Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

US Rapprochement with Laos and Cambodia

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

US Rapprochement with Laos and Cambodia

Article excerpt

This study analyses the process of rapprochement in United States relations with Laos and Cambodia. It discusses the key domestic and international factors that influenced decision-making in Washington, Vientiane and Phnom Penh to initiate this process. US-Lao rapprochement has evolved gradually since the mid-1980s. Lao assistance in accounting for US servicemen missing-in-action during the Vietnam War was a key driver. After ambassadorial relations were restored in 1992 both sides sought to address the concerns of the other and this led to an expansion of political, economic and military relations. US relations with Cambodia, experienced ups and downs due to the repressive policies of the Hun Sen government. Domestic upheaval in 1997 led the US to suspend economic assistance for a decade. Nevertheless, trade relations followed an upward trajectory as the US became Cambodia's most important market. In contrast to Laos, military-to-military relations developed considerably with a high point in 2009 with the visit of the Cambodian Defence Minister to Washington. This study highlights the importance of domestic factors driving rapprochement, with the role of the US Congress and Lao diaspora playing important roles. But external factors have also influenced this process, particularly after Laos and Cambodia became members of ASEAN and the Obama administration began to stress multilateral engagement. The upward trajectory of bilateral relations will continue to be constrained by the authoritarian nature of the Lao and Cambodian political systems and human rights abuses. But this factor will be mitigated somewhat by US geostrategic rivalry with China.

This article focuses on US rapprochement with Laos and Cambodia. For the purposes of this article rapprochement is defined as the renewal of normal state-to-state relations after a period of disharmony or conflict. (1) Bilateral interstate relations comprise multiple dimensions including, but not limited to, diplomatic-political, economic, defence-security and humanitarian-development assistance. This analysis illustrates that the pace and scope of rapprochement varies across these dimensions over time. Progress or setbacks in one area may spill over and affect rapprochement in other areas.

The United States first opened diplomatic relations with Laos and Cambodia in 1950 when they became associated states within the French Union. The US maintained unbroken diplomatic relations with Laos despite the change of government from a monarchy to a communist state in 1975. In contrast, US-Cambodia relations experienced abrupt changes and reversals after 1950: political relations deteriorated in the early 1960s as a result of US military involvement in South Vietnam and Cambodia broke diplomatic relations in May 1965. Diplomatic relations were resumed in July 1969, severed after the Khmer Rouge seized power in April 1975 and re-established in 1991.

This article is divided into two parts that explore the impact of domestic and international factors on the pathways to rapprochement in US relations with Laos post-1985 and Cambodia post-1991.

The Process of Rapprochement: Laos

Political relations between the United States and Laos deteriorated after December 1975 when the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) gained power and formally established the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR). Both the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United States Information Agency withdrew their services from the country and diplomatic representation was reduced to the level of charge d'affaires. After 1975, US-Lao relations were constrained by the Missing in Action/Prisoners of War (MIA/POW) full accounting issue. Cooperation in this area became the principal yardstick for improvement in bilateral relations. (2)

US government policy was strongly influenced by the pressure exerted by the families of MIAs/POWs and their supporters, particularly in Congress. …

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