US should remember wartime legacy in Laos

By Xu Liping Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/6 21:18:39 Last Updated: 2016/9/6 23:03:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

US President Barack Obama is currently in Laos for the East Asia Summit (EAS) as the first sitting US president in history to visit the country. What will Obama bring to the only landlocked nation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) during his debut visit there? Will it impact the Sino-Laos relationship?

Laos, with a population of just 7 million people, is still one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world. Yet the small country, which was sidelined most of the time by the outside world, has been suddenly catapulted into the international spotlight.

As the current chair of ASEAN, Laos has more ability to make its voice heard in terms of regional cooperation, which increased the nation's weight in geopolitics. Over the past year alone, Laos has held over 900 conferences, made its voices heard and showed its own ways in the agenda setting and the promotion of ASEAN integration as well as collaboration in East Asia. It has thus become a target for each major power to win over.

With the development of ASEAN integration, constructions of connectivity have become a key project for ASEAN. As a crucial hub linking the five countries in the Indo-China Peninsula, Laos is called "the cork in the bottle" of Southeast Asia. It is a land passage between China and ASEAN. The Sino-Laos railway project, which is currently under construction, will without question further raise Laos' strategic status.

These two factors are Obama's major motivation for visiting Laos. In addition, he wants to cement his diplomatic legacy in Asia, and reinforce the US presence among China's neighbors.

During the Vietnam War, Laos fell victim to the US' undeclared bombing campaign. From late 1960s to the early 1970s, the US army dropped millions of tons of bombs in the country, 30 percent of which have not yet exploded. And an average of 500 people have been killed or wounded each year by unexploded munitions.

During my recent visit to Laos, a retired diplomat told me that Washington has no right to talk about human rights in front of them, because the illegal bombs the US left are still causing casualties and misery among the Lao people.

This time, Obama should negotiate with the Lao government on how to effectively and comprehensively remove those mines and shoulder US responsibilities as a major power. The White House should not only increase financial assistance to help dispose of the bombs, and hold training programs for Laos, but also raise the subsidies for those wounded by the bombs. Otherwise, the effect of Obama's visit will be very limited.

As a socialist country, Laos' opinions on democracy and human rights are different from the US. Given Washington's history of intervening in Lao domestic affairs, both Laos' parties and government are quite vigilant against the US.

It is hard for Laos to be too close to the US. Being a member of ASEAN, Vientiane sticks to diplomatic balancing among major powers. But when it comes to sensitive issues, Laos tends to practice "quiet diplomacy" - calling for bilateral or multilateral negotiations to solve divergences or disputes without publicly expressing any inflammatory speech. If the US wants Laos to confront China during the EAS, its efforts will likely be in vain.

China is Laos' largest neighboring country, good friend and close partner. The two have established a comprehensive strategic cooperation partnership. The Beijing-led "Belt and Road" initiative and Laos's strategy of turning itself from a landlocked country into a land-linked nation highly accord with each other. With the development of the Sino-Lao railway project and the bilateral economic cooperation zone, an increasingly close community of common interests will be built between the two.

Some foreign media tend to read too much into the tendency of the current Laos leadership, which is growing closer to Vietnam while distancing itself from China. Yet as far as I am concerned, this is no more than prejudice. Due to the common interests, similar beliefs, development paths, and cultures, China has never intervened in others' domestic affairs and will safeguard the big picture of bilateral collaboration no matter who assumes office in Laos.

It is hoped that Obama's tour will bring real welfare to Laos, instead of forging it into another pawn to contain China.

The author is a senior fellow of the National Institute of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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