US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at RA Presidential House © PanARMENIAN Photo/ Davit Hakobyan/CC-BY-SA
So big news in town: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Laos. Or better: She will make a stop here, since she is on a Asia tour anyway. Why she visits Laos?
Beside the official statements (there was a invitation from the Lao government), there are two reasons, one is strategic, one is bilateral.
Let's talk about the bilateral aspect first.
Since the Lao government opened the country more to the west, relationships between the former enemies became better and better. The main reason for Laos is that it needs assistance in UXO cleaning and since the Americans dropped the bombs they are the first to ask to clean up the mess (what they actually do, but with certain limits). Laos also needs donors for development, and for the US it is a easy way to pay the guilt. And last but not least for a small developing country is it very important to have any relations with any of the G20 countries - a bit sunshine that blinks into the shadow. So Laos isn't much important for the US, but the US is important for Laos.
But there is also the strategic factor. Chinas influence in Laos is visible everywhere, from construction in the capital to mining in the countryside. In the last 3 years more and more Chinese investors showed up - and more and more state representatives. The US gov is shifting it's interest from the middle east to Asia, actively looking for allies. Vietnam can be one, Thailand is on the wish-list (although there was a setback with the recent NASA disaster), Cambodia is interesting, and Myanmar important. All this is done to prevent too much dominance of China. Southeast Asia has become the strategic most important region in the power struggle between China and USA. So Clintons visit to Laos means basically: "Hey China, we are here too".
Unfortunately the US foreign politics is still dominated by old thinking generals. Power means military power. China is taking a different path: Instead of soldiers they are sending businessmen (Vietnam copied that). Most of the Chinese investments are actually done by state owned companies, so in fact it is the government of China renting or leasing a lot of prime real estate and having permission for certain mining rights etc.
For Laos it can be an advantage to be in the middle, once it is balancing the two powers and getting the most out of it. It may boost development, when more US money is flowing in. Also, the strong ties with Vietnam, not a big fan of China, may help to prevent too much Chinese influence.