By Murray Hiebert & Greg Poling
In July 2010, Lao deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs Thongloun Sisoulith paid an official visit to Washington. He remains the highest-ranking Lao official to visit Washington since the communist takeover in 1975. During his visit he invited Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to reciprocate with a stop in Vientiane. While 2011 may be difficult to schedule, it would behoove Secretary Clinton to make time for a trip to Laos in the near future.
Laos is not a big country. It has 6.5 million people, a $7.5 billion economy, and exports of $2.5 billion. Nor is its strategic weight compelling when considered alone. However, U.S.-Lao relations have been on an upswing in recent years, and the trend seems to be growing stronger. Although the Lao have never hosted a cabinet-level official from the United States, they have seen several high-level visits of late. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Joseph Yun visited in June. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell visited in March 2010 for the third U.S.-Lao Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue and will host his Lao counterparts in Washington in October for the fourth.
The Obama administration has made it clear that U.S. strategic priorities have irrevocably shifted toward Asia, and ASEAN has clearly become the preferred mechanism for leveraging U.S. political and diplomatic clout in the region. Increasing engagement with all of ASEAN’s members increases U.S. clout in ASEAN forums.
Laos’s standing as an ASEAN member is reason enough to seek improved relations, but its upcoming 2016 chairmanship of the group raises its profile further. It is largely the chair’s prerogative to set the agenda at ASEAN meetings and steer the discussions. The remarkable initiatives of Vietnam and Indonesia in pushing the envelope of ASEAN norms of noninterference and consensus building are unlikely to be followed by the next two chairs, Cambodia and Brunei. If the United States wants ASEAN to evolve into a more effective regional architecture for resolving disputes and maintaining stability in Asia, it needs to invest now in building bridges with future chairs.
And then there is the elephant in the room of U.S. relations with Southeast Asia – China. The United States does not need to worry about wresting Laos from the Chinese orbit. What it should do, however, is seek to provide the Lao leadership with additional options and channels for development and growth. Greater U.S. engagement can be achieved in several areas, including economically through an expanded trade and investment framework agreement. More focused capacity-building efforts could be provided to support Laos’s bid to join the World Trade Organization, as part of the Lower Mekong Initiative, and to take steps to realize a U.S.-ASEAN free trade agreement. While they are loath to express such a sentiment publicly, Lao leaders want strategic balance as much as any of their neighbors. Political engagement through higher-level visits and expansion of cooperation along the lines of that with Vietnam will help Laos maintain this balance, which is clearly more supportive of U.S. strategic goals than a Laos increasingly dependent on Chinese largesse.
Laos does not enjoy the prominence of Indonesia or Vietnam. Yet it does have strategic value that the United States would be foolish to ignore. The key to maximizing that value is to send a clear message to Vientiane that it will not be overlooked. There are few moves that can send such a message as effectively as a visit by the secretary of state.
Murray Hiebert is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Greg Poling is a research intern with the Southeast Asia Program.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.