Khmer Times, 15 October 2015
Thailand is the US’s oldest ally in Asia. Both countries signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 1833. Thailand, an economic hub with geostrategic significance in the Mekong region, is America’s closest ally in the region.
However, their relations have been troubled by shifts in Thai domestic politics, particularly since the military coup in 2006.
Relations were restored for a short while in 2012 after the general elections in 2011. Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra visited the US in September 2012 and President Barack Obama visited Thailand in November to celebrate the anniversary of 180 years of diplomatic relations, and to chart a way for advancing their strategic partnership.
However, the coup on May 22 last year against the democratically elected civilian government prompted a U-turn in US-Thai relations. The US suspended more than $4.7 million in security-related assistance to Thailand after the coup and scaled down joint military exercises including Cobra Gold, Asia’s largest annual multinational military exercise hosted by Thailand, in February.
Since the coup, the US has consistently demanded a quick return to democracy in the Kingdom.
In January 2015, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel visited Bangkok to raise US concerns over the political situation after the coup, especially with regard to judicial issues, civilian freedom, human rights, and democracy.
Under mounting diplomatic pressure from the US, the Thai junta took the initiative to boost ties with China and other major powers including India and Russia.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Bangkok last December. China has extended development assistance to Thailand in two key areas: the $12 billion railway project and the purchase of about two million tons of rice and 200,000 tons of rubber from Thailand.
In July, Thailand deported more than 100 Uighurs – a Muslim ethnic minority – to China, and decided to purchase three submarines from China.
Prime Minister Prayut has also been reaching out to Russia. In April, he met his Russian counterpart, Primer Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Both sides signed 10 memorandums of understanding. It was the first time in 25 years that a Russian Prime Minister visited Thailand. The visit was a critical turning point in bilateral relations between Thailand and Russia.
Afraid of losing Thailand to its main challenging powers and strategic competitors, the US has readjusted its position and approach toward Thailand. Last month, the US sent its ambassador to Thailand 10 months after the post became vacant.
The new US Ambassador, Glyn Townsend Davies, said: “I look forward to getting to know, listening to, and learning from people throughout the Kingdom. Through them, I hope to understand Thailand’s rich traditions and culture. My goal is to deepen understanding between our people and to work together to enhance our mutual security and prosperity.”
On the sidelines of the 70th UN General Assembly in New York last month, President Obama and Prime Minister Prayut shook hands and had a brief, friendly conversation.
Although the meeting was not substantial, it was symbolically significant for the Thai regime, providing a sense of legitimacy. It illustrated the US’ willingness to change its approach and restore strong ties with Thailand. Prime Minister Prayut is expected to visit the US early next year.
The US will likely be softening its approach towards Thailand through innovative ways to restore political trust. Defense and security dialogues and cooperation will be largely restored but not fully normalized. The US-led Cobra Gold, involving some 30 countries, will be scaled up next year.
Due to domestic political issues, Thailand missed the opportunity of being part of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, the world’s largest trading block, which encompasses 40 percent of world trade. That was a serious economic setback for Thailand.
In the past few months, there have been signs of improving US-Thailand relations. There will be more focus on military and defense cooperation. However, to completely restore and enhance comprehensive bilateral ties, Thailand first needs to restore democracy.