US President-elect Joe Biden has promised to restore respected leadership on the world stage, announcing that as President he will advance the security, prosperity, and values of the United States to place America at the head of the table, leading the world to address the most urgent global challenges.
He has promised to end the Trump administration’s isolationist and disruptive foreign policy and is expected to restore a more conventional American relationship with Asia, including Laos.
Despite four years of revisionist US international policy, the United States and Laos have weathered the storm comparatively well. Amid a cooling of regional relations generally, Laos and the US have managed to maintain the comprehensive partnership announced during the state visit to Laos by President Barack Obama.
The two nations enjoy full diplomatic relations and continue to cooperate on a variety of activities serving the interests of both parties.
This year the US State Department pledged approximately $153.6 million for cooperation programs throughout the Mekong region under the Mekong-US Partnership, including crime prevention, data sharing, and emergency relief.
A renewed US interest in the Mekong region has been noted by observers as a move to balance Chinese influence, and with a pivot toward Asia a major part of Democrat foreign policy, it stands to reason that the US could try to replace its grand gestures with more actionable policy.
While the United States continues to help Laos clear unexploded ordnance (UXO), a Biden presidency could see more funding allocated to this activity in an effort to help clear the contamination left in the wake of the Indochina conflict once and for all.
Similarly, Lao authorities have continued to assist the United States in its work to recover the remains of Americans who were unaccounted for at the end of the Indochina conflict, resulting in the identification and recovery of 273 missing Americans. A Biden presidency is likely to see this campaign continue, perhaps with even greater cooperation from the Lao side.
Dr. Jill Biden, wife of President Biden, visited Laos in 2015, becoming the first representative from the White House to ever visit Laos. During her trip, accompanied by US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, Catherine Russel, Dr. Jill Biden met with high-ranking Lao officials and even gave a speech at the Lao Youth Union, expressing appreciation for the growing partnership between the United States and Laos.
As a strong supporter of education, it is possible that this visit, remembered fondly by Dr. Biden, could result in further funding for education and women’s empowerment in Laos.
In February 2016, the United States signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with Laos. The agreement was to strengthen economic ties and provide a forum to address issues and enhance opportunities for trade and investment between the two nations.
While American companies have always been encouraged to do business in Laos, the arrival of hallmark US company Coca-Cola in 2015 paved the way for brands and franchises such as Ford, John Deere, Texas Chicken, Swensen’s, Dairy Queen, and Mister Donut, with coffee giant Starbucks hot on their heels, and 7-Eleven set to enter the Laos market in upcoming years.
US, China, and the Mekong Countries
Harsh rhetoric on the Mekong region from the Trump administration in relation to China by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could change under a Biden presidency. While it may not be a wholly Obama 2.0 pivot to Asia, Biden may be more cooperative with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on trade and other issues where the US needs China to advance its global agenda. During the past four years, the world has witnessed US-China confrontation only help China come out on top and made engendered widespread distrust towards the US, thereby weakening the US position and legitimacy. Moreover, the conflict between the US and China is not a benefit to anyone in the Mekong region.
“China-US cooperation is vital for the future of the Mekong. While the Lancang-Mekong riparian countries need to solve their own problems, superpower competition in this part of the world, as we have seen in the past, doesn’t help anyone. We don’t want riparians choosing sides. External powers should hence get their act together, work together if they can and support whatever cooperative efforts and interests the riparians have,” says Dr. Anoulak Kittikhoun, Chief Strategy Officer at the Mekong River Commission.
Deportation of Lao Nationals from the US
One major sticking point that has hampered diplomatic efforts between the US and Laos is a disagreement regarding the deportation of Lao nationals from the United States.
In June this year, the US Government discontinued issuance of certain visas for citizens of Laos and nationals applying in Laos as a result of the disagreement, with the action taken pursuant to section 243(d) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
A notice posted by the US Embassy to Laos at the time stated that the Secretary of Homeland Security had notified the Secretary of State that Laos “denies or unreasonably delays” accepting the return of its citizens, subjects, nationals or residents subject to final orders of removal from the United States, and the Secretary of State has ordered consular officers in Laos to discontinue granting all nonimmigrant visas for Lao citizens and nationals applying in Vientiane, with limited exceptions.
In July, the Lao government responded by expressing its profound disappointment and regret over the visa sanctions unilaterally imposed by the US Government against Laos, saying that the unfounded and unfair act by the US Government was not only unacceptable and counterproductive but could bring about a negative impact on the positive and growing Laos-US cooperative relationship as well.
With Joe Biden at the helm, these sanctions could be lifted, allowing citizens of Laos to resume visa applications and enter the United States for the purposes of tourism or to visit relatives and friends.