Tillerson Bangkok talks focus on Asia tensions
Officials unclear when Prayut will visit Washington despite invitation
WHILE A MEETING between Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha and the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yesterday covered regional tensions in the Korean peninsula and South China Sea as well as trade, investment and human trafficking, it made little progress on the prime minister’s previously announced trip to the White House.
Prayut said yesterday that his visit to US President Donald Trump should take place in October, although Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai admitted that a schedule had not been settled.
“I believe that the PM is also not totally certain about that,” Don said during a press briefing. “That can be our possible range of dates. Still, Thailand and the US continue to work for a mutually agreed upon schedule.”
However, the White House visit, first hinted at by the Thai government in June following Trump’s phone invitation to Prayut two months earlier, was included in talks between Tillerson and top Thai officials yesterday.
Tillerson is the highest US official to visit the Kingdom since the coup in 2014.
Tillerson met Don and Prayut in Bangkok separately before paying respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace.
The Trump administration is widely seen as prioritising geopolitical benefits over a human rights agenda. As a result, Tillerson’s meetings in Bangkok did not touch on specific concerns about Thailand’s domestic human rights, Don said.
But Prayut told Tillerson that Thailand would follow the so-called “road map to democracy” in due time, Deputy Government Spokesperson Lt-General Werachon Sukondhapatipak quoted him as saying.
The denuclearisation of North Korea and a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea were among highlights of yesterday’s talks.
AFP reported that the US wanted Thailand to crack down on North Korean firms that used the capital as a trading hub through front businesses, according to acting US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Susan Thornton. Tillerson also planned to lean on the Kingdom to tighten visa requirements for North Koreans entering Thailand and squeeze its diplomatic mission, Thornton added.
At Government House, Prayut said Thailand urged respect for the UN Security Council resolution that recently pressed sanctions against North Korea.
Over the weekend, the UN Security Council unanimously approved measures that could cost North Korea US$1 billion (Bt33.2 billion) a year. Experts said 90 per cent of North Korea’s foreign trade relied on China.
Thailand was also ready to “cooperate and support easing tensions for regional peace”, Prayut said, as quoted by Werachon.
Don added that Thailand had lessened trade with the regime in Pyongyang. From January to June 2017, Thai-North Korean trade saw decreases of 94 per cent compared to the same period in 2016, from $16.4 million to about $900,000, he said.
On the contentious South China Sea issue, Don said the Asean meeting in Manila had approved the framework to establish a code of conduct, but Thailand would continue to push for legally binding, tangible instruments to be implemented.
On bilateral issues, talks spanned the economy, combating human trafficking and intellectual property.
Prayut asked Tillerson for the US to review Thailand’s status on a “priority watch list” following Thailand’s attempts to cope with intellectual infringement.
Similar to earlier meetings with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other foreign guests, Prayut also noted developments in the Eastern Economic Corridor project. With Tillerson, he raised the U-Tapao airport, which involves several US investors.
Don added that expansion of trade and investment between the two countries could help ease US concerns on its trade deficit with the Kingdom as earlier expressed by the Trump administration.
Issues on military cooperation, including military hardware purchases, were not included in the talks, Don added.
Tillerson’s one-day visit to Bangkok took place after he attended the Asean ministerial meetings in Manila. His trip to Southeast Asia from last Saturday to today also took him to Malaysia to discuss bilateral and regional issues.