As the United States moves to conclude a new war in a new era, it has unfinished business from a war in the now distant past. It is time to remove the last vestiges of the Vietnam War in U.S. policy toward small, isolated Laos.
Laos is one of only four countries from which the U.S. withholds Normal Trade Relations, with two others under embargo.
Trade has been normalized for years with Cambodia and more recently with Vietnam. In contrast, a bilateral trade agreement with Laos has languished for six years. To breech this divide, Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick have asked Congress to extend NTR to Laos.
Congress should say yes.
Laos is subject to unfortunate extremes. Half the population lives below the government’s own defined poverty line. Laos has the lowest life expectancy in Southeast Asia, and the highest fertility rate. It has the highest adult illiteracy rate, particularly among women. Laos holds another dubious record: Having more ordnance dropped on it by the United States during the “Secret War” of the 1960s and 1970s than were used on Germany and Japan combined in World War II.
Laotians are still killed when they happen upon 30-year-old cluster bombs, which have entered the lexicon with the deceptive nickname “bombies.” As many as 10 million unexploded bombs are commonly thought to remain in Laos, but some experts put the number at three times more.
Economic isolation makes solutions to such problems even more difficult. Laos faces the highest tariffs in the world. In the absence of NTR, typical American tariffs on Laotian goods average 45 percent, and rise 60 to 90 percent for products such as T-shirts or bamboo chairs. By contrast, for the great majority of America’s 223 trading partners—including China, Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam—tariffs average 2.4 percent.
Granting NTR could have a significant effect on the Laotian economy. Cambodia offers a ready example. Since trade was normalized in 1996, Cambodian exports to the U.S. have jumped to a billion dollars worth of clothes, which in turn has created 200,000 urban jobs.
However, this step would have virtually no impact on the United States. At present, two-way trade is a scant $8 million, which U.S. Ambassador to Laos Douglas Hartwick likens to “less than the value of a handful of one-minute Super Bowl commercials.” By contrast, in the month of December 2002, U.S. foreign trade in exports and imports exceeded $200 billion.
There is good reason to extend NTR to Laos other than to reduce inequities and address the legacy of the Vietnam War. In contrast to other former Cold War adversaries, the Lao economy isn’t state-controlled so much as subsistence-based. At this juncture, it places very few restrictions on foreign business.
Extending NTR will bring an immediate result by stimulating investment and urban job creation in Laos. On a wider scale, it will support the administration’s Enterprise for ASEAN Initiative, a laddered plan to create free trade agreements with Southeast Asian nations, by enabling Laos to step onto the first rung.
And it will give Laos, landlocked and positioned among three regional economic powers—China, Vietnam and Thailand—a more diverse trade portfolio, decreasing dependency on any one neighbor. Laos needs all of the choices it can get.
The reflexive position of Congress toward Laos for the last several decades has been one of neglect. Some older generation groups of Laotian-Americans who immigrated at the end of the Vietnam War oppose NTR, and they have been a significant force. Younger generation Laotian Americans are more inclined to support NTR and, because of their age, to view Laos in the present tense. If NTR is granted, they will likely invest in Laos and provide much-needed technical expertise.
The Vietnam War taught Americans that war can be long, but healing can be longer. Twenty-eight years later, we still have one step left to take. Healing with Laos is long overdue.