03/27/2010, 00.00
LAOS - UNITED STATES

Washington looks to Laos to contain China’s expansion

The small Asian nation central to the interests of the two superpowers. The United States intends to strengthen development programs in environmental, humanitarian, commercial and military sectors. Chinese dams on the Mekong threaten the ecosystem of the entire South-East Asia.

 Vientiane (AsiaNews / Agencies) - The United States intends to strengthen cooperation with Laos to balance the expansion of China in South-East Asia. After decades of suspicions and misunderstandings a hangover from the war in Vietnam, Washington has started a bilateral program of economic development that will mark four key areas: environmental protection in the Mekong River and the strengthening of trade; targeted programs in the humanitarian field, including the reclamation of land were there are still millions of unexploded bombs, collaboration between the two armies, with targeted training that includes the teaching of English.

The government in Vientiane has shown an attitude of "cautious opening" to the American proposals. A necessary decision, according to a lengthy analysis published by Asia Times, "to counter the growing Chinese influence in the country”. Some Laotians welcome the ties between the small country and the Asian giant, which guarantees a greater movement of goods and capital. However the concrete threat of “Chinese domination" is increasing, exacerbated by the invasion of workers which “threaten Laotian national sovereignty”.  Add to this is the impact of Chinese dams on the source of the Mekong River, which result in serious environmental consequences for the local climate and ecosystem.

Vietnam also supports improved relations between Washington and Vientiane, which has long been the Laos’ closest ally and is also increasingly concerned by encroaching domain of  China. Indeed, after two decades of the Cold War in the 70s and 80s of last century, since the Asian crisis of 1997 Beijing has started programs "generous" assistance to Laos, including grants, loans at low interest rates and technical assistance. China, unlike other Western nations does not care about human rights issues under the principle of non-interference in internal affairs of another country. A more pressing issue for European Union and the United States, which has affected the trade between Laos and the West to the benefit of Beijing.

To help relaunch relations between Washington and Vientiane, this month Kurt Campbell, deputy U.S. Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific,  completed a two-day visit to Laos in the context of a wider tour of Asia. He emphasized the willingness of Obama to launch "a high-profile relationship with the country and to improve, in general, cooperation with the nations of Southeast Asia.

The U.S. government wants to initiate innovative projects including the Lower Mekong Initiative, to protect the environment and ecosystem that revolves around the Asian river. It also involves Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Added to this is the program of reclamation of land, beneath which millions of unexploded bombs are still hidden, which each year claim victims among the civilian population.

In the face of still insufficient trade compared to China and Vietnam, Washington has quadrupled in two years the volume of business, from $ 15 million in 2006 to 60 million in 2008. Humanitarian projects include specific programs to ensure livelihood and employment to ex-poppy farmers, health care and environmental protection. Finally, the resolution to broaden relations at a military level between the two countries, through the teaching of English and better training of the troops in Laos.

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