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This week, U.S. President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos. In part, he made the journey to attend the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This will be Obama’s 11th journey to Asia since he assumed office in 2009, and the attention he has paid to ASEAN—collectively, the world’s seventh-largest economy, and the United States’ fourth-largest trading partner—is at the heart of his strategic rebalance to the region.
But his visit to Laos, where he will spend several days in the capital city of Vientiane and the former royal capital of Luang Prabang, represents much more than that. Unimaginable even five years ago, it hands Obama the opportunity to finally address the legacy of the United States’ involvement in Laos during the Vietnam War and to forge a new model for U.S. engagement in the country for the twenty-first century.
Obama may be the first president to visit Laos, but the tiny, landlocked nation was a major preoccupation of his Cold War-era predecessors. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower was convinced that securing Laos was the key to staving off the spread of communism in Southeast Asia; U.S. President John F. Kennedy agreed, and he dedicated more attention to the country than any other foreign policy issue at the beginning of his administration, when a covert, CIA-led anti-communist campaign there began.
The results of the so-called Secret War in Laos, neither disclosed to the American people nor authorized by their representatives in Congress, were devastating. It lasted more than a decade, leading to the deaths of more than 200,000 Laotians, about one-tenth of the country’s total population. Nearly twice as many were wounded; almost a million were made refugees in their own country. And Laos became the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day—one ton for every man, woman, and child in Laos at the time. After the campaign ended, many unexploded bombs remained, and 20,000 Laotians have been killed or maimed by them since the end of the war. The painstaking work of cleaning up that ordnance continues to this day.
Although the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane remained open after the communist government took power in 1975, America’s presence in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was downgraded to the charge d’affaires level until the early 1990s. Reengagement with Laos did not begin in earnest until the George W. Bush administration, during which normal U.S.-Laotian trade relations were secured. (At the time, in 2004, bilateral trade amounted to $8 million annually; last year, total trade in goods between the two countries reached $69.8 million.) By 2005, the two countries had established the Bilateral Defense Dialogue, a forum for consultations between the Laotian Ministry of National Defense and U.S. Pacific Command. The annual dialogue continues to this day, and among other issues has focused on efforts to resolve cases of American military personnel still missing in Laos.
The work of forging a normal diplomatic relationship between the United States and Laos accelerated during Obama’s first term. In 2009, the president declared—in a nod to reality—that, lingering political rhetoric aside, Laos had “ceased to be a Marxist-Leninist country.” The following year, the countries established the U.S.-Laos Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue, an annual opportunity to discuss cooperation on issues such as health, counternarcotics, environmental protection, and Laos’ entry into the World Trade Organization. The highlight of this period was Hillary Clinton’s historic visit to Vientiane in July 2012, the first by a U.S. secretary of state in 57 years. Clinton was in the country for only four hours, but she made an important statement by spending some of that time in a rehabilitation center for victims of American bombs. She spoke directly with accident survivors and described the visit as “a painful reminder of the Vietnam War era.”
In addition to helping Laos avoid dependence on a single ally, consistent engagement with the country will allow the United States to promote its values in areas such as the environment and human rights.Over the past year, U.S. Embassy staff in Vientiane have been busy with a flurry of high-level visits in advance of the president’s trip. (They have done their work from a new multi-building embassy complex opened in 2014.) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has visited Laos twice, conducting bilateral discussions in addition to preparatory ASEAN ministerials. Perhaps more significant, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes has made the trip several times, returning to the rehabilitation center in Vientiane and even visiting a bomb clearance site near Luang Prabang.
During his visit, Obama is expected to conduct bilateral meetings with key officials to advance U.S.-Laotian cooperation on issues such as economic development and people-to-people exchanges. He is also planning to escape the capital city. This year, his signature Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative will hold its annual summit in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Perhaps the most eagerly awaited announcement that the president is expected to make while in Laos is an increase in U.S. support for bomb removal and victim assistance. In response to steady pressure from nongovernmental organizations such as Legacies of War and their allies in Congress, U.S. funding for this work has increased significantly—from $5 million in 2010 to $19.5 million this year. Obama is expected to visit the victim rehabilitation center in Vientiane, so that he might witness the arduous work firsthand. Casualties from bomb-related accidents in Laos have now fallen to about 50 a year; a sustained, multiyear U.S. commitment would help bring them to zero.
Obama appears poised to make such a commitment. In April, he told The Atlantic, “So we dropped more ordnance on Cambodia and Laos than on Europe in World War II…. When I go to visit those countries, I’m going to be trying to figure out how we can, today, help them remove bombs that are still blowing off the legs of little kids.” The United States, once steadfast in denying its operations in Laos, now openly acknowledges the suffering caused by its actions decades ago. (Indeed, at times the country can appear more eager than Laos to honestly address the past. On the “About Laos” section of its ASEAN chairmanship website, the government of Laos resorts to the passive voice: “By bombing the portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail across Laos, the country had been heavily bombed and became the most heavily bombed nation in history.”)
Obama’s visit will be closely watched by the community of Laotian Americans—now more than 560,000 strong—whose families fled to the United States after the end of the war. Community leaders hope that the visit will accelerate the healing process for first-generation refugees, some of whom remain suspicious of the communist regime despite the steps it has taken to encourage them to visit and even apply for permanent residence. Younger Laotian Americans, eager to showcase their often-overlooked heritage, have shown particular enthusiasm for the president’s visit—even promoting it on social media with the hashtag #LaObama.
The timing of Obama’s trip is auspicious, too, since the government of Laos may be more receptive to U.S. engagement today than at any time since the end of the war. Over the past decade or so, Laos has thrown the door wide open to China, now the largest foreign investor in the country, which it sees as key to its “new Silk Road” trade strategy. China has poured money into sectors such as mining, hydropower, and agriculture. Along with this investment has come a wave of Chinese immigrants, remaking (and at times unsettling) entire communities.
In January, Laos selected a prime minister known to want to diversify the country’s alliances. Concern has grown in Vientiane about over-reliance on Chinese investment, as well as the terms of projects of dubious value to Laos—such as a $6 billion railroad project linking Kunming to Bangkok, which Laos is obliged to finance with a loan from China. Observers noted Laos’ reaction to the recent South China Sea decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which was unfavorable to China: as ASEAN chair, Laos issued a joint communiqué calling for all parties to “pursue peaceful resolution of disputes…in accordance with international law.”
In addition to helping Laos avoid dependence on a single ally, consistent engagement with the country will allow the United States to promote its values in areas such as the environment and human rights. During her visit, Clinton successfully pushed Laos to delay the construction of a $3.6 billion hydropower dam on the Mekong River, a project that neighboring countries oppose. This year, Kerry announced a U.S.-funded “smart infrastructure” project in Laos to ease silting and facilitate fish migration in light of dam construction. And Obama is expected to raise U.S. concerns about the mysterious disappearance of respected agronomist and community leader Sombath Somphone in 2012, a case that remains unresolved despite consistent pressure on Laos from the international human rights community.
In these and many other ways, a normal bilateral relationship with Laos, built upon an honest acknowledgment of the past, will ensure that the United States’ crucial voice will be heard by the nation’s leadership.