President Barack Obama will be the first US head of state to visit Laos when he attends an Asean summit in the landlocked country next year.
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told a think tank in Washington DC that ahead of the visit “there is a sense of potential” in the relationship with Laos “for the first time in a long time”.
Rhodes said an emerging partnership on development between the two countries focused on health, nutrition and basic education.
“The US is increasingly a real partner to the Lao government,” he said.
Just back from his own trip to the region partly to prepare for the Asean meeting next year, Rhodes told the Centre for Strategic and International Studies that the United States was looked at through a historical lens in Southeast Asia.
“In Laos, it is an ugly historical lens,” he said, as the US is repeatedly associated with the countless bombs that fell during the US invasion of Laos as part of the Vietnam War in the 1970s.
US warplanes dropped more than two million tonnes of ordnance on Laos from 1964 to 1973 in some 580,000 missions aimed at cutting North Vietnamese supply lines through the mountainous neighbouring country.
An estimated 30 per cent of the ordnance failed to detonate.
But United States relations with Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar have all strengthened under Obama’s presidency.
In 2012, Hillary Clinton became the first US secretary of state to visit Laos in more than 50 years.
Rhodes said efforts like a US young leaders programme were changing that perception.
He said the initiative, only recently extended to Southeast Asia, had caught on like “catching lightning in a bottle”.
Rhodes spoke of a young female participant who visited the US and said her favourite place was the sparsely populated state of Montana.
She was now back in Laos, working on waste management and sewage, which the country sorely needed, he added.