US firms look to fast-growing Laos

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US companies, whose investments trail far behind those of China, Vietnam and Thailand in Laos, are turning their attention to the poor but fast-growing nation, an official said Thursday.

The US-ASEAN Business Council this week took its first formal delegation to Laos, as part of a regional tour that included Cambodia and Vietnam, said Frances Zwenig, who led the tour by five corporations.

"As the economic activity in Laos has picked up, our companies obviously have noticed," Zwenig told AFP in an interview.

"Laos is a new frontier for US companies," Coca-Cola general manager for Laos and Thailand, Jorge Garduno, said in a statement from the Business Council, which represents more than 100 major American firms.

In May the World Bank projected growth of 8.6 percent for Laos this year, with an average of eight percent in years to come.

That expansion has largely come from exploitation of natural resources in the rural-based society of about six million people.

Long reliant on foreign aid, Laos is now receiving massive foreign investment, which the World Bank says is mostly from China, Vietnam and Thailand.

Other nations such as the US trail far behind, the Bank says.

According to official figures, foreign investment inflows reached $13.6 billion last year.

"America has a presence... but we want to expand our presence, obviously," said Zwenig.

Along with Coca-Cola the delegation included GE's energy and health divisions, healthcare firm Johnson & Johnson, and oil giants Chevron and ExxonMobil, Zwenig said.

They held talks with Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavat, government ministers and other officials, she said.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been moving toward establishing a single market and manufacturing base of almost 600 million people by 2015.

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