THAILAND NEEDS to prepare for the negative consequence of the increasing rivalry and conflict between the United States and a rising China, notably from a trade war now building, but might benefit in the long run as Americans increasingly move into the region in search of suppliers and customers.
The Thai government and the US Embassy here are mining history as they seek to publicly portray a two-centuries long connection, but scholars say Thailand is not in a clear spot on Washington’s radar screen.
The Foreign Ministry and the embassy are this year celebrating the long relations between the two countries but in different time frames.
While the US Embassy marked bicentennial ties this year dating back to 1818 when an American ship docked in the Kingdom for the first time, the Thai government is hailing the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1833 as the beginning of diplomatic ties.
Despite the long history, relations between the two countries was considered warmest and closest only during the Cold War when the US intervened in Thailand’s domestic affairs as part of its anti-Communist strategy, Thammasat University historian Thanet Aphornsuvan said.
The current administration under Donald Trump has no clear vision about relations with Thailand. Junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha’s visit to Washington last year may indicate that the current US administration is not concerned any longer about democracy and the human rights situation in Thailand. But, the visit and brief meeting with Trump did not indicate anything else, he said.
“It is hard to guess what President Trump thinks about Thailand. It seems the current US president has no clear idea about Thailand,” he said.
That assessment is not quite accurate, a US official argued, saying Trump had recently announced an Indo-Pacific strategy that would also cover and impact Thailand. Still, the Trump administration has no clear view on bilateral matters.
A strategy to counter China
The essence of the Indo-Pacific strategy is the sovereign independence of each state in the region. The strategy also has important economic elements. In part it seeks to increase overall trade with US partners in Southeast Asia, said the deputy assistant to the president and senior director for Asia at the White House, Matt Pottinger.
Pottinger was in Thailand a few weeks ago to brief Thai officials on the implementation of the strategy and its possible consequence.
The strategy mainly aimed to counter China, which is regarded as a new 21st century superpower capable of competing with the US against a background of a certain level of conflict between the nations.
The obvious consequence of the rivalry would be seen in economic matters, said Pottinger.
In the near term, there will be disruptions as the US adjusts its economic relationship with China, he said.
In the medium term, the strategy would see new opportunities, with the Asean bloc countries starring in the role of the supply chain to the US and becoming an increasingly attractive market for US goods, and a destination for added investment in the high-tech sector, he said.
“We know that the US cannot get fair trade with China. Not a single Internet company has ever succeeded because the barrier is so high. So those companies are going to look and when they shift their gaze a little bit, they look at the region, where Asean alone accounts for a 630-million population of consumers with a young demographic,” he said.
From the Thai government’s point of view, a small country like Thailand is not able to strike out on its own in dealing with superpowers like the US, notably when the superpower competes with another big country like China.
“We are not in the position to take sides, but [instead] to deal with and cooperate with everybody for the sake of our own national interest,” said a senior official at the foreign ministry.
The reality Thailand has to face is that the US, although its power and influence is in decline, will be the major superpower for the next 20 years, he said.
“In the short term, Thailand has to deal with the reality that Trump – who emphasises protectionism and America first – uses US strength to maintain peace and to seek partnerships without caring about ideology,” he said.