Guest Column

Assessing the Implications of Blinken’s Aborted Visit to Thailand

By Thitinan Pongsudhirak 18 December 2021

Having skipped Thailand due to a COVID-19 case among his travel delegation, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s aborted three-country tour of Southeast Asia has hindered the full projection of President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific geostrategy. Not wrapping up the trip with a visit to Thailand, a mainland Southeast Asia pivot and longstanding US treaty ally, also misses an opportunity to shore up what has been a relative bilateral estrangement. In short, Secretary Blinken’s diplomatic foray in Southeast Asia has fallen short for the time being.

Blinken’s itinerary aimed at three major Southeast Asian capitals, from Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, before traveling back to Washington via Hawaii. While major policy announcements appeared on the cards, none really transpired. The highlight in US geostrategic positioning is likely to be Blinken’s remarks on the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) in Jakarta on Tuesday. It covered the gamut of US engagements and objectives in the region, setting the tone for the entire trip. In Kuala Lumpur, where Blinken met Prime Minister Ismail Sabri bin Yaakob and fielded a wide-ranging press conference together with Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, no major policy speech came out of the proceedings.

The Bangkok visit was billed as crucial. Apart from issues related to the Thai-US bilateral alliance, US policies toward post-coup Myanmar and the Mekong region were high on the agenda. But on Wednesday when the secretary of state was about to hop over to Bangkok, a member of the media corps traveling with him came down with the coronavirus, cutting short the trip and leaving many issues hanging. Nevertheless, Blinken’s incomplete trip yields a host of implications.

Geostrategic battleground

First, the US takes Southeast Asia and ASEAN seriously and critically as an entrenching battleground in its geostrategic rivalry and competition with China. Blinken’s visit was part of a tag team in the US’ full-court press of geostrategic pushback vis-à-vis Beijing. It complemented at the senior-most policy levels earlier visits by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Vice President Kamala Harris. Both visited Singapore and Vietnam, although Austin also covered the Philippines.

Conspicuously left out were the three countries on Blinken’s itinerary. The US has thus been trying to cover its main diplomatic bases in the region. As ASEAN is a motley and increasingly divisive organization of 10 member states, leaving out Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar was excusable for their smaller sizes and problematic regimes, but the other six merited attention at the highest levels. When ASEAN was more united and coherent, engaging ASEAN as a region made more sense, as President Barack Obama did in the early 2010s. But now ASEAN is best engaged more bilaterally as disparate Southeast Asian countries.

Second, the FOIP emphasis maintains continuity with the preceding Donald Trump presidency. Many had thought that Biden would be more like Obama under whom he served as vice president, as much as being antithetical to Trump. This is evidently not the case. There is as much Trump as Obama in Biden when it comes to US foreign policy in Asia and its bipartisan position on China as a rival and adversary.

Blinken’s Jakarta speech mentioned that the US and China have a responsibility not to let their “competition veer into conflict” without a word about cooperation between the two superpowers. The Blinken visit thus had China written all over it, similar to earlier inroads by Austin and Harris.

Increased protectionism

Third, the US’ much anticipated Indo-Pacific Economic Framework remains inchoate. It does indicate that the US is not about to rejoin the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP-11, from which the Trump administration pulled out in 2017 after the Obama team did so much to propel it to fruition. Getting back into the CPTPP may just be too complicated in view of contentious liberalization issues and increased protectionism in American sentiments.

Instead, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework appears focused on the new battlefront of high-tech competition, as the US wants to focus on supply chain and chip-manufacturing/semiconductor resilience. As technology is becoming the name of the geostrategic game, working with Southeast Asian economies on supply chains of semiconductors may be an effort to keep them away from China’s further grasp.

Fourth, missing the Bangkok stopover deprived Blinken of the chance to put out major policy statements on Myanmar and the Mekong region. The Thailand leg of the tour was supposed to up the US game in mainland Southeast Asia, apart from Washington’s maritime efforts in the contested South China Sea. It was preceded a week earlier by the symbolic contribution of more than US$773,570 to the Mekong River Commission for capacity support and data sharing in the context of the wider Mekong-US partnership. Supporting the MRC and the Mekong-US framework is an attempt to push back against China’s upstream dam construction and undue control of Mekong water flows.

Myanmar, which the US officially calls Burma, is another major hotspot. Since the military coup on Feb. 1, Myanmar’s political environment has spiraled into a full-fledged brutal civil war and humanitarian crisis. ASEAN’s attempts to mediate through a “five-point consensus” for the promotion of ceasefire, dialogue, humanitarian assistance and a delegation visit under an “envoy” has fallen short. As next-door neighbor with the longest shared border and the most at stake, Thailand has not shown leadership to lead Myanmar away from the abyss. Cambodia, as ASEAN’s new chair, appears lenient and accommodating towards the Myanmar junta, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

A strong US push would make a big difference to increase the costs of ASEAN’s Myanmar appeasement under Cambodia’s chairmanship, providing support and encouragement to the war-torn country’s outgunned but defiant and widespread opposition groups. No doubt Washington will continue to support democracy and human rights in Myanmar but reinforcing this message in person would have been crucial.

Finally, the Thai policy elites will likely perceive Blinken’s missed visit with a mix of suspicion and concern. Some may view that one COVID-19 case should not have deterred the secretary of state from making his presence felt in Bangkok if he really thought Thailand was important enough. Visiting Bangkok in person would have been a statement for the US’ democratic values and role in Thailand and the bilateral relationship. Yet others may write it off as the US’ lack of attention to the Thai-US alliance, relieved not to hear criticisms about the systematic violations and abuses of rights and freedoms in Thailand.

Either way, the Thai-US alliance remains misaligned and out of sync as long as Thailand is unable to get its house in order and away from disguised military-authoritarian rule.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science.

This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.

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