Healing Hearts and Minds: A Direction for U.S. Foreign Policy in Laos
By John Bergstrom
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. military dropped over 2 million tons of bombs on Laos amidst the Vietnam War, which was more than the combined amount that was dropped on Germany and Japan during World War II. Of these released explosives, nearly one-third of them did not detonate upon impact, also commonly referred to as unexploded ordnance, and tens of millions of bombs have lingered throughout Laos for decades. Consequently, nearly 30,000 Laotians have died and another 20,000 have been injured as a result of contact with unexploded ordnance. While the aftermath of U.S. policies has resulted in droves of Laotian casualties, the People’s Republic of China has taken steps to make economic investments in Laos and deepen the relationship between the two country’s respective governments. Despite the Chinese investments however, the U.S. still has a chance to gain a foothold over China in Laos and ensure that Southeast Asia remains hospitable to American interests.
In a nation where the median age is 24 years old and less than 10 percent of the population is over the age of 55, a majority of Laotians do not directly recall the bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, the ramifications of the Vietnam War still haunt Laos as dropped explosives remain widespread around the country and 10 out of the 18 Laotian provinces have been designated as “severely contaminated” with unexploded ordnance. Accordingly, the government of Laos has observed a significant relationship between the presence of unexploded ordnance and levels of poverty and so unexploded ordnance constrains Laotian development and hampers the reputation of the U.S. among members of the Laotian government.
While Laos has been left reeling from past U.S. actions, current Chinese policies have made dramatic investments into Laos, with China now acting as the “leading lender, investor, and builder” in the nation. Financially, China has invested billions of dollars into Laos through projects such as a multi-billion dollar rail connection between the two countries, widespread dam installments, and numerous other types of infrastructure-related undertakings. Rather than conceding Laos to the Chinese sphere of influence though, the U.S. has a chance to simultaneously spur development in Laos and strengthen ties with the Laotian government. While unexploded ordnance has been described as “the biggest thorn in the side of U.S.-Laos relations”, it also offers an opportunity for U.S.-Laos cooperation. By clearing unexploded ordnance, the U.S. State Department has determined that explosive removal efforts concurrently remove one of the primary obstacles to Laotian economic development while also proving to the Laotian government that the U.S. is a reliable ally. Therefore, explosive removal efforts offer a route for the U.S. to ease the predominant strain in U.S.-Laos relations in addition to forging a new connection between the two countries that can manifest itself in further ways in the future.
To compete with the Chinese influence over Laos and reinvigorate the U.S.-Laos relationship, U.S. lawmakers should pass the Legacies of War Recognition and Unexploded Ordnance Removal Act. Introduced by members of the House as H.R. 2097 in 2019 and by Senator Tammy Baldwin as S.4686 in 2020, the bill would increase funding to unexploded ordnance removal efforts and assistance measures to the survivors and impacted families of explosive war remnants across Laos in addition to Cambodia and Vietnam. Although the U.S. previously spent about 200 million dollars on unexploded ordnance removal from 1996 to 2019, this policy proposal would dedicate about 400 million dollars over a four-year period to its described purposes in Laos and other affected countries. In effect, this renewed dedication to unexploded ordnance removal would demonstrate the U.S.’s resolve to not only rectify the effects of past American policies on Laos but also take up a constructive role in Laos’s future. By working alongside Laos in explosive removal, the U.S. can solidify its steadfast commitment to the safety and prosperity of Laos in front of the country’s government and people. Considering that a majority of the population in Laos is under the age of 25, the actions that the U.S. takes in Laos will have ramifications throughout the 21st century. In consequence, the balance of power in Southeast Asia will be determined by whether regional actors such as Laos associate themselves with the Chinese and their investment policies, which offer short term temptations but predatory effects over time, or the U.S. and the alternatives that it can offer. So, the establishment of a strategic partnership between the U.S. and Laos will be an essential component for the wellbeing of both countries and their interests going forward. While the clearing of unexploded ordnance does not single handedly achieve this, it can be used to establish the conditions that will enable future forms of U.S.-Laos cooperation that can concurrently develop Laos and ensure a U.S. presence in the area.
Thus, Laos is currently susceptible to Chinese influence through investment inducements while the U.S.'s history with Laos has been shaped by the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the thousands of dead civilians who have died at the hands of U.S. ordnance. Nevertheless, the U.S. can make amends with Laos and strengthen U.S.-Laos relations by fixing its past mistakes and focusing on healing Laotian hearts and minds rather than trying to win them over as if they were political prizes. This could then allow the fundamental differences between the U.S. and China to be signified in front of Laos, the continent of Asia, and the world at large.