Vientiane: US Secretary of State John Kerry sat down Monday to discuss the deadly legacy of unexploded American bombs in Laos and China`s influence in Southeast Asia during a high-profile visit to the reclusive communist state.
The trip to Vientiane also paves the way for a summit hosted next month by President Barack Obama in California with the ten leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Laos has assumed this year`s chairmanship of the regional bloc and will see a flurry of diplomatic activity culminating in an autumn visit by President Obama -- the first by a sitting US leader to the resource-rich but impoverished nation.
Kerry`s trip is only the third since 1955 by a US Secretary of State to a country carpet-bombed by America during the Vietnam War.
Welcoming America`s top diplomat in a cavernous room at his Soviet-era offices, Laos` Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong said the visit was a "landmark in... bilateral relations".
Kerry, fresh from a trip to Saudi Arabia, hailed growing economic and security ties, as well as Laos` chairmanship of ASEAN, as the "defining" issues of a new friendship.
Earlier, Kerry told reporters he would also discuss the removal of ordnance.
"We have been working on this project of clearing mines and undoing effects of war for a long time and it continues," he said.
The US diplomat, who is due in Cambodia later Monday, arrives days after the five-yearly congress of the Laos` Communist Party, which chose 78-year-old vice-president Bounnhang Vorachith as its next leader.
The Communist Party has ruled since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, tightly controlling the country of around six million.
Unexploded bombs across the region are the result of the massive US bombing campaign aimed at disrupting North Vietnamese supply routes through landlocked Laos.
It is "a problem, of course, that resulted from our actions in the Vietnam War in the `70s", the US State Department official conceded.
Those actions turned Laos into the most bombed nation in the world per capita, with more than 250 million bombs dumped on the country.
Around 30 percent failed to explode, including cluster munitions.
Around 50,000 people have been killed by leftover ordnance since the end of the war, with tens of thousands of others maimed, including children.
That grim legacy carries a particular resonance for Kerry, a decorated Vietnam war veteran wounded during combat.
In the intervening years relations between the two countries have often been hostile, with American support for ethnic Hmong anti-communist insurgents still raw in the memory of the Laos` leadership.