bombed country on earth, a country where people still face a daily danger from U.S. explosives dropped during the Vietnam War more than 40 years ago.
But the Obama visit, which will include a summit with Southeast Asian leaders, is not about the past but the future, and whether the U.S. can remain an effective counterweight to China’s ever-expanding financial and military clout.
And while Mr. Obama’s “pivot to Asia” remains at best a work in progress as his tenure winds down, there are some signs that his hosts welcome the chance to hedge their bets between the superpower across the Pacific and the emerging superpower on their doorstep.
Mr. Obama, who travels to Laos from the G-20 summit hosted by China in Hangzhou, will have bilateral meetings with Lao President Bounnhang Vorachith, who was promoted from the vice presidency in January, when several other top leaders shifted, prompting speculation that Vientiane wants to ease away from financial dependence on Beijing and revitalize traditional ties with Hanoi. If there is a shift, Mr. Obama would be happy to encourage it.
“The U.S. strategic interest in Laos is to see the country be able to exert a certain degree of strategic autonomy because you don’t want (to) have something akin to the relationship between China and Cambodia,” Phuong Nguyen, analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Reuters news agency.
With U.S.-Vietnamese relations also warming in recent years, the ill will and searing memories of the Vietnam War, including the bombing campaign that spread to Laos and Cambodia, appear to be a distant memory.
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“Obama’s diplomatic visit to Vientiane certainly isn’t the time, nor the place, to find value or fault in anything the USA did in Laos,” said James “Mule” Parker in an interview.
Mr. Parker, 73, was a CIA paramilitary case officer in Laos from 1971 to 1973 and authored several books about his experiences. In Laos he fought alongside anti-communist Lao Gen, Vang Pao’s thousands of ethnic Hmong guerrillas, plus the Lao army and 4,000 U.S. Special Forces-trained Thai “Tiger Soldiers” against “invading” communist Vietnamese.
“That’s ancient history,” Mr. Parker said. “We have, with this [Obama] visit, an opportunity to signal to the world our friendship and interest in an invigorated way ahead for our two countries.”
If President Obama and Mr. Vorachith are able to put the past behind them, the two may find some discomfort in discussing the issue of human rights. Rights groups are already pressuring Mr. Obama to press the point.
“As the first ever sitting U.S. president to visit Laos, President Obama should recognize his voice will carry particular weight with his Lao government hosts — and he should use that leverage to demand Laos stop behaving like a tin-pot dictatorship and halt its systematic suppression of its people’s rights,” said Phil Robertson, Asia division deputy director for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“Laos is a one-party dictatorship with a horrible human rights record, where official impunity to abuse people is pretty much absolute. It’s a highly corrupt country, where national resources are being sold off to unscrupulous investors just to line relevant government officials’ pockets,” Mr. Robertson, based in Bangkok, said in an interview last week.
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In Laos Mr. Obama will meet with leaders from ASEAN nations Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Many of those countries, strongly backed by Washington, are locked in a territorial tug-of-war with China over control of the South China Sea.
Mr. Obama will also attend an East Asia Summit in Laos along with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Russia.
His China and Laos trip, almost certainly his last trip to Asia before leaving office in January, is part of “the U.S. rebalance to Asia and the Pacific,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said earlier this month.
One tricky diplomatic task facing Mr. Obama in Laos will be his first face-to-face meeting with outspoken new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose tough crackdown on drug dealers and conflicting signals on the longtime U.S. alliance have unnerved U.S. officials. Mr. Obama is “certainly not going to pull any punches in raising well-documented and relevant” concerns in his meeting with Mr. Duterte, Mr. Earnest said.
Impoverished, landlocked Laos appears to be trying to leverage its geographical position to get the best possible investments and financial aid, balancing its relations among foreign political and economic interests and working those rivalries. It has a long land border with Vietnam, which lies squarely on the route for the “New Silk Road” trade strategy that is a pet project of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Billions of dollars’ worth of recent Chinese investment have poured in for construction projects, real estate, hotels, shopping malls, hydroelectric dams, anti-narcotics programs, casinos, the mining industry, agriculture and other sectors.
The U.S. offers scant investment but provides millions of dollars of financing for anti-opium crop projects, clearance of its unexploded bombs, child care, education, Mekong waterway rehabilitation and other programs.
The Pentagon’s links “with the Lao military are negligible,” said Murray Hiebert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“The Lao military has agreed to work with Washington on some English-language training for its soldiers, but has not accepted the offer to send officers to U.S. staff colleges,” Mr. Hiebert wrote in February.
While analysts perceive competition between China and the U.S. in Laos, a deeper role in Vientiane’s stance has been played by Vietnam thanks to ties forged in blood during the Vietnam War.
For many years after the war, 40,000 Vietnamese soldiers were stationed in Laos, and Hanoi wielded influence over Vientiane’s foreign affairs, defense and other policies. Thailand is also actively eyeing mountainous Laos’ hydroelectric dams, which could generate badly needed electricity for Bangkok.
Washington, meanwhile, helps clear unexploded ordnance (UXO) that remains from U.S. bombing raids during the war, peppering the countryside and still killing Laotian residents each year.
“America has long been the biggest donor to the UXO sector in Laos, and has continued year on year to increase the amount of funding that it provides to ensure [safe] land release can take place, and the victims of UXO accidents receive the support that they require,” Simon Rea, country director for England-based Mines Advisory Group in Laos, which clears UXO, said in an interview.
“From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions — equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years — making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history,” the Washington-based monitoring group Legacies of War said in a statement.
“Up to a third of the bombs dropped did not explode, leaving Laos contaminated. Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in Laos since the bombing ceased,” Legacies of War said.