En route to the annual foreign ministers meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became the first American official to visit Laos in over half a century.
During her four-hour visit, Clinton met with Communist Party Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong and a clinic that designs artificial limbs, largely for victims of unexploded bombs left by the U.S. after the Vietnam War.
Regardless of the short timeframe of the visit, Clinton and Thongsing penned and released a carefully-worded joint statement highlighting the two nation's wish for closer ties.
"Secretary Clinton and [Deputy Foreign Minister/Foreign Minister] Dr. Thongloun Sisoulith had substantive discussions on the broadening bilateral cooperation between the United States and the Lao PDR," including on Laos' accession into the WTO.
They also agreed on the need for continued cooperation on unexploded ordnance (UXO) and retrieving American servicemen remains in the area.
But most notably, Laos agreed to suspend the construction of the Xayaburi dam, a project spearheaded by Thailand to bring energy to country. The dam was highly controversial in the region, causing clashes between nations over a possible upset in water flow of the Mekong River the dam could cause.
CSIS Southeast Asia Program Director said the visit to Laos also will allow discussion not only on "traditional security and economic issues, but also areas such as environmental sustainability, energy, education, and water management."
Pundits agree the visit, largely ceremonial with "deliverables" pre-planned, was a carefully laid out message to Laos' largely investment partner, China. The State Department's recent "pivot to Asia" policy had brought the U.S. more firmly into the region than any other time since the Second World War and Korean War.
So far, the move has been characterized by shifting military strength to ensure maritime security in the South China Sea and an increasingly strong relationship with Southeast Asia countries like Burma, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Without ever directly mentioning China, the joint statement affirmed Laos' role in this Asia pivot as it stated the FM Thongloun "reaffirmed the significant role the United States plays in promoting peace, stability, and prosperity in the region and its multilateral institutions and in contributing to disaster relief efforts."
But the visit was also a symbolic way for Clinton to begin healing the wounds left by the U.S. after the Vietnam War. The Southeast Asian quagmire largely colored Clinton's visit, who said her visit to the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise was "a painful reminder of the Vietnam War era."
Even her visit with Thongsing, a former member of the pro-North Vietnamese Pathet Lao guerrilla group, reminded the secretary of the legacy of the war in the region's political leanings.
The joint statement released Wednesday also highlighted how the secretary's visit to "Ho Phra Keo Museum to underscore U.S. respect for, and commitment to assist, Laos in preserving its rich culture and history [and] demonstrated ongoing U.S. commitment to address conflict legacy issues."
by RTT Staff Writer
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