New narratives in Thai-US ties: The Nation columnist

A person looks at a newspaper displaying Donald Trump's US election victory at a book shop in Bangkok, Thailand.
A person looks at a newspaper displaying Donald Trump's US election victory at a book shop in Bangkok, Thailand. PHOTO: EPA

(THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The incoming administration under president-elect Donald Trump will provide a rare opportunity for Thailand to open a fresh dialogue with the US.

Both sides need it to generate new and realistic narratives about their time-tested relations, which have persisted since 1832.

For the past 30 months, the relationship has brought out a myriad of toxic exchanges of so-called "bureaucratic views" between Bangkok and Washington. Since then, the two sides have been struggling hard to rescue their relations from a political whirlpool. Up till now, they have failed.

While blame could be squarely placed on Thailand due to its domestic political changes and slow-moving democratic process, the myopic American way - "you do as I say" - must also be held responsible for the current stalled relations.

Nonetheless, in the past few weeks, Thai-US relations have taken a dramatic turnaround.

During his visit here last month, Daniel Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, surprisingly called Thailand "a natural ally" of the US.

While the Thai side was very pleased with the new label, they also sensed the American ambivalence towards the 63-year-old alliance, which had been neglected in recent times.

Under these circumstances, it is about time for Thailand to work out anew its overall relations with the Trump administration to be in tune with the current strategic environment in the region. To do so, it is pivotal to get a proper narrative on the state of their friendship and cooperation.

Thailand must reject a relationship based on continued condescending rhetoric and a patron-client relationship. Within South-east Asia, the Philippines and Malaysia have already stood up and spoken out in support of their national security interests after years of US-directed strategic visions.

Both President Rodrigo Duterte and Prime Minister Najib Razak have shocked the socks off' US strategic thinkers.

Their assertiveness was timely, given the fluidity of the regional security landscape and the unclear Asian policies coming from Washington these days.

They set examples for other regional leaders to follow by distancing from Washington to gain more space for future strategic manoeuvres. Manila has been the most radical, trying to downsize the most important aspect of the Philippine-US security cooperation - the joint military exercises as well as the recently enhanced defence cooperation pact with the US.

More specifically, Duterte's unyielding attitude to the US will severely impact the Americans' long-term security presence in this part of the world, in particular in the South China Sea.

The maritime region is also the transit point for the estimated US$5 trillion (S$7.1 trillion) global trade.

For more than six decades, American military might has provided the security guarantee for the region.

With the Philippines' pulling back, coupled with Malaysia's new recalcitrance towards the US, the role of Thailand, the other South-east Asian ally, will become even more critical to Washington's projection of power.

However, as of now, Thailand has not been in the US security radar due to the end of communist threats.

Except North Korea, many communist states have become Washington's friends.

The three decade old annual military joint exercise Cobra Gold has been the hallmark of the Thai-US treaty alliance.

But of late, it has more to do with the maintenance of interoperability of US armed forces with friends and allies.

Thailand has to make sure that future exercises, if they are to be continued, must be based on mutual benefits.

Thailand should have more say in the planning.

As such, there is an urgent need to raise the Thai-US strategic dialogue to the ministerial level, engaging both defence and foreign affairs.

More than Washington would like to admit, Singapore and Vietnam have now morphed into the most valuable and reliable comprehensive strategic partners of the US.

From the Thai viewpoint, although Singapore is not a US ally, the island-republic has provided logistic and other support for the US's continued security presence in the region.

Washington has unwaveringly picked Singapore as an alternative site for its various security projects.

From the American perspective, Singapore enjoys higher strategic value than Thailand and the Philippines, the two others in the South-east Asian treaty alliance, due to its clear and steady policies.

Indeed, the Singapore-US security framework is the preferred model due to its substantive and flexible cooperation.

Thailand should aim high in engaging the Trump administration. Old guards at the State Department and security related apparatus, who have perpetuated negativism towards this country, will soon be replaced. It is also time to test Washington.

Of course, the fundamental relations would not change but they need a few tweaks to tighten their cooperation.

To ensure the Thai-US ties under a Trump presidency will be on the right track, Patrick Murphy, Deputy Assistant State Secretary for South-east Asia, is coming to Bangkok next weekend for discussions with Thai officials.

Just for the record, in May Washington exerted heavy pressure on Thailand and its role as the chair of the Open-ended Working Group on nuclear disarmament. Washington is against a total nuclear ban while Bangkok is for it.

Soon it will ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

At last month's informal Asean-US defence ministerial meeting in Hawaii, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister General Pravit Wongsuwan held a bilateral meeting with US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter and agreed to bolster cooperation in three pivotal areas-maritime security, terrorism/cyber security and refugees.

Their meeting, which was considered the most substantive since May 2014, zeroed in on the rise of Islamic State (IS) extremists in the region.

Both Thai and US security officials have seen evidence of IS fighters' presence in the Malaysian Peninsula following the bombardment of their strongholds in Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.

Besides reviewing the nature of Thai-US security relations, Thailand must examine other cooperation such as trade and investment, science and technology, governance and rule of law, education and the exchange of people, and sustainable development plans.

Without taking such a holistic approach, it will be hard for the Thai-US relations to move on and improve.