A meeting between Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha and the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken on 10 July 2022. (Source: Thai News Agency)

Lost and found: Two secretaries in two months signal stronger US-Thai ties

Recent visits from the US Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence mark a shift in US-Thai relations as the Biden administration seeks re-engagement with its longtime ally amidst increased US-China competition and heightened tensions in the Indo-Pacific region.

Together with Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, Secretary Blinken signed a communiqué on the US-Thai strategic alliance and partnership. The communiqué underlines the goal to “facilitate a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”, reaffirms the 2020 joint vision statement for the US-Thai defence alliance, and grounds “our collective commitment to build resilient inclusive democracy and advance human rights.”

A meeting between Lloyd Austin and Gen Prayut in June 2022. (Source: Thai News Agency)

Other than US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who visited on 12-13 June, Secretary Blinken is the highest ranking US official to visit Thailand under the Biden administration. He follows in the footsteps of earlier high-profile visitors, including Admiral John Aquilino, Commander of US Indo-Pacific Command in June and State Department Counsellor Derek Chollet last year.

In 2023, the United States and Thailand will celebrate 190 years of relations.

Changing course

The trip comes hot on the heels of Chinese State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit just five days prior and the announcement that Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Thailand this November. Secretary Blinken was unable to confirm whether or not US President Joe Biden will attend APEC.

Secretary Blinken had planned to travel to Thailand in December, 2021, but was forced to cancel his trip after a member of his press team tested positive for COVID-19.

The flurry of high-profile state visits to Thailand falls in line with President Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy announced on 11 February 2022 and Indo-Pacific economic framework for prosperity (IPEF) launched on 23 May 2022.  It can be seen as an effort to implement President Biden’s version of the Pivot to Asia policy first articulated by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011.

These diplomatic manoeuvres demonstrate US interest in reversing dis-engagement with Thailand.  Relations between the two countries have drifted apart in recent decades and Thailand’s traditional “bamboo bending in the wind” diplomacy pushed it closer to China.  However, renewed US-China competition has seemingly led to a shift.

Dis-engagement

It is no secret that Thai-US relations have been in decline since the end of the Cold War, the memory of which is fading fast. According to a survey of over 1,800 Thai military officers and officials, nearly 40% of respondents had never heard of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), a US-backed collective security body that was founded in 1954 to protect Thailand and the region from communist invasion.

Relations nosedived after the 2014 coup, which drew swift condemnation from the White House. No sitting US President or Vice President has been to Thailand since.

For his first and thus far only trip to Asia on 20-24 May, 2022, President Biden did not include Thailand on his itinerary, going instead to South Korea and Japan. Vice President Kamala Harris also skipped Thailand during her trip on 22-26 August 2021 to Vietnam and Singapore.

If records in the Office of the Historian and the Historical Office are to be believed, from May 2014 to July 2022, high-level US visits to Thailand consisted of three Secretary of State and three Secretary of Defence trips.  In the same timeframe, Vietnam garnered three presidential visits, seven Secretary of State stopovers, and 5 trips by the Secretary of Defence.

This makes the recent back-to-back visits of two US Secretaries all the more surprising. The effort to shore up relations is clear enough.  Staying power is a different matter, however. In an interview with the Diplomat, Benjamin Zawacki, a political analyst who authored Thailand: Shifting Ground between the US and a Rising China cautions that “however promising and productive this may (or may not) eventually prove, it should still be seen for what it is right now: reactive, late, and limited.”

Zawacki maintains that Thailand has already shifted its allegiance towards China. Asked if Thailand’s conservative ruling elite was beginning to turn away from China in a realignment with the United States, he disagreed. He noted that China’s vaccine diplomacy was quick to provide Thailand with shipments of Sinovac.  In contrast, the US lagged far behind, only sending support “after already having done so elsewhere in the region.”

He also points out that Biden had an opportunity to assign meaning to the US-Thai alliance, by initiating a swift and joint reaction to Myanmar’s military coup. Instead, “he gave it a pass. China did not.” China’s zero-Covid policy, which devastated the Thai tourism industry, presents an additional chance to boost ties.

Security versus human rights and democratisation

Leaving aside questions about the capacity and scope of US-Thai re-engagement, human rights and humanitarian issues arising from the current confrontation in Myanmar and the political situation in Thailand will be key factors that test US resolve. From a US perspective, both issues seem to require a concrete stance that may contain some trade-off.

At a press briefing in Thailand, Secretary Blinken called upon ASEAN countries “to hold the [Myanmar] regime accountable” and to continue to demand an “immediate cessation of violence, the release of political prisoners, a restoration of Burma’s democratic path.”

Robert Godec, a nominee for US Ambassador to the Kingdom of Thailand, took a similar stance, telling a Senate Foreign Relations panel that “we are seeking ways with the Thais to increase pressure on the Burmese regime.”  He also went further than Blinken by acknowledging that Thailand has also been heavily criticised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International placing local constraints on freedom of expression.

In response to a question about whether the US could maintain a close security relationship with Thailand while pressing for improvements in the country’s human rights record, Ambassador Godec expressed confidence that “we can do these things simultaneously.”

According to a Human Rights Watch report, however, when Ambassador Godec was further questioned about the likelihood of getting Thailand to reduce its imports of natural gas from Burma and cut financial support to the Burmese military, he acknowledged that there had been “no progress at all” and that "more pressure needs to be brought to bear”.

Seeking Balance

In a policy paper delivered to a European Union embassy audience in June 2022, Paul Chambers, Lecturer and Special Advisor on International Affairs at Naresuan University, wrote that “Thailand’s security and defence policy towards the United States and China has become a function of seeking balance.”

These sentiments were echoed recently by Tanee Sangrat, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and director-general of its Department of Information, on the occasion of Secretary Austin’s visit. Tanee affirmed that Thailand maintains balanced ties with all friendly countries and “enjoys close and smooth relations with both China and the US.”

In his paper, Chambers noted that after Washington sanctioned Bangkok for the 2006 coup, Thailand increasingly turned to China for military aid, training, and education for Thai soldiers, however.  The shift was for economic as well as political reasons.

“Thailand increased security ties with Beijing because Chinese weapons were cheaper. China (unlike Washington) did not attach conditionality to aid; and Thai elites detested Washington’s preachiness about democracy and human rights.” 

Not surprisingly, in an interview with Time magazine on 1 June 2018, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha described China as “the number one partner of Thailand, along with other countries in the second and third place like the US and others. They are all good friends from Thailand. Thailand is a small country, so we need to properly balance politics and foreign affairs with all fellow countries.”

China and the US are the leading military suppliers to Thailand. Each annually engages with Thailand in naval, air force, and army exercises. Both countries have sought to build military maintenance/production facilities in Thailand. Full-scale or “heavy” US-Thai Cobra Gold military exercises are expected to return in 2023 after being scaled back since 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Discussing  Thailand’s “bamboo in the wind” diplomacy, Chambers explains that it amounts to aligning with whichever foreign power is perceived to be prevailing in Southeast Asia at a given time. 

With China and the US increasingly competing for Thailand’s favour, he notes that the country will “be careful not to antagonise either of them. Offsetting them remains uncertain in Thailand’s defence diplomacy.”

When Biden succeeded Trump in 2021, he maintained Trump’s policy of ignoring Thailand’s internal affairs, indicating that geopolitical interests vis-à-vis Beijing had become more important to Washington than democratic values. 

Whether or not Biden personally attends the APEC summit will send an important message to Thailand. In response to Blinken’s visit, government spokesperson Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana said that Thailand would like to see the US president attend the APEC summit. Thailand is the host of APEC this year and will transfer to chairmanship to the US next year. 

Should President Biden attend, this would be his first face-to-face meeting President Xi Jinping. It would also be the first time that a US president has visited Thailand since the May 2014 coup. The Russian invasion of Ukraine may continue to loom large at the proceedings as well. To protest the invasion on 21 May 2022, officials from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan walked out of an APEC trade ministers meeting in Bangkok.

Jared Makana Kirkey is a Prachatai English intern from the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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