Hillary Clinton becomes first US secretary of state to visit Laos since war
Visit follows decades of estrangement and comes as US looks to bolster relationships with countries in Asia
Associated Press in Vientiane
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 11 July 2012 10.53 BST
Hillary Clinton became the first US secretary of state to visit Laos in more than five decades, on a trip that would help gauge whether a place the US bombed during the Vietnam war could evolve into a new foothold of American influence in Asia.
Clinton met the communist government’s prime minister and foreign minister in the capital, Vientiane, on Wednesday, part of a week-long diplomatic tour of south-east Asia. The goal is to bolster the US’s standing in some of the fastest growing markets in the world, and counter China’s expanding economic, diplomatic and military dominance of the region.
Thirty-seven years after the end of America’s long war in Indochina, Laos is the latest test case for the Obama administration’s efforts to “pivot” its foreign policy away from the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It follows a long period of estrangement between Washington and a once hostile cold war-era enemy, and comes as US relations warm with countries such as Burma and Vietnam.
In her meetings, Clinton discussed environmental concerns over a proposed dam on the Mekong river, investment opportunities and joint efforts to clean up the tens of millions of unexploded bombs the US dropped on Laos. Greater American support programmes in these fields will be included in a multimillion-dollar initiative for south-east Asia to be announced later this week.
After the meetings, she said they “traced the arc of our relationship from addressing the tragic legacies of the past to finding a way to being partners of the future”.
Clinton also visited a Buddhist temple and a US-funded prosthetic centre for victims of American munitions.
At the prosthetic centre she met Phongsavath Souliyalat, who told her how he had lost both his hands and his eyesight to a cluster bomb on his 16th birthday.
“We have to do more,” Clinton told him. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here today, so that we can tell more people about the work that we should be doing together.”
The last US secretary of state to visit Laos was John Foster Dulles in 1955. His plane was forced to circle overhead before landing while a water buffalo was cleared from the tarmac.
At that time, the mountainous, sparsely populated nation was at the centre of US foreign policy. On leaving office, Dwight Eisenhower warned his successor, John F Kennedy, that if Laos fell to the communists, all south-east Asia could be lost as well.
While Vietnam ended up the focal point of America’s “domino theory” foreign policy, Laos was drawn deep into the conflict as the US funded its anti-communist forces and bombed North Vietnamese supply lines and bases.
Four decades later, US weapons are still claiming lives. When the war ended, about a third of some 270m cluster bombs dropped on Laos had failed to detonate, leaving the country awash with unexploded munitions. More than 20,000 people have been killed by ordnance in postwar Laos, according to its government, and contamination throughout the country is a major barrier to agricultural development.
The US is spending $9m (£6m) 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 US diplomacy and commercial policy as the world’s most populous continent becomes the centre 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 US foes now seeking a relationship that could serve at least as a counterweight to China’s regional hegemony.