Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Clinton courts Laos, S.E. Asia’s smallest nation

Wednesday, 11 July 2012 12:43 Mizzima News

As a sign of renewed U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, its smallest, least developed nation is hosting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday, in a flying stop-over focused on possible aid to remove left over ordnance from the Vietnam War and to assess a massive dam project on the Mekong River.

A focus of the one-day mission is to learn about Lao’s plans to build the $3.8 billion hydroelectric dam project at Xayaburi, which has caused concern among groups in Thailand Cambodia, Vietnam, who rely on the river system for fish and irrigation. The dam building has been suspended until the countries’ concerns are addressed. The dam is being funded by Thailand, which will buy its electricity.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks as Indonesian Finance Minister Agus Martowardojo, left, listens at a signing ceremony during the East Asia Summit in Indonesia on November 19, 2011. Photo: AFP

Laos, one of the poorest nations in the world with just 6.5 million people, says the income from hydropower is essential for its development.

But activists say the dam project could spell disaster for millions of people who depend on the Mekong – the world's largest inland fishery.

Clinton’s trip to Laos is drawing especially close attention, partly because of the country’s small size. With fewer residents than New York City, its population is under seven million. It also has the smallest economy in Southeast Asia, with annual economic output of about $7 billion, versus about $125 billion for Vietnam.

However, Laos has untapped mineral resources and a growing consumer market that could attract American and Chinese companies.

Activists and former U.S. ambassadors have urged Clinton to increase aid to Laos in order to clear millions of tonnes of unexploded ordinance (UXO) left by U.S. bombers during the Indochina War.

Sources said Clinton is considering a U.S. $100 million aid commitment to support bomb-clearing efforts over a 10-year period, which represents double the nearly $47 million Washington has provided in UXO assistance since 1997 when it first began funding UXO programs in Laos.

Between 1964 and 1973, more than 2.5 million tonnes of U.S. munitions were dropped on Laos – more than was dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II – making what was then the poorest country in Southeast Asia the most heavily bombed nation per capita in history.

With some 2.5 million inhabitants at the time, an average of one tonne of bombs was dropped for every man, woman and child in Laos. Up to 30 per cent of the bombs failed to detonate. Their remnants not only cause several hundred casualties a year, but also effectively prevent Laotian farmers from cultivating hundreds of thousands of hectares of fertile land, say activists.

Some 20,000 people have been killed or maimed by UXO over the past 40 years, according to Legacies of War. One-third of Laos is still littered with the deadly ordinance, say NGO groups.  

On Tuesday, Clinton met with Vietnamese officials in Hanoi, reaffirming its bilateral political and business ties. Vietnam has sought U.S. support in its contentious relations with China, its giant neighbor, with whom it is sparring over the rights to sections of the South China Sea, which both countries claim.

“Vietnam has emerged as a leader in the Lower Mekong sub-region and in Southeast Asia, where the United States and Vietnam share strategic interests,” Clinton said at a press conference after meeting with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh.

The Asean summit in Cambodia this week has taken up the issue, despite China's longstanding position that it prefers to discuss sea claims on a bilateral issue-by-issue basis.

Clinton said the U.S. government is looking for ways to expand trade and investment with Vietnam, which was up 17 percent between 2010 and 2011 to nearly $22 billion.

Clinton said a new regional trade agreement, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will lower trade barriers between Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Peru, Chile, and the United States.

Trade between the United States and Vietnam is increasing with big U.S. companies including General Electric, Microsoft, Cargill and ExxonMobil signing deals.

Clinton said the Trans-Pacific Partnership would also raise standards for labor conditions, environmental protections, and intellectual property.

“Higher standards are important because if Vietnam is going to continue developing and transition to an innovative, entrepreneurial economy for the 21st century, there will have to be more space created for the free exchange of ideas to strengthen the rule of law and respect the universal rights of all workers, including the right to unionize,” Clinton said.

The latest State Department human rights report said Vietnamese political rights are severely restricted, national assembly elections are neither free nor fair, and the justice system is heavily distorted by political influence and corruption.

“I also raised concerns about human rights, including the continued detention of activists, lawyers and bloggers for the peaceful expression of opinions and ideas,” said Clinton. “In particular, we are concerned about restrictions on free expression online.”

Clinton said single-party states kill innovation and discourage entrepreneurship, which she said are necessary for sustainable growth.

“I know there are some who argue that developing economies need to put economic growth first and worry about political reform and democracy later,” she said. “But that is a short-sighted bargain. Democracy and prosperity go hand-in-hand. Political reform and economic growth are linked.”

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