Since becoming the country's first woman prime minister two years ago, Yingluck Shinawatra has travelled near and far, taking 36 overseas trips as of last week, costing the taxpayers a total of Bt69 million.
Unfortunately, she has not yet visited Washington – the ultimate trip. In fact, she might not be able to make it granted the current state of Thai politics and the mess she is currently entangled in.
Unless Thai-US relations get a quick fix from their top leaders, Yingluck’s US trip is not in the pipeline. Some explanations for this are:
First, Thailand is no longer the only ally the US has to court, as in the past. The Thai establishment, especially the military, still acts pretty much without realising that a Thai-US alliance exists on paper only. The US has new friends, who behave and act like more than allies, willing to cooperate and enter into strategic arrangements without fear. Myanmar and Vietnam are two good examples. They are new US strategic partners. Their diplomats to Washington meet US officials more often than do the Thais, whose ambassadors keep changing.
Second, sad but true, there is simply no value-added to having Yingluck visit Washington now or in the future. Besides photo opportunities, there are no outstanding issues to take up. If there is any serious issue, such as the expanded use of U-tapao, a Royal Thai Navy airfield, it has been politicised and long undermined on the ground already.
The Thai government has been pressing the US Embassy in Bangkok for an official invitation for quite some time. It is not coming any time soon. For now, bilateral meetings are possible among the corridors of major meetings at the UN General Assembly, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, East Asia Summit and the Asean-US Summit. Leaders from Myanmar and Vietnam did not take long to secure White House invitations, because they were important to the US re-balancing effort. Their leaders are smarter; just read their joint statements and compare them to the one in November that Yingluck and Obama produced when he dropped by for 16 hours. The differences are stark.
Third, Thailand still has two prime ministers. Policy-makers in Washington are perplexed and at times confused. Being the world’s first prime minister by Skype living in exile, Thaksin has made the rounds of the Beltway and around the world as the virtual Thai prime minister. After all, he controls his sister’s agenda. Whenever she displays a bit of her political or diplomatic finesse, her brother will tweet to tell the world he is still in charge. The visa-free agreement between Montenegro and Thailand was a case in point following’s Thaksin personal agenda. Who is travelling to Montenegro these days, if ever? Only Thaksin’s cronies and cohorts.
No wonder the Yingluck government came out with a strong statement last week to support the US-Russia agreement to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons. Washington is pleased with Bangkok’s first and strongest-ever endorsement of the UN in nearly 15 years. It was hoped the action would help secure Yingluck’s invitation.
Fourth, since 2006, no Thai leaders have made an official visit to the US. It does not augur well for the 180-year-old friendship. A visit by her would be great to mark the occasion. That is still not sufficient to send an invitation. Over half the Asean leaders have visited the White House (Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar) to meet with US President Barack Obama. At the moment, the only reminder that the two countries are old buddies are photos of HM the King’s visit to the US in the 1960s, which is the longest-lasting symbol of Thai-US ties. They adorn any US-Thai joint exhibition abroad and at home.
Fifth, truth be told, the Thai-US alliance is under-utilised. Almost all countries in the region have made adjustments following the policy of re-balancing in Asia announced in November 2011. The Thai military is still groping in the dark as to what exactly they want out of their stalled alliance. The long-standing two-plus-two framework comprising the joint meeting between officials of the Defence and Foreign ministries has not yet been carried out. Without any long-term strategic planning, the region’s oldest ally would remain irrelevant. As it turns out, the much-heralded annual Thai-US military exercise, Cobra Gold, benefits the US and invited US partners more than the Thais, who have repeatedly failed to take advantage of this unique exercise for the past three decades.