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Tiny Laos Readies For A Visit From Obama — And A Turn Under The Global Spotlight

A municipal worker sweeps along a pathway near the Mekong river, in the capital Vientiane, Laos.
Manish Swarup
A municipal worker sweeps along a pathway near the Mekong river, in the capital Vientiane, Laos.

The shops here in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, hum along without air conditioning, and there are as many tuk-tuks as taxis to take you where you want to go. The rather sleepy place is about to get shaken awake as throngs of global leaders, and their traveling entourages and press, descend on the small nation, starting Monday.

Laos is hosting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN summit, and the country will mark President Obama's final stop in Asia as president.

"It's a truly historic event for U.S.-Lao relationships and for the people and country of Laos," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a preview of the trip.

It's the first-ever visit to Laos by a sitting American president. And it's a place where the U.S. has a rather difficult history.

Laos is the most bombed country, per capita, in history, after Americans dropped an estimated 2 million tons of munitions on the country during the Vietnam War, in an effort to disrupt the famous Ho Chih Minh supply trail, which ran through much of the country.

Today, Laos is run by a rather secretive communist government — and is still poor. The economy is about $13 billion — the same as that of Lubbock, Texas.

The U.S. Embassy passed out tickets on Sunday at the National Cultural Hall, for Obama's speech.
Elise Hu / NPR
The U.S. Embassy passed out tickets on Sunday at the National Cultural Hall, for Obama's speech.

But the country's gotten increasing investment from nearby China in recent years. And the Obama administration has been wanting and willing to engage with Laos, despite it being one of the few places in the world flying flags with a hammer and sickle on them.

"Given this president's commitment to reach out to countries with whom we've had complicated histories, we see this as a real opportunity to advance the U.S.-Laos relationship, to begin to build a real working partnership that can benefit both of our peoples," press secretary Earnest said.

In an effort to look forward, the president is expected to announce additional funding for the clearance of unexploded bombs leftover from the war, making a last-ditch sell of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which the two leading presidential candidates do not support.

The visit is also a final push as president to rebalance Washington foreign policy toward Asia. The so-called "pivot" to Asia has been a seven-year-long effort on economic and security fronts, and it's widely seen as a response to the growing strength of China in its own neighborhood.

Friction in China

The president will arrive in Laos following his time in Hangzhou, China, which is hosting the G-20 summit.

The president and Chinese leader Xi Jinping sat down together for nearly four hours on Saturday night, as it was the last time for Obama to spend several hours one-on-one with his Chinese counterpart.

While there was agreement from both leaders to commit their countries to the Paris climate change deal, areas of real friction remain. The White House says the president brought up Chinese economic practices that the U.S. has been concerned about — like overproduction of steel, currency manipulation and the contentious maritime issues in the South China Sea, where China has been building islands on what were previously reefs and shoals.

The rockiness of the relationship was on display as soon as the president landed in China.

Chinese officials failed at first to provide a staircase for the president to come off Air Force One, and then tried to limit the number of press corps members who can trail the president, despite earlier agreements about access.

When Americans protested about changing rules at the last minute, a Chinese official reportedly snapped back, "This is ourcountry."

The friction is illustrative of the larger struggles with a more-powerful China, which remains one of America's strongest economic allies but isnot part of the U.S. security alliance — so, a strategic foe. One of the thorniest global relationships in the world will likely outlast the current president.

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Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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