As the Obama Administration looks to add the finishing touches to its five year Rebalance to Asia, it is likely to continue to capitalizing on building ties to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Obama Administration has worked tirelessly, particularly over the last four years, towards improving bilateral and multilateral ties with ASEAN. It has sent more high-level visits to ASEAN member states than its predecessors, had a visible presence in improving security relations with most ASEAN countries, and held the first U.S.-hosted ASEAN summit in Sunnylands last February. And as a final feather in Obama’s cap, he’ll be the first president to visit to Laos this coming September
The visit to the small Southeast Asian country may seem minor in the current geopolitical climate; however, it is far more important in the long run. Laos is tiny with only 6 million people earning on average just over $1000 per year, but the premise of the U.S. Rebalance has always been to re-engage with Asian countries wholesale in an effort to bolster the region. Through Laos, the Obama Administration can solidify its objectives and spur a more holistic relationship with ASEAN. In other words, the President’s upcoming visit to Laos represents the essence of the U.S. Rebalance to Asia as a whole.
On the surface, improving relations with Laos seems daunting. Laos is beset by many problems in addition to economic development challenges, ranging from a lack of infrastructure to being a central thoroughfare for the region’s illicit trade network. Historically, the U.S.-Lao bilateral relationship has been rather rocky. Traditionally, policymakers have worked to curb relations with Laos’s Communist government that was deigned partially responsible for the U.S.’s defeat in Vietnam. US Congress protested Laos’s entry to the WTO and criticized the Lao government’s lack of good policies to protect the Hmong minority, whose diaspora forms key constituencies in congressional districts in states like California and Minnesota.
Yet, it is because of these hurdles in the U.S. bilateral relationship that make Laos an ideal candidate for furthering the regional pivot. The U.S. Rebalance is concerned with building bridges and opening channels to promote greater collusion between the U.S. and the whole region. This entails reaching out to all of Asia and finding chains that can potentially help the U.S. and intra-Asian growth. Properly mending relationships to promote a greater relationship promotes a sustainable future. Furthering U.S. engagement with Laos will ensure the legacy of the Rebalance beyond the current administration. To do so, the President should confront two significant regional issues: food security and UXO.
First, in conjunction with the President’s September visit, the Administration should establish new policies to improve Laos’ food security. Laos experiences some of the highest nutritional deficiencies, child mortality, and maternal mortality in Southeast Asia. To assist with Laos’s food security problem, the Administration could build on successful frameworks for cooperation already in place. Thus, USAID provides programs to supplement good nutrition and improve regional capacity building through the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI). A joint effort from the Department of Defense, the Oregon Health Science University, and the Lao University of Health Sciences created the Lao American Nutrition Institute (LANI). LANI hopes to revitalize agricultural growth knowledge and practices in Laos. In spurring this effort, the Obama Administration can establish sustainable development policies and build capacity within the Lao government on programs that benefit the whole of Laos’ population.
Second, it is paramount for the Obama Administration to resolve the long debilitating unexploded ordnances (UXOs) in Laos. The small munitions left over from the U.S.’ Secret Bombing Campaign over Laos (1964-1973) still saturate much of the countryside and pose a threat to the country’s agriculture and young, vulnerable population. UXOs have been a front row issue in the prior visits by high profile Cabinet members. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, highlighted the UXO issue during his visit in November 2015. As a Vietnam veteran, Secretary John Kerry expressed his sincerest wishes towards properly handling the issue and bringing closure to the UXO issue during his visit to Laos in January 2016. Obama would benefit from boosting UXO removal efforts as prescribed by lawmakers. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), has promoted responsible and effective strategies in removing UXOs as well as a deep concern that the U.S. owns up to the Secret Bombing Campaign over Laos by seeing that the country becomes completely UXO free. Regardless of the approach, Obama should set a definite tone over UXOs in the upcoming visit. Taking responsibility to end the UXO threat for good improves the U.S.’ standing in the region and will move the agenda of the Rebalance forward.
In his final months, President Obama will be setting the finishing touches on what has been a major foreign policy effort. Above all, Obama would like to set the tone of being invested in improving the whole of Asia, exemplified through a serious responsibility to improving Laos’ development and correcting past US foreign policy decisions that proved detrimental to the region. Laos will be Obama’s chance to set the record straight and cement a sturdy framework for constructive engagement with the region. With this framework, future presidents will be encouraged to do the same: embrace Asia as a whole and continue an approach toward capacity building that ensures a brighter future.