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In rare diplomatic visit, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seeks closer relations with Laos

By Tajuddin
In DIPLOMAT MEMO
Jan 25th, 2016
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks into the Landmark Hotel upon arrival in Vientiane, Laos, Jan. 24, 2016 during the beginning of an Asian tour.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks into the Landmark Hotel upon arrival in Vientiane, Laos, Jan. 24, 2016 during the beginning of an Asian tour.

Vientiane, Laos ( Agencies + DIPLOMAT.SO) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived Sunday in Laos, where the United States is helping the government clear a countryside still littered with unexploded ordnance dating to the Vietnam War.

Mr. Kerry’s one-day stop for talks with senior officials marks a rare diplomatic visit. He is only the third secretary of state in six decades to visit the tiny, landlocked country in Southeast Asia, with John Foster Dulles stopping in 1955 and Hillary Clinton in 2012. Relations have been standoffish for decades between Washington and the Communist rulers of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic who only last week chose a new leader for the single-party government.

But in recent years, the two countries have started to warm to each other.

Mr. Kerry came to lay the groundwork for a summit that President Barack Obama will host in February for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a group that Laos chairs this year. Vientiane, the capital, will in turn host Mr. Obama at an ASEAN meeting this summer, when he will become the first U.S. president ever to visit the country.

U.S. officials say Mr. Kerry will make the case to Laos to present a unified stance in dealing with China on the maritime disputes in Asia, which have grown more intense as China continues to construct man-made islands and airstrips in contested areas.

But ASEAN unity has not always been possible as China wields great influence among some of its smaller neighbors, such as Cambodia. Cambodia held the ASEAN chair in 2012 and blocked the group from reaching consensus on the South China Sea issue and has frequently sided with China on the matter. A senior State Department official accompanying Mr. Kerry in Asia said the U.S. had heard from regional leaders that problems related to Cambodia’s chairmanship “left a black mark on ASEAN and are not to be repeated.” The official said the U.S. believed that Laos would do a better job in balancing ASEAN interests with China.

Laos was targeted heavily by U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War and still has large amounts of unexploded ordnance littering its countryside. The U.S. has stepped up efforts to help clear Laos of those bombs and Mr. Kerry is expected to commit to expanding and upgrading such programs with details to be announced when Mr. Obama visits, the U.S. official said.

All of the high-level visiting to Laos is part of the administration’s effort to pay more attention to Asia. Mr. Kerry goes Tuesday to Cambodia, boasting one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies. Laos and Cambodia do most of their trade with China, which is aggressively courting Laos with loans and investments. Mr. Kerry is trying to help the U.S. make more inroads.

In Cambodia, Mr. Kerry is expected to note the country’s strong economic growth but also raise concerns with longtime authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen about human rights and political freedoms. Mr. Kerry plans to meet representatives of Cambodia’s opposition, led by a man who has been in self-imposed exile since November, when an order for his arrest was issued on an old conviction for defaming Cambodia’s foreign minister.

Mr. Kerry will wrap up his Asia tour in Beijing, where he will renew concerns about China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and call for Chinese leaders to take more steps to press North Korea on its nuclear program. Since North Korea’s nuclear test earlier this month, U.S. officials asserted that China must use its leverage to demand that the Stalinist North Korean leadership end its nuclear weapons program and testing and return to six-nation talks aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

He arrives in the middle of a political transition that began to transpire after Mr. Kerry left Washington and was already in Switzerland, his first stop on an eight-day trip that takes him to four countries.

In Laos, he is not scheduled to meet with Bounnhang Vorachit, the 78-year-old vice president whom the Communist Party on Friday chose to be its new leader. Mr. Bounnhang replaces Choummaly Sayasone, 79, who was both party chief and president. The Communist Party holds tight reins on power in the impoverished, mostly rural country.

Mr. Kerry, though, plans to meet with Thongsing Thammavong, the prime minister and a Politburo member. Mr. Thongsing did not apply to join a new central committee, suggesting that he, like Mr. Choummaly, may be leaving power soon. Mr. Kerry also will meet with Thongloun Sisoulith, who wears two hats as deputy prime minister and foreign minister.

Laos has moved away from a communist system in the past two decades, but like its close ally Vietnam — whose Communist Party leaders over the weekend nominated General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to another term, a setback for rival candidate Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung as the party plots the country’s political course for the next five years — it retains a one-party political system and its government has been criticized for being intolerant of dissent.

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