Tiny Laos Readies For A Visit From Obama — And A Turn Under The Global Spotlight

Sep 4, 2016
Originally published on September 4, 2016 8:08 am

The shops here in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, hum along without air conditioning, and there are as many tuk-tuks as taxis to take you where you want to go. The rather sleepy place is about to get shaken awake as throngs of global leaders, and their traveling entourages and press, descend on the small nation, starting Monday.

Laos is hosting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN summit, and the country will mark President Barack Obama's final stop in Asia as president.

"It's a truly historic event for U.S.-Lao relationships and for the people and country of Laos," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a preview of the trip.

It's the first-ever visit to Laos by a sitting American president. And it's a place where the U.S. has a rather difficult history.

Laos is the most bombed country, per capita, in history, after Americans dropped an estimated 2 million tons of munitions on the country during the Vietnam War, in an effort to disrupt the famous Ho Chih Minh supply trail, which ran through much of the country.

Today, Laos is run by a rather secretive communist government — and is still poor. The economy is about $13 billion — the same as that of Lubbock, Texas.

But the country's gotten increasing investment from nearby China in recent years. And the Obama administration has been wanting and willing to engage with Laos, despite it being one of the few places in the world flying flags with a hammer and sickle on them.

"Given this President's commitment to reach out to countries with whom we've had complicated histories, we see this as a real opportunity to advance the U.S.-Laos relationship, to begin to build a real working partnership that can benefit both of our peoples," Press Secretary Earnest said.

In an effort to look forward, the president is expected to announce additional funding for the clearance of unexploded bombs leftover from the war, making a last-ditch sell of the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which the two leading presidential candidates do not support.

The visit is also a final push as president to re-balance Washington foreign policy toward Asia. The so-called "pivot" to Asia has been a seven-year-long effort on economic and security fronts, and it's widely seen as a response to the growing strength of China in its own neighborhood.

Friction in China

The president will arrive in Laos following his time in Hangzhou, China, which is hosting the G-20 summit.

The president and Chinese leader Xi Jinping sat down together for nearly four hours on Saturday night, as it was the last time for Obama to spend several hours one-on-one with his Chinese counterpart.

While there was agreement from both leaders to commit their countries to the Paris climate change deal, areas of real friction remain. The White House says the president brought up Chinese economic practices that the U.S. has been concerned about — like overproduction of steel, currency manipulation and the contentious maritime issues in the South China Sea, where China's been building islands on what were previously reefs and shoals.

The rockiness of the relationship was on display as soon as the president landed in China.

Chinese officials failed at first to provide a staircase for the president to come off Air Force One, and then tried to limit the number of press corps members who can trail the president, despite earlier agreements about access.

When Americans protested about changing rules at the last minute, a Chinese official reportedly snapped back, "This is our country."

The friction is illustrative of the larger struggles with a more-powerful China, which remains one of America's strongest economic allies but is not part of the U.S. security alliance — so, a strategic foe. One of the thorniest global relationships in the world will likely outlast the current president.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The tiny southeast nation of Laos will host leaders from around the world this week. There's a global summit happening there, and President Obama will be in Laos as well. It's part of his last trip to Asia as president. NPR's Elise Hu is in Laos. Elise, thanks for being with us.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Why is this tiny country hosting such a huge gathering?

HU: Well, Laos is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Members of ASEAN, as it's called, take turns hosting, and it's Laos' turn in the spotlight. This country, as you mentioned, is tiny. It's run by a rather secretive communist government and still rather impoverished. You can still see goats roaming the streets. There's no air conditioning in a lot of the shops and the restaurants.

And the economy's quite small. It's about $13 billion. We looked it up, and that's about the same size of the economy of Lubbock, Texas. But Laos has gotten increasing investment recently from nearby China, and the Obama administration has really been wanting and willing to engage with Laos, even though it's one of the few places that still flies flags with a hammer and sickle on it.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, President Obama is going to be in Laos. What is the American agenda there?

HU: Well, he's making a bit of history. He's going to be the first sitting president to visit Laos. America has a rather dark history here. It neighbors Vietnam, and much of the famous Ho Chi Minh trail ran through it, which means Americans dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs here. And so there's some reckoning with the past. But the president's also trying to look forward, making a last-ditch sell of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP, and making his final push as president to rebalance Washington foreign policy to Asia. This has been a seven-year-long effort on the economic and the security fronts and widely seen as a response to the growing strength of China in its own backyard.

MARTIN: Before President Obama gets to Laos, he is wrapping up a trip to the G20 in China. And clearly, China's a big part of the U.S. pivot to Asia. What do we know about what's come out of the president's visit there?

HU: Well, President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping both agreed and committed their countries to the Paris climate change agreement. That's kind of the big deal. They also sat down together for nearly four hours Saturday. It was the last time for Obama to spend so much time one-on-one with his Chinese counterpart. So he did broach some areas of friction - economic practices that the U.S. hasn't been happy about, like oversupply of steel.

There's also the contentious maritime issues, of course, in the South China Sea, where China's been building islands on what were previously just reefs and shoals. The rockiness of this relationship was actually on display as soon as Air Force One landed in China. Chinese officials had been trying to limit the number of press corps members who can follow the president despite making earlier agreements about access. And so when the American leaders protested about changing rules at the last minute, a Chinese official reportedly said, this is our country.

And that's all kind of symbolic of the larger struggles with a more powerful China. China's, of course, one of America's strongest economic allies, but not part of the U.S. Security Alliance. So it's seen as more of a strategic foe, which makes this one of the thorniest global relationships in the world.

MARTIN: NPR's Elise Hu, who covers Asia for us. Thank you so much, Elise.

HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.