Barring a last-minute cancellation, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will be going to Washington.
North Korea will top the agenda, but his upcoming encounter with Donald Trump is already overshadowed by the “definition” problem.
Is this the “leader of the free world meeting with a military junta chief”? Or is it a “Russian puppet meeting with an estranged friend of America”?
You know what I mean. And it’s getting worse. Trump’s much-ridiculed reign, frowned upon by critics left and right, is turning its attention towards Asia.
“Donald Trump builds relations with authoritarian Asian leaders” reads a headline in the Guardian, in response to his warming up to controversial allies.
Seriously? Here’s my alternative: Asian leaders about to come face to face with American horror.
Make no mistake, it’s not just the pro-US media. Other news outlets are priming body-language experts for the big day. Prayut and his officials have been rehearsing for the visit. The preparations have inferiority complex written all over them. And Thai red shirts, please stop moaning about the trip, will you? Trump is not the pope, to begin with.
What can Thailand do regarding North Korea? First of all, Korean pop and the Samsung Galaxy did not originate from that country. Second, if North Korea is what America says it is, with a madman’s hand poised over the nuclear button, whatever Bangkok does won’t matter, will it?
Trump is meeting Prayut against the backdrop of his own serious image problems. While Prayut may face questions about his coup and the trial of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, some would say he’s a monk compared with the American president.
We all know what Trump’s critics are saying: He has the potential to trigger a world war. The name of Kim Jong-un was not even mentioned when Trump began his rise to power. So, here’s a question directly to Hillary Clinton: Who should we fear more, Trump or Kim?
My advice to Prayut is, take a look at Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. He treated Trump’s invitation with a shrug. “I’ve seen America. It’s lousy,” he famously said. Accused by Western countries of mass murder in his war on drugs, the outspoken Duterte wouldn’t hesitate to lash back with any means at hand, including the 9/11 conspiracy theory.
Duterte has been called the Filipino Donald Trump. Prayut, for his treatment of the domestic media, could be called Thailand’s Trump. Meanwhile, the US leader’s stance on illegal immigration might make him the American Prayut, especially if we draw a parallel between the Rohingya in Southeast Asia and the children of illegal immigrants in the United States. And Trump can surely become an American Duterte if the US human rights situation continues to decline.
The point is that the three leaders are equal, and nobody has to give anybody too much respect. Prayut should in fact be proud because, for all the criticism levelled against him, nobody has called him anybody’s puppet. He can look Trump in the eye and say, “At least my enemies think I am who I am.”
(I’m well aware of the rumour that Prayut is in cahoots with the Shinawatras. However, calling Prayut a Shinawatra puppet is opening a Pandora’s box that requires another article to deal with. It might add to the “definition problems” of the encounter, though. Should the Trump-Prayut meeting be called a “puppets’ rendezvous”?)
Trump is full of surprises, one of them being the phone call in which he extended the invitation to Prayut. It has puzzled everyone – admirers and critics of Trump and Prayut alike, as well as neutrals all around the world.
According to reports, the Trump-Prayut meeting will cover trade, natural disasters, intellectual property rights and security in general, with North Korea expected to take prominence. Examine both countries’ trade volumes and you find they have been more or less stable, coup or no coup. Meanwhile talk on intellectual property rights is unlikely to range much further than bonfires of DVDs, and natural disasters is not a productive topic for such meetings. Last but not least, anyone who thinks Bangkok can “pressure” Pyongyang is having a laugh.
This leaves the more general matter of Asian security, which is very complicated nonetheless. Do we need our “big friend” more than he needs us? You be the judge. Thailand, with its unique geo-strategic significance, has been flirting with other big guys over the past few years for various reasons, one of which being that they, unlike Uncle Sam, don’t preach.
So, America can continue preaching, and pushing Thailand farther away. Bangkok, on the other hand, does not want to make the friendship even more fragile and thus be forced into something worse. We are at a rather intriguing point in the relationship, one which is unlikely to be strengthened or weakened during the hour or two of a Trump-Prayut get-together, whoever is pulling the strings.