The inaugural meeting of the U.S.-Laos Joint Trade and Investment Committee was held recently in Vientiane. This committee was established under the U.S.-Laos Trade and Investment Framework Agreement signed in February 2016.
According to a press release from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the two sides discussed the importance of expeditiously addressing key bilateral issues such as digital trade, agriculture and sanitary and phytosanitary standards, intellectual property, autos, investment, good governance, labor, and illegal logging and wildlife trafficking. They reviewed Laos’s implementation of its World Trade Organization accession commitments and its participation in the WTO Information Technology Agreement and Trade Facilitation Agreement.
USTR notes that two-way goods trade grew more than five-fold in the past 10 years to $86 million, with U.S. exports up more than 25 percent in the last year. Agricultural trade grew 19-fold in the same period to $6 million. Top U.S. exports to Laos include diamonds and platinum, machinery, vehicles, and optic and medical instruments, while top U.S. imports from Laos include knit apparel, inorganic chemicals, jewelry, and iron and steel products.
USTR’s 2016 National Trade Estimate report noted that Laos’ membership in the WTO and its preparations for the entry into force of ASEAN obligations in 2015 spurred trade liberalization, improved the business environment, and enhanced trade facilitation. The report also highlighted progress in granting customs officials ex officio authority over intellectual property rights violations, establishing an effective system for civil litigation and criminal enforcement of IPR, and increasing the transparency of the domestic lawmaking process.
However, the report also listed a number of trade irritants with Laos, including import licensing for certain products (e.g., motor vehicles, petroleum and gas, timber products, cement, and steel), irregularities and corruption in the customs clearance process, arbitrary or selective enforcement of tax provisions, difficulties accessing several service sectors (including medical, postal, and telecom), and a challenging investment environment attributable to an underdeveloped judicial system as well as overlapping and often contradictory regulations.