US President Barack Obama will be making his first visit to Thailand this weekend as part of a wider tour of the region, where the focus will be on the East Asia Summit in Cambodia and a historic visit to Myanmar. No doubt there will be significant hype i
Because of this, we can expect little in the way of real substance to emerge out of any planned meetings with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra or other senior Thai officials. Today, the old cry of “What will the US do for Thailand?” has lost much of its meaning as international dynamics shift, and an up-to-date grasp of the way in which the world works becomes a key priority.
Back in 2011, before a bilateral meeting between Thailand and the US, President Obama stated: “The United States and Thailand are two of the oldest of allies. We have established a great friendship over the years. We have a wide range of areas of common interest and cooperation.”
Despite the warm words of President Obama, however, in the post-global financial crisis period, where key players such as the US and China are busy reassessing their priorities and national interests, a country such as Thailand must be ever increasingly responsible in ensuring its attractiveness for international partners, both economically and politically.
At this time, the fragile state of Thailand’s stop-start democracy is being brought into focus. The Pitak Siam Group plans to hold more protests on the November 24 in support of military intervention, once again. This issue will necessarily inform the context as the world’s most powerful politician and most influential advocate for democratic progress is set to visit the country.
What message, then, is inevitably sent out when Thailand is presented with such a rare opportunity to show a US president what the nation can offer? Inevitably – for as long as there continues to exist the possibility of another Thai coup – otherwise-willing international partners will adjust their level of engagement as and when relations become increasingly politically problematic.
If President Obama remains concerted in his efforts to rebuild the moral authority of the US around the world – which suffered such damage to its reputation during the previous administration – he will be concerned to achieve consistency in his message when it comes to the issues of democracy, human rights and freedom of expression.
In attempting to better engage with a country such as the US, therefore, Thailand must firmly establish itself as a trusted and reliable democratic partner. This remains the responsibility of Thailand. Despite ongoing political instability, the six years that have passed since the last military coup of 2006 will have at least encouraged democratic nations to reach out towards a democratically elected Thai government.
Notably this month, much of the focus on international relations will be centred around the East Asia Summit in Cambodia, and this has provided the current government with an excellent opportunity to place extra emphasis on building up Thailand’s international status.
It is the busiest couple of weeks yet for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on the international stage, since taking office last year. First, there was her audience in the UK with Queen Elizabeth, which will be followed by planned meetings with President Obama and then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. This sends out the message that although the Yingluck government’s status continues to be questioned by many Thais, this government is fully recognised by Thailand’s international partners.
In politics it is tempting to focus effort where and when there is a greater likelihood of a political return, and for President Obama and his advisors there are a number of factors to consider when it comes to the Asia-Pacific region and Asean. Indonesia and Vietnam especially may appear to offer significant opportunities in this regard, as both nations continue their impressive growth rates and become more democratic. Continued progress on Myanmar also has the potential to be politically rewarding for President Obama.
Thailand's perceived strategic advantage within mainland Southeast Asia, and economic development opportunities on its borders with Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, have been major incentives for leading actors such as the US, China and the European Union to make the effort required to engage with successive Thai governments. Thailand, however, will not want to risk being perceived as simply a regional transitory hub and strategic base for others.
Therefore, Thailand must act more effectively in proving itself a reliable ally, and in taking a leadership role with regard to international partnership agreements. For example, the Lower Mekong Initiative, which was announced in 2009 by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, has made little progress as of yet.
President Obama may now expect to persuade the Asia-Pacific region and the member countries of Asean to follow his vision in speaking out against political entrenchment, and in attempting to challenge the status quo. But with the ongoing colour-code politics strait-jacketing Thailand’s democratic progress, how can any Thai political leader expect to be able to meet the US president halfway?
Sentiments that remain at the core of US foreign policy were well stated by former president Bill Clinton during his own presidential visit to Thailand in 1996: “The United States will continue to stand with those who stand for freedom in Asia and beyond.”
When all things are considered, we may quickly realise that nothing can be taken for granted in the 21st century. International policy-makers and political actors may shift their emphasis and attempt new approaches as they look towards the most promising opportunities and the latest beacons of hope.
This ought to suggest that Thailand must be careful to avoid missing this key opportunity to re-establish itself at the heart of progress and democracy within the region.