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6 Reasons to Recalibrate Thai-US ties

28 June 2022

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By Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Communications Advisor:  After years of benign neglect, Thailand is seeing some earth-shaking developments from the US, with the Biden administration apparently suddenly realising that Thailand remains a key ally in the region that has not yet been fully utilised. At this juncture, the time is right. Both countries are planning to commemorate the 190th anniversary of their diplomatic relations next year. Across the world, the war in Ukraine has already generating long-term regional repercussions, helping to highlight the state of the Thai-US alliance.

According to private conversations with both retired and on-duty senior military officials, the recent surge of visits by senior US officials including US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Indo-Pacific Command (Indopacom) Commander Adm John Aquilino reflects Washington's desire for closer ties with Thailand. Although this objective has been around since the Cold War, it has been neglected over the past few decades due to the lack of common security threats after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The first and most important development has to be the unintended consequences of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It has suddenly placed Thailand in a central strategic position not only for the US's global strategies but those of Europe as well. The country is centred between the battlefields in Central Europe and the current Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii. Judging from past experience, especially during numerous conflicts in the Middle East, any additional logistical support and access, especially equipment and supplies from Indopacom, would need to go through Thailand. The U-Tapao airbase and Sattahip naval base have long been the most useful hubs, although of late there have been discussions about alternative sites.

After the joint Thailand-US Strategic and Defence Dialogue in Washington in May, the alliance has been reinvigorated. The US has not only restored the International Military Education and Training (Imet) programme abut also increased its budget for Thai army officers at a value of US$2.68 million (94.7 million baht) this year. Imet allows young Thai military officers to learn with the American and other international colleagues. Most importantly, it is aimed at creating a good rapport between young Thai and US officials which has been missing for nearly two decades. Both visits by Mr Austin and Adm Aquilino to Bangkok were highly symbolic but they were significant in demonstrating the Biden administration's commitment that from now on Thailand is in its global strategic loop.

Furthermore, it has been Washington's desire to build an "integrated deterrence" against the rise of US adversaries in the region. Obviously, both China and Russia are on the list. With existing allies in the Indo-Pacific, the US wants to maximise Thailand's assets in terms of location and its regional ecosystem.

In Washington's perspective, Thailand has maintained good ties with all its neighboring countries. Most importantly, the country has good connectivity both on the ground and in space. It is interesting to note that for the first time, both sides have discussed their cooperation in space. The war in Europe has shown the latent potential of cyberspace security and specific satellite-linked technology during a time of conflict. Details of such cooperation have yet to be worked out.

Furthermore, the normalisation of Thai-Saudi Arabian relations, which had been proceeding under the media's antennae since 2018, was another contributing factor. However, it was the meeting between Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who served as the Asean chair at the G20 summit in Japan that got the ball rolling. It was in Osaka, according to Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, that the bond of friendship between the Saudi prince and the Thai leader was born. They discussed their daily lives and how to keep themselves fit, among other subjects. The normalisation could have started earlier but domestic developments in both countries delayed the process. After the normalisation on Jan 6, the rest has been history.

Thai-Saudi ties must be viewed in a global strategic context. For three decades, Thailand, a key US ally, was completely absent from Washington's Middle East policy circuit. Strained ties with Riyadh also impacted Thailand's ties with other members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation despite assistance from friendly countries. As such, it impeded US broader counter-terrorism efforts. In addition, improved ties between Thailand and Iran in the past years have worried Washington as the former also depends on the latter's imported oil. Iran's growing influence in the region has further dented Riyadh's sphere of influence.

Indeed, energy security has been the Prayut government's top priority. Normalised ties with Saudi Arabia have eased energy-shortage concerns and lessened the dependence on imported energy from Myanmar. If Myanmar's situation remains unchanged, there could be energy sanctions which would hurt Thailand. Currently, both Bangkok and Riyadh are doing everything to return to normalcy without a minute's delay. Commercial flights between the two capitals have resumed and normal trade has resumed with new investment deals signed. Trade delegations have already exchanged visits. New ambassadors from both countries have been named.

In between the visits of Adm Aquilino and Mr Austin, there was the low-profile visit of US Department of State Counsellor Derek Chollet, whose sole purposes was to learn first-hand about the Myanmar quagmire. Mr Chollet's visit was extremely significant as he is the key person in the Biden administration handling Myanmar. His discussions with Thailand's special envoy to Myanmar Pornpimol Kanchanalak and visits to the Thai-Myanmar frontier helped him to understand the complexity of the crisis in Myanmar. They discussed internal dynamics, local displaced persons and most importantly, as a neighbour of Myanmar, Thailand having to share the burden of the consequences of the conflict along its 2401-kilometre border. Thailand's relations with armed ethnic organisations such as the Karen, Shan, Kayah and others are peaceful, making future humanitarian assistance less troublesome.

With the planned second visit tomorrow of Asean special envoy and Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn to Myanmar, a clearer plan for humanitarian aid is expected. Thailand will play an important role in this operation along with the Asean Coordinating Center for Humanitarian and Disaster Management which will include vaccinations and the distribution of medical and food aid along the border and adjacent areas. The Thai Red-Cross Society will serve as a local partner.

During his visit, Mr Chollet made clear that the US strongly supports the Asean five-point consensus (5PC), but at the same time pressure is mounting among US lawmakers to give more support to the National Unity Government, or NUG -- the government in exile. The same is true within Asean. Frustration among certain Asean members is equally high as the 5PC has made marginal progress. There could be a knock-out effect on Asean's overall handling of Myanmar if there is no substantial progress in the visit by Prak Sokhonn to Myanmar. The Cambodian chair will last roughly another 167 days before the incoming chair, Indonesia, takes over in November. The window to implement the 5PC is narrowing for the State Administrative Council, as the military junta is officially known.

In addition, the US needs Thailand as an economic partner. As the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia, it is important for the US to hook up with Thailand. US is the country's third-largest investor and its second-largest trading partner. When the US approached Thailand about the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (Ipef), Washington was not certain that Bangkok would be willing to be one of the founding signatories. Much to the surprise of the White House and the diplomatic community, Thailand joined the Ipef and 13 others, much to the chagrin of the opposition parties. This time it was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which made this strategic decision. Previously, Thailand had been recalcitrant even in expressing an intention to negotiate to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership. Truth be told, Bangkok's decision has won plaudits in Washington, adding value to the rejuvenated Thailand-US alliance. Once again, Thailand is on the US radar.

Finally, there is Thailand's attempts to firm up its balancing wheel status in the fast-moving global strategic landscape. As the host of the Asia Pacific Economic Leaders' Meeting this November, Bangkok will have to use all of its statecraft to manage the 21 economies which have different views and preferences despite having common trade and investment goals. As the Apec trade ministerial meeting showed, the ripple effects of the Russian-Ukraine war cannot be underestimated. At the meeting, there was no joint statement and six Apec members came out with their own statement condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The host does not want the same thing to be repeated at the summit.

At the very least, Thailand wants to make sure that at the Apec Summit during the third week of November, the rivalry between the US and China will be less feisty. After all, Thailand is a safe place for both superpowers to sort out their differences and ameliorate their ties. The stakes for Thailand are very high as it will be the first official visit to Bangkok by President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping. It will be sooner rather than later before we will be able to see whether its centuries-old diplomatic finesse can get Thailand through all these conundrums.

All the conspiratorial talk and hearsay aside, like other smaller countries, Thailand has to navigate its foreign policy meticulously at this juncture as hostile intentions and forces are looming large in the background. A misstep could tilt the balance that its diplomatic norms have nurtured for generations.

This opinion piece was written by ERIA's Senior Communications Advisor, Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, and has been published in The Bangkok Post.   Click here to subscribe to the monthly newsletter.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.

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