The prime minister of Laos has assured visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that his small nation will help counter China's assertiveness in the South China Sea.

This year, Laos will take the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with the group's heads of state scheduled to meet next month in Sunnylands, California, at the invitation of President Barack Obama.

Kerry's visit to the landlocked nation was meant to pave the way for the summit, with a goal of making sure Laos holds the group together as a counterweight to China.

Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong "was very clear that he wants a unified ASEAN and he wants maritime rights protected and he wants to avoid militarization and avoid the conflict," Kerry told reporters Monday.