Vientiane, capital of Laos, is one of the quietest cities I have ever been to, though it has more of a nightlife these days than it did when I first started going, in 1999, and the whole town seemed to shut down at around 6 p.m., save a few open-air bars by the Mekong River where people could go and have snacks of grilled chicken and sticky rice and tall bottles of Beer Lao on ice. Still, the visit this week of Hillary Clinton was one of the biggest events for the Lao capital in years, equivalent to ASEAN meetings and the Southeast Asia Games. Clinton met with senior Lao officials and discussed everything from proposed dams on the Mekong River, which will —and are—seriously affect water levels for Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, unexploded ordinance in Laos left over from the massive bombing by U.S. forces, and potential future American investments in Laos. However, any potential investment in Laos is necessarily going to be small, except in power generation; Laos’ population is among the smallest of any country in Asia, and among the poorest as well.
Certainly, the visit is a sign of countries in the region balancing China against the United States —even tiny Laos, which now relies heavily on China for training of officers, infrastructure assistance, and technical aid, is engaged in this balancing. Chinese companies’ purchases of large tracts of land in northern Laos, which have then been converted into rubber plantations where local people work in a manner akin to modern-day sharecropping, has alienated many Lao toward Beijing. Although China has begun to be more cooperative regarding Mekong River issues, its cooperation is, for now, mostly superficial, rather than addressing the real problems created in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam by its dams. (The Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program has a wealth of information on Mekong issues.) In addition, the Lao government’s traditional patron, Vietnam, clearly worries about Laos’ growing closeness to China, particularly in military-military training. And yet the United States can hardly replace China as a donor, investor, and potential military partner; Laos is simply too marginal to U.S. interests.
Of all the issues, the area where the renewed initiative toward Laos could have the most immediate impact is in demining and removing unexploded ordinance, the worst legacy of the Vietnam War in Laos. Although the Obama administration is likely to announce a new multimillion dollar program next week for removing unexploded ordinance in Laos, it will pale in comparison to the country’s needs. As Asia Times recently reported, a group of former U.S. ambassadors to Laos and activists have been pushing the administration to adopt a proposal, created last year by the Legacies of War project, to spend $100 million on removing ordinance in Laos; unexploded bombs remains one of the biggest, if not the biggest impediment to development of large parts of the country.
And unfortunately, even the relatively modest sums that the Obama administration will propose next week are going to be hard to get through Congress, where many Republicans on the International Relations Committee will oppose greater aid to a government that is still technically communist and undoubtedly authoritarian —there is virtually no opposition movement at all in Laos, compared to neighboring nations like Vietnam and Cambodia.