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Boosting Thai-US Ties in an Age of Crisis

31 May 2022

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By Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Communications Advisor:  The Thailand-US alliance is still alive and well but in order to move forward, both sides have to ramp up dialogues, sharpen their focus and enhance their cooperation. That was the conclusion from the nine hours of discussions from May 9-10 in Washington between their senior foreign affairs and defence officials.

The outcome was not groundbreaking but it did reaffirm that the Thailand-US alliance is still relevant after several years of inertia and instability. To maintain one of the oldest military alliances in the world is not easy as there is historical baggage that both sides have to confront and come to terms with.

Lest we forget, Thailand was the first Asian country to establish ties with the United States. Next year the two countries will commemorate the 190th anniversary of their economic ties, which began when the US signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1833. Unofficial contact began even earlier, in the late 1810s.

Although the country is one of the oldest US allies in the Indo-Pacific region, the relationship between Thailand and the US has gone through ups and downs since the end of the Cold War. In the absence of the communist threat from the Soviet Union, Washington bypassed Bangkok and instead zeroed in on Thailand's neighbours, which share a more similar strategic outlook towards the rise of China.

Furthermore, the volatility of Thailand's domestic situation prompted past US administrations to downgrade the nation's status rather than engage with it, the way other major powers did when the US was in retreat in the region. In fact, in the early days of the Biden administration, Thailand was slammed by the US security agencies over its supposed intimate relations with China, with American lawmakers often lamenting Thailand's lack of a clear policy position on issues concerning US interests.

In contrast, Singapore and Vietnam have consistently been the US's strategic focus, due to their stronger support of Washington's stance on the region's flashpoint issues.

When the Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy was officially announced last year, Washington seemingly changed its views on Thailand, which allowed the country to return to the US's strategic fold. President Joe Biden's priority, after all, is strengthening its allies and their institutions.

It should be noted that since the signing of the Thanat-Rusk communique in 1962, Thai-US security cooperation has not wavered -- in fact, it has continued to grow and mature as a result of the nations' shared strategic vision. Despite the roller-coaster ride that was the past decade, for instance, there was no significant change in Thai-US security programmes.

More recently, Foreign Affairs permanent secretary Thani Thongphakdi and Defence permanent secretary Warakiat Rattananont chaired the inaugural Thailand-US Strategic and Defence Dialogue in Washington, along with US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink, and Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner.

The dialogue was held after officials from the Thai Foreign Ministry and US State Department met for the 8th Thailand-US Strategic Dialogue, while Thai and American senior defence officials met at the 7th Thailand-US Defence Strategic Talks.

Thailand is a latecomer as far as the so-called 2x2 strategic dialogue is concerned. All other US allies in Indo-Pacific have long enjoyed the benefits of the dialogue format. The inaugural dialogue with Thailand was requested by the US, indicating Washington's strong desire to strengthen existing cooperation and mechanisms to address new global and regional challenges, in particular recent developments in the Russia-Ukraine war, and Myanmar's crisis, among others.

Throughout the intensive nine-hour meetings, the two sides discussed "every issue on their mind" to enhance their strategic partnership in all aspects, ranging from political and security cooperation to the economic partnership, to deepening people-to-people ties, as well as promoting a peaceful and stable environment conducive to the socio-economic recovery from Covid-19.

In addition, they also debated the current global challenges and regional strategic landscape, promoted cooperation at the sub-regional and regional levels, particularly Asean-US cooperation, and agreed to enhance development cooperation in the Mekong sub-region through the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (Acmecs) and the Mekong-US Partnership (Musp).

Thailand also wishes to see the operationalisation of Asean Outlook on the Indo Pacific (AOIP) which is inclusive in nature. Along with Indonesia, Thailand as the Asean chair in 2019 pushed successfully for the adoption of AOIP as a guideline to engage external powers in four key areas: maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development and economic affairs. Even before the meeting, Washington expressed the wish to synergise its Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy with AOIP.

Concerning regional and international issues, both sides touched on the Myanmar crisis, the Russia-Ukraine war and the situation in South China Sea. They discussed and shared both common and divergent views. Thailand briefed the US on the situation in Myanmar and the ongoing humanitarian efforts by Thailand as well as Asean for those affected by the conflict inside Myanmar and along the Thai-Myanmar border.

On the situation in Ukraine, Thailand agreed to support diplomatic means to end the war and called for sustainable humanitarian assistance to victims of the conflicts. Thailand and Asean stand ready to provide any immediate assistance, the meeting was told.

The dialogue also sought to highlight the Thailand-US comprehensive economic partnership. Both sides deliberated on promoting investment and development cooperation, ranging from climate change, renewable and clean energy, electric vehicles, digital economy, human security in all aspects and humanitarian assistance to sustainable development. That said, given this broad spectrum for cooperation, both sides need to work out specific projects that could be taken up right away.

Thailand also expressed its readiness to become a signatory to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which was officially announced in Tokyo last week. Bangkok's quick decision indicates the country's ambition to join a new economic framework that would promote Thailand's new economic model, popularly known as the BCG or the bio-circular-green model. It is also the main theme of this year's Apec summit, of which Thailand is the current chair.

In addition, they discussed how to further strengthen their multi-faceted bilateral cooperation, including the setting up of a joint working group to organise a series of public activities to promote people-to-people relations ahead of the 190th anniversary of Thai-US diplomatic relations.

On top of strengthening cooperation, the two countries also focused on modern-day non-traditional challenges, such as cyber security, maritime security, counter-terrorism, transnational crime, health security and the climate crisis.

The meeting also discussed this year's Apec summit agenda, which Thailand is hosting, as well as the planned transition to the US as Apec chair and host next year. Thailand is hopeful that President Biden will visit Thailand and attend the Apec leaders' meeting in November.

In the near future, the level of participation of this important dialogue could be further promoted to a higher level. Wendy Sherman, Assistant US Secretary of State, delivered a closing speech, indicating the importance of continued 2x2 strategic talks. From now on, Thailand and the US should use this platform to review and enhance their strategic partnership to better respond to present and future challenges.

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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