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Better US, Laos Bilateral Ties Seen as China Counterweight

Regional analysts welcomed the United States' moves to boost bilateral cooperation with Laos, which are viewed as acting as a diplomatic counter-balance to China's growing regional influence. The improved bilateral cooperation came in talks in Washington this week, at their highest level since the Vietnam War.

The increased talks come six years after both countries established normal trade ties, as well as closer diplomatic relations. The discussions between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Laos Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith were the highest level meetings between the two countries since the Vietnam War.

Both countries pledged to step up exchanges, agreeing to an "open skies" pact, which allows mutual access to each other's airlines and is expected to help Laos' tourism industry.

Pradumna B. Rana, an associate professor at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, praised the moves that come as Singapore and the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are looking for more U.S. regional engagement. Rana says countries in Southeast Asia think the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan led to the U.S. to take a lower profile in the region over recent years.

"It is very welcome move and it certainly enhances the U.S.'s role in Southeast Asia and more so with the region," said Rana. "Singapore has been making the case for ASEAN plus eight. A new grouping where you have ASEAN - including the U.S. and Russia - more open with the U.S. engagement. It's very consistent with that idea."

Australian-based regional defense analyst Carl Thayer says the moves also reflect U.S. foreign policy steps to re-engage with Asia and to be a counterweight to China's influence in the region.

China's Vice President Xi Jinping visited Laos last month with pledges of investment funds to improve infrastructure for better regional transport of Chinese goods.

Thayer says President Barack Obama has carried on with initiatives started during the administration of President George W. Bush, and those steps will act as a counter to China's own diplomatic efforts to raise its influence in Asia.

"The Obama administration is rethinking relations with Southeast Asia, and part of that obviously is to play the charm offensive game that China has been winning up until now," said Thayer. "And Laos has seen this rise in the relationship."

Thayer says the increased cooperation between the U.S. and Laos comes after recent initiatives by the U.S. to step up bilateral relations with Cambodia. Laos already has a bilateral trade agreement with the U.S., and an improved defense relationship with the exchange of diplomatic defense attaches. Vietnam also had played a role in encouraging Laos to boost its relationship with the U.S. after China provided military assistance to Cambodia.

"So this made Vietnam nervous, and I say part of what is happening with Laos, is both Laos and the U.S. agreeing to take their relationship to the next level," said Thayer. "It's not a very high level; and Vietnam is actually encouraging that because it can't provide the backing for Laos on its own."

The U.S. already has been assisting Laos in the clean-up of military weapon remaining from the Vietnam War, which continue to maim and kill 35 years after hostilities had ended. The U.S. conducted heavy bombing of targets in Laos during the war.

Diplomatic ties had been tense at times over the Laos government's treatment of the ethnic Hmong people, who fought alongside U.S. forces during the war. Thousands of Hmong were later resettled in the U.S., many from refugee camps inside neighboring Thailand.