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Thailand set for balancing act during Tillerson trip

Thailand set for balancing act during Tillerson trip

SUNDAY, August 06, 2017
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Academics urge govt to protect national interest in talks with top US diplomat.

TOMORROW’S visit to Thailand by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will challenge the Kingdom on how to balance itself among powerful Western allies and its regional partners amid conflicting issues, particularly the Korean peninsula and the contentious South China Sea tensions, experts say.
Tillerson will meet Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai tomorrow following Asean ministerial meetings in Manila where the issues of North Korea’s nuclear ambition and militarisation in the troubled sea heated up. 
He will also visit Kuala Lumpur during his trip, having put emphasis on the denuclearisation of North Korea, ongoing efforts on drafting a Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea and counter-terrorism issues as they relate to Southeast Asian nations, including Thailand.
While Thailand is the US’s oldest Asian treaty ally, it also has diplomatic and trade ties with North Korea. The ruling Thai junta has also leaned on China, a major claimant over disputed territories in the South China Sea, notably on military hardware purchases and infrastructure deals.
The Prayut-Tillerson meeting will also cover bilateral issues, including Prayut’s tentatively proposed visit to the White House. It will also take place directly before Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with Prayut and Don , pencilled in for Wednesday or Thursday.
Experts contacted by The Nation said they believed that Bangkok could make deals with each side while not falling into dependency on any of them.
“Thailand could signal that it is willing to see serious COC negotiations and also bring pressure on North Korea but the US and Japan must deliver more aid and investment to Thailand,” said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University’s College of Asean Community Studies.
Washington’s offer of military and economic aid to Bangkok may determine how much it can move Thailand to its line on the issues, Chambers said. The offer should also better what Beijing is willing to provide as well as depend on how few conditions such aid is tied to. Still, he noted, Thailand should not position itself as a proxy to any superpower as the policy of bending with the wind would appear weak.
Thanet Aphornsuvan, Thammasat University’s expert in US studies, said he believed that the US puts more emphasis on regional countries like Thailand to build multilateral agendas on the relevant issues. 
To enhance the US responses on Thailand, the Kingdom could signal to the US more understanding on balancing its strategy on the South China Sea, for instance. “But Bangkok must also maintain its neutrality and address only key principles without any binding commitment,” Thanet said.
Viboonpong Poonprasit, a political science lecturer at Thammasat, agreed that it was safe for Thailand to maintain a low-key stance with the US. Washington is keen for closer ties, knowing that Bangkok is developing closer bonds with Beijing, “Tillerson’s visit implies that the US shuts an eye to the Thai junta government. This can be of advantage to us. But it should be reminded that the US wants to encourage Thailand to take a visible stance on conflicting regional issues,” Viboonpong said.
To minimise potential conflicts, he added, Thailand would be wise to voice an Asean-based or international consensus when having to express its stance.
Given that President Donald Trump’s administration makes geopolitical and economic interests his top priority, Chambers said he believed human rights and democracy deficits in Thailand would likely be left out of the Prayut-Tillerson meeting agenda. Prayut might even ask Tillerson for Thai political exiles in the US to be repatriated, he said.
But Viboonpong said the restoration of democracy would remain on the US agenda for the Kingdom, which should reiterate its so-called “road map to democracy” to the US while enhancing its performance on human rights.