Guest Column

Thailand and United States: Reducing Mutual Distrust

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 25 June 2012

The joint statement issued after the fifth Thai-US Strategic Dialogue in Washington on June 14 indicated that relations are moving in the right direction. A few days later, the whole bundle of promises hit a snag. Mudslinging between the government and opposition Democrat Party in recent weeks over the use of U-tapao airbase facilities showed that any Thai-US initiative these days is not going to proceed easily without sufficient transparency and consultation with all stakeholders. Washington refused to help bail out Bangkok during the financial crisis back in 1997 and that inflicted a deep wound on the Thai psyche.

That helps explain why the strategic dialogue agreed to set up a working group to promote people-to-people exchange, the first of its kind. After more than 180 years of diplomatic relations, the two governments still need advice on ways to increase exchanges between their two peoples. Without any political spin, Thais and Americans get along very well together. However, when bilateral issues are framed with patriotism, it is quite easy to whip up anti-American sentiment over here.

For the first time, Thailand also raised the issue of a visa waiver to facilitate the visits of Thai tourists and visitors to the US. A long queue in front of the US consular office on the Wireless Road continues to be an eyesore of their longstanding relations. Russia is the first and only major power to waive visas for Thai passport holders.

Washington’s dialogue was frank and unscripted as US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Affairs Kurt Campbell and Foreign Permanent Secretary Sihasak Phuangkhetkeou were very much in sync. This time they managed to discuss the whole gamut of Thai-US relations, especially areas that needed to be strengthened. The two country’s friendship—particularly in the area of security cooperation—has suffered greatly since the 2006 coup. The security consultations, a pivotal element of their alliance, were temporarily suspended. After long delay, Washington finally agreed to host the second round of Thai-US Senior Defense Talks—a good move that will improve the morale of the Thai army leaders.

Previously they complained that the US failed to support Thailand’s latest effort to build up its defense capacity as a non-Nato ally. Lists of ammunition and weapon systems that Thailand submitted sometime ago were ignored by Washington. At one point, Sihasak even asked Campbell what the purpose of being non-Nato ally was if the US simply did not respond to the Thai request at all.

The dialogue this time allowed both sides to shed light on their intention and strategic outlooks, especially the Thai concern over the US pivot to Asia. Campbell spent the first half of one day’s discussion talking about the US rebalancing effort and increased presence in Asia. He stressed that it was not focused on increasing the US military presence in the region per se but rather on a holistic approach to engagement with Asia. That explained why the US values Thailand’s alliance and commitment. He added that US State Secretary Hilary Clinton will lead a big delegation together with leading investors and business leaders traveling to this part of the world to boost further ties.

In return, the Thai side welcomed the US increased engagement and acknowledgment of Asean centrality in the regional scheme of things. Sihasak expressed confidence in China’s role in the region, trusting that Beijing will become a responsible global player. He stressed that both the US and China know how to navigate their relations and together they would best avoid colluding or cooperating to harm the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). The US trusted Thailand’s constructive role as the incoming coordinating country for China-Asean relations (2012-2015) in solving the South China Sea conflict.

To strengthen further security cooperation, the second working group has also been set up to study terms of reference for the use of U-tapao airbase as part of Thailand’s proposed plan to establish a center for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Thailand first raised the possibility of serving as a hub for regional humanitarian assistance in time of natural disaster with the World Food Program under the UN-Asean framework back in 2005. Due to the Thai political turmoil in 2006, Malaysia’s Subang Airport facility was chosen instead.

Since then the idea of setting up a center for such a purpose has been on the government’s agenda. In the beginning, the Thai Royal Navy wants the center to be placed under a bilateral framework but the US would like to transform it as a platform for multilateral cooperation. After the tsunami catastrophe in 2005 and subsequent natural disasters in the Philippines and Indonesia, the profile of U-tapao was raised due to its central location in mainland Southeast Asia in search and rescue missions. The annual Thai-US joint military exercise, Cobra Gold, has been concentrated on humanitarian and disaster relief practices involving multinational forces. The US, which has had regular access to the U-tapao base facilities for decades, would like to have a formal arrangement and standard operating procedures with the Thai government in times of humanitarian crisis. The US side pointed out during the strategic dialogue that the previous US emergency assistance operations were considered by other countries as “coincident” activities. Washington wants to change that kind of perception.

In addition, the US is urging Thailand to cooperate in helping third countries such as Burma, Laos and Cambodia, both on a bilateral basis and within multilateral frameworks such as the Lower Mekong Initiative. Such expansive engagement would bolster the US’s footing in continental Southeast Asia.

At the moment, it is still a bone of contention. The Democrat Party had urged the government to come clean on the use of U-tapao. In fact, the opposition should know better than anyone since the discussion started in under the Abhisit government. Since the Thai side is preparing the terms of reference concerning access to and use of air base facility, it can literally lay down conditions as they wish. After all, U-tapao has been transformed into an international airport for chartered planes for the past several years.

Visible efforts to reinvigorate Thai-US cooperation, especially strategic ties, are extremely difficult as they are easily held hostage by domestic squabbling and political spin. If this trend continues, the US is planning to look elsewhere. In private discussions, Cambodia has often been mentioned as an alternative country as its leaders are more willing to accommodate the new US security needs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is assistant group editor of Nation Multimedia group in Bangkok. He has been a journalist for over two decades reporting on issues related to human rights, democracy and regionalism. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.