VIENTIANE (Vientiane Times/Asia News Network): Five years ago, then President Bounnhang Vorachit and his visiting US counterpart Barack Obama agreed to elevate bilateral relations into a full Comprehensive Partnership.
The elevated ties have demonstrated that both sides of the partnership are determined to leave behind a painful history and choose to grow together. The partnership has guided and strengthened Lao-US relations for the past five years, and will continue well into the future.
President Obama’s 2016 visit -- the first trip to Laos ever made by a sitting American President – was a historic milestone in Laos-US relations.
Addressing Lao media recently to mark the 5th anniversary of the Comprehensive Partnership, US Ambassador to Laos Dr Peter M. Haymond said “Since I first started working in Laos nearly 25 years ago, but particularly since the launch of the US-Lao Comprehensive Partnership, our cooperation has moved in a very positive direction. I’m so pleased to be part of it.”
Ambassador Haymond highlighted that US investment in Laos has grown in many provinces, and in many fields.
The foundation of the bilateral relationship is US assistance to help Laos clear unexploded ordnance (UXO) dropped on Laos during the Indochina War more than five decades ago.
When launching the Comprehensive Partnership in 2016, President Obama announced that the US would double its funding to US$90 million to help Laos clear UXO.
The UXO-clearance assistance expanded by President Obama has been maintained by the administrations of former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden, according to the Ambassador.
Meanwhile, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) office in Laos has seen its annual budget increase nearly six-fold since 2016. USAID projects range from health, to nutrition, education, efforts to prevent human trafficking, business environment improvement, economic promotion, and legal aid access.
Since the Comprehensive Partnership was signed, USAID Administrator Samantha Power said on the occasion of the 5th anniversary, “USAID has helped the Lao PDR fight malnutrition in nearly 500 villages, cut malaria cases by 90 percent and has tripled the number of legal aid offices and it’s just the beginning of our partnership.”
Apart from that, the US has engaged in helping Laos to improve its business environment in an attempt to promote effective business operations and attract more foreign investment to drive its economy.
In recent years, the US has invested more than US$22 million in assistance to support Laos’ economic development and business environment, including regional and international trade.
Laos’ improved business environment and transport infrastructure provide increased business opportunities for foreign investors, including American businesses.
Ambassador Haymond said that there is potential to promote cooperation between Laos and the US, given Laos’ abundant natural resources and ecotourism potential. There is also an opportunity to cultivate and export organic farm products.
“We are sharing information about the situation in Laos with American companies currently active in Thailand, China, Vietnam, and other Asean countries.”
Currently, the Coca-Cola Company, an American corporation, operates its soft drink manufacturing plant in Laos, while US automobile maker Ford’s dealers in Laos have received a good response from customers throughout the country.
Two-way trade between Laos and the US reached US$130 million in 2020, and while it was smaller compared to other countries in the region, it grew by almost 100 percent compared to a decade ago, the diplomat noted.
Since 2016, the Department of Defense has provided US$41.5mil to Laos for professional military and education programmes, including training, equipment, and facilities for medical, educational, and Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief (HADR) efforts resulting in the training of hundreds of Lao officials, biosafety and lab testing capacity building and delivery of lab equipment, medical research, ambulances, and the construction of the Lao-American Nutrition Institute, two schools, a hospital, and a clinic across multiple provinces.
In the agricultural sector, a Lao-US cooperation initiative called the Laos Microenterprise Project is assisting agricultural enterprises, including farmers and entrepreneurs, in northern Xieng Khuang province to develop their planting and marketing plans.
Meanwhile, the US-funded CLEAN project works in collaboration with the Lao Ministry of Agriculture to help farmers, agro-enterprises, entrepreneurs, and traders in coffee (specialty grade), cassava, cabbage, and sacha inchi sectors in the Bolaven Plateau and the Vientiane Plain. Ambassador Haymond said the US has also assisted Laos and invested in human resource development.
In this regard, thousands of people take free English-language classes at the American Center in Vientiane each year.
Additionally, the US-funded Learn to Read programme reaches over 65,000 students in multiple provinces throughout Laos.
In addition to previously planned cooperation and assistance, Laos was among the first countries prioritised by the US to receive Covid-19 response aid.
In July 2021, the US government directly donated 1,008,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine to Laos.
Laos can expect more vaccines from the US as America has committed a total US$4 billion to support vaccines globally through the Covax facility – a global partnership to ensure equitable access to vaccines.
In conjunction with direct vaccine aid, the United States has provided nearly US$13 million in Covid response support, from medical supplies to vaccination rollout assistance.
“From the difficult relationship of the past, our Comprehensive Partnership has allowed us to develop and normalise relations between the two countries,” Ambassador Haymond said, adding that one “silver lining” of the Covid-19 crisis had provided an opportunity for the two countries to work together to deepen relations under the Comprehensive Partnership.
Another silver lining of the pandemic crisis, according to Ambassador Haymond, was that the Counter Wildlife Trafficking Resident Legal Advisor programme took advantage of travel restrictions to develop a closer relationship with Lao partners, such as the Ministry of Public Security, the People’s Supreme Court, and the Customs Department.
“But the last five years are just the beginning,” Ambassador Haymond said, “2022 and beyond will present new opportunities to deepen and expand our partnership. The US will continue to support and partner with Laos as it seeks to keep its people and country healthy and prosperous.”