Thailand’s US pivot: hedging or hugging?

opinion July 10, 2017 01:00

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation

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For the past three years, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has been obsessed with the country’s human trafficking record. He has single-handedly pushed for extensive reforms in all areas of this explosive issue.

His efforts have led to greater protection of rights for registered migrant workers, reduced trafficking and the exploitation of the so-called “modern slave” in Thailand’s seafood industries. Despite all his good work, Washington has let him down.

So, when the latest Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report issued recently by the US State Department retained Thailand on its Tier-2 watch-list, as in the previous year, Government House was all but heartbroken. The opening sentence of the report was extremely hurtful. It said in parts: “The Government of Thailand does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so.” This description fits the Thai proverb “Naa wai, lak lok,” – summing up the hypocrisy of US policy towards Thailand. Literally, the saying means: “We’ll say nice things about you in front of you, but behind your back, we will deceive you.” 

Of course, Thai actions have been far from perfect; it still has to promote transparency, which is seriously lacking, and prosecute more wrongdoers – whoever and at whatever levels. Migrant workers remain victims of officials and ringleaders. Thailand deserves Tier 2 in comparison with other countries’ performance. Lest we forget, roughly six million migrant workers, mostly non-registered, come to Thailand to seek a better life.

Within hours, the Thai Foreign Ministry and the US Embassy immediately went into damage-control mode. After years of rocky relations, the past year has been extraordinary due to the dramatic improvement in the stalled relationship. From the Thai side, the position is clear: Thailand will continue to eradicate human trafficking and promote the protection of migrant workers’ rights. It is a Thai issue, not US issue. This country needs foreign workers from Myanmar and Cambodia, especially when the government is pushing the Thailand 4.0 policy. So, Thailand must treat these guest workers well, otherwise all the wonderful economic schemes proposed by Prayut’s economic team would remain roadshow projects.

After the release of the TIP report, US Ambassador to Thailand Glen Davies was no longer giving any media interviews. Before that, he gave news briefings and interviews to Thai media and he was positive about the country’s efforts. He also pushed hard to convince his colleagues at the State Department back home that this government is serious about human trafficking. But there was no consensus about Thailand’s status in the overall scheme of US policy toward Southeast Asia – just a recognition of an old, useless ally.

Since the end of February, the Trump administration and his new foreign policy team headed by former Exxon executive Rex Tillerson raised high hopes that Thai-US relations would normalise quickly. High-level visits and bilateral meetings have increased exponentially, pointing to the “new normal” in the relationship.

Deep down, Thailand wanted to use the latest TIP report to kick off new robust ties with the US. After all, President Donald Trump has already invited him, along with the leaders of Singapore and the Philippines, to Washington for a tete-a-tete. At first, tentatively, he was scheduled to visit Washington on July 19 for a quick trip to meet with Trump, key Congressmen and the business community. Now, it has been postponed. Given the current domestic situation, it is be difficult to envisage a US trip by him in the near future. So, that was a lost opportunity. Indeed, Prayut was planning to attend the US Independence Day reception in Bangkok, which was held at the end of June, if the TIP report had upgraded Thailand to Tier 2. The American envoy personally handed him the invitation to attend the reception.

However, one positive development is both sides decided to proceed this week with the much-delayed 6th Thai-US Strategic Dialogue in Washington. The last round was held in December 2015, when ties had hit rock bottom. This time a decision must be made to upgrade the dialogue to ministerial level with the possible participation of both foreign and defence ministers.

Thailand is the only ally in the Asia Pacific that does not have the so-called “2x2” strategic dialogue. Worse, they have not yet comprehensively reviewed their overall security relations, including the framework of the Manila Pact (1954) and the Thanat-Rusk Communique (1962). Washington also reiterated that Thailand’s regional leadership role is securing peace and stability in Southeast Asia.

It is about time to review overall defence agreements to make sure future cooperation will serve Thai needs for weapons as well as new rising challenges to the US strategic imperatives in this part of the world. During the Cold War period, the Thai-US alliance was strong as they faced common challenges together. Now their mutual security interest has become more diverse including non-traditional security concerns such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, human trafficking, cybersecurity, transnational crimes, counter-terrorism, global peacekeeping et al.

Furthermore, their ties for the past decades have been made moribund by Bangkok’s domestic resentment and Washington’s idiosyncracies. A large number of US bureaucrats and lawmakers continue to see Thailand as an unworthy ally because Thailand is too pro-China. For instance, most of them view Singapore positively as a genuine ally, although they don’t have a security treaty. This view was reinforced by the Thai Navy’s recent decision to purchase three Chinese submarines. Washington viewed it as a big slap from its long-standing ally. That kind of “friend or enemy” mindset is still very much prevalent in the Belt Way and has dictated the nature and scope of Thai-US friendship.

Next year, both counties will celebrate the 200th anniversary of their relations which dates back to 1818 when King Rama II made first contact with US President James Monroe. There will be a huge public display of some of the numerous gifts Thailand gave to the US government over the two centuries.

Like other Asean members, Thailand is not hugging the US. It continues to follow a policy of multiple hedging with all major powers. Thai foreign policy is a curious one, it is the most effective when its major ally is not paying attention.