From zero to hero is the trajectory of Thailand’s future relations with the US. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is scheduled to visit Washington in mid-June in response to US President Donald Trump’s invitation. The trip will mark an important step to repair the much-bruised bilateral relations after the May coup in 2014.
Before the prime minister’s visit, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwan is also scheduled for talks with his US counterpart James Mattis in Singapore during the upcoming Shangri-la Dialogue. Earlier, National Security Council Chief Thawip Netniyom also held talks with Gen HR McMaster, a US National Security Adviser. On the sideline of the special Asean-US foreign ministerial meeting early this month, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai also met individually with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to boost bilateral ties.
These successive exchanges of high-level visits in the past few weeks indicate the urgency on both sides to quickly improve their strained bilateral relations. In fact, the Thai and US officials are quietly working on a possible surprise visit to Thailand by Trump.
The US president will attend the Asia Pacific Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Danang and the Asean summit during the second week of November.
Currently, Thai-US relations are directed from the White House, bypassing the State Department, which is still not completely functioning because of pending restructuring and budget cuts. It is clear that Washington wants to restore strategic balance with old friends and allies. In Southeast Asia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore stand out.
Under the Trump administration, Thailand has personal support from both Tillerson and McMaster, who know the traditional values of Thailand and the US’s 200-years of friendship. Tillerson lived and worked in Bangkok while McMaster has a good personal rapport with Prayut, who got to know each other well when he was Thai army chief.
With this unusual support from the top, it is now up to the Thai-US officials at desk level to design future relations amid the new regional and international security landscape, ironically brought about by Trump’s arrival as president.
In the weeks ahead, security and economic issues will be important areas of Thai-US cooperation that would witness a sharp increase both qualitatively and quantitatively. The two sides have already agreed that their annual military exercise, Cobra Gold, will be bigger, with more international participants than before. Also in the pipeline – the long-delayed strategic talks will be upgraded to include both foreign and defence ministers. Thailand is the only US ally without such a high-level strategic framework.
In 2003 under the Bush administration, Thailand was designated as a non-NATO ally to signify its growing strategic value in the US’s overall anti-terrorism schemes. However, continued political turmoil and lack of regional leadership preceding the 2014 coup had a grave impact on bilateral collaboration.
Many important projects including NASA’s weather project and a plan to boost logistics support for the US at Sattahip were politicised and subsequently derailed. Thailand’s democratic struggle and reported domestic discontent have dominated the discourse of Thai-US ties since then.
In retrospect, the dramatic U-turn by the Trump administration towards Thailand just shows Washington’s true intent and purposes in engaging with developing countries, Thailand in particular — the US is flexible, as long as it serves a larger US interest. Unfortunately, under the Obama administration, Thai-US relations were framed by a narrow-defined discourse of democratisation and public participation that threw a wrench into the washing machine.
Now Thailand has a clear road map towards the future, which the US and other countries can use to figure out their future relationship, or at the very least, it can be used as a policy-mapping tool. Domestic conditions and demands highlighted by public outcries and protests will no longer affect the US’s larger policy orientation as it did with the previous administration. As in the Cold War era, Thailand’ strategic values has suddenly gained strong traction in the White House.
In the case of Thailand, it must be noted that the struggle for democracy and respect of human rights are real and will continue unabated. Without the external pressure, local human rights defenders and people who advocate for democracy will have to be more vigilant and to their work with eyes on domestic domains, not all-out to impress outsiders.
With the new outlook for Thai-US relations, currently nothing is off the negotiating table, especially ways to boost economic cooperation. Thailand is one of 16 countries listed by Washington that needs to fix its large trade deficit with the US. From the Thai perspective, that is easy to clear.
For years, Thailand’s repeated requests to purchase new military hardware were rejected on political grounds over the lack of democracy. Recently, the US approved the sale of Harpoon missiles for the Royal Thai Navy and Black Hawk helicopters for the Thai Army years after those requests were made. Further military procurements could quickly level off the trade deficit. Moreover, Thai companies are going global and are making inroads into the US in business sectors such as retail and food, which could generate jobs for thousands of American workers. And for potential American investors, the new Eastern Economic Corridor will provide many incentives to attract big pockets such as Boeing to set up shop here.
Thailand is now in the centre of strategic gravity with forces emanating from all parts of the world. The US and China, the principle players coupling with other major powers, are now testing Thailand’s diplomatic finesse and long-term strategic plans. We will find out sooner rather than later if we have the necessary mettle.