President Obama Makes Historic Visit To Laos, Host Of ASEAN Summit : Parallels In a historic step toward rebuilding relations with the poor, heavily-bombed nation, the president will join other world leaders there, after wrapping another big global meeting in Hangzhou, China.
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Tiny Laos Readies For A Visit From Obama — And A Turn Under The Global Spotlight

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Tiny Laos Readies For A Visit From Obama — And A Turn Under The Global Spotlight

Tiny Laos Readies For A Visit From Obama — And A Turn Under The Global Spotlight

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The tiny southeast nation of Laos will host leaders from around the world this week. There's a global summit happening there, and President Obama will be in Laos as well. It's part of his last trip to Asia as president. NPR's Elise Hu is in Laos. Elise, thanks for being with us.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Why is this tiny country hosting such a huge gathering?

HU: Well, Laos is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Members of ASEAN, as it's called, take turns hosting, and it's Laos' turn in the spotlight. This country, as you mentioned, is tiny. It's run by a rather secretive communist government and still rather impoverished. You can still see goats roaming the streets. There's no air conditioning in a lot of the shops and the restaurants.

And the economy's quite small. It's about $13 billion. We looked it up, and that's about the same size of the economy of Lubbock, Texas. But Laos has gotten increasing investment recently from nearby China, and the Obama administration has really been wanting and willing to engage with Laos, even though it's one of the few places that still flies flags with a hammer and sickle on it.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, President Obama is going to be in Laos. What is the American agenda there?

HU: Well, he's making a bit of history. He's going to be the first sitting president to visit Laos. America has a rather dark history here. It neighbors Vietnam, and much of the famous Ho Chi Minh trail ran through it, which means Americans dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs here. And so there's some reckoning with the past. But the president's also trying to look forward, making a last-ditch sell of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP, and making his final push as president to rebalance Washington foreign policy to Asia. This has been a seven-year-long effort on the economic and the security fronts and widely seen as a response to the growing strength of China in its own backyard.

MARTIN: Before President Obama gets to Laos, he is wrapping up a trip to the G20 in China. And clearly, China's a big part of the U.S. pivot to Asia. What do we know about what's come out of the president's visit there?

HU: Well, President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping both agreed and committed their countries to the Paris climate change agreement. That's kind of the big deal. They also sat down together for nearly four hours Saturday. It was the last time for Obama to spend so much time one-on-one with his Chinese counterpart. So he did broach some areas of friction - economic practices that the U.S. hasn't been happy about, like oversupply of steel.

There's also the contentious maritime issues, of course, in the South China Sea, where China's been building islands on what were previously just reefs and shoals. The rockiness of this relationship was actually on display as soon as Air Force One landed in China. Chinese officials had been trying to limit the number of press corps members who can follow the president despite making earlier agreements about access. And so when the American leaders protested about changing rules at the last minute, a Chinese official reportedly said, this is our country.

And that's all kind of symbolic of the larger struggles with a more powerful China. China's, of course, one of America's strongest economic allies, but not part of the U.S. Security Alliance. So it's seen as more of a strategic foe, which makes this one of the thorniest global relationships in the world.

MARTIN: NPR's Elise Hu, who covers Asia for us. Thank you so much, Elise.

HU: You bet.

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