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In Rare Visit To Tiny Laos, Kerry Seeks Closer Relations

Source: The Washington Post

Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrived Sunday in Laos, where the United States is helping the government clear a countryside still littered with unexploded ordnance dating to the Vietnam War.

Kerry’s one-day stop for talks with senior officials marks a rare diplomatic visit. He is the third secretary of state in six decades to visit the tiny, landlocked country in Southeast Asia, with John Foster Dulles stopping in 1955 and Hillary Clinton in 2012.

Relations have been standoffish for decades between Washington and the Communist rulers of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, who last week chose a new leader for the single-party government.

But in recent years, the two countries have started to warm to each other.

Kerry came to lay the groundwork for a summit that President Obama will host in February for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a group that Laos chairs this year. Vientiane, the capital, will in turn host Obama at an ASEAN meeting this summer, when he will become the first U.S. president to visit the country.

All of the high-level visiting to Laos is part of the administration’s effort to pay more attention to Asia. On Tuesday, Kerry goes to Cambodia, which boasts one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies. Laos and Cambodia do most of their trade with China, which is aggressively courting Laos with loans and investments. Kerry is trying to help the United States make more inroads.

He arrives in the middle of a political transition that began to transpire after Kerry left Washington and was already in Switzerland, his first stop on an eight-day trip that takes him to four countries.

In Rare Visit To Laos, Kerry Seeks Closer Relations

In Laos, he is not scheduled to meet with Bounnhang Vorachit, the 78-year-old vice president whom the Communist Party on Friday chose to be its new leader. Bounnhang replaces Choummaly Sayasone, 79, who was both party chief and president. The Communist Party holds tight reins on power in the impoverished, mostly rural country.

Kerry, though, plans to meet with Thongsing Thammavong, the prime minister and a Politburo member. Thongsing did not apply to join a new central committee, suggesting that he, like Choummaly, may be leaving power soon.

Kerry also will meet with Thongloun Sisoulith, who wears two hats as deputy prime minister and foreign minister.