South-east Asia and America under Trump

US-Thailand: Stagnation and missed opportunities

The election of Donald Trump as America's next president has introduced uncertainty into ties between the world's superpower and other countries. Five scholars at the ISEAS -Yusof Ishak Institute evaluate the likely impact on key nations in South-east Asia.

Mr Donald Trump has yet to finalise his choices for senior foreign policy posts. He ran a campaign bereft of a vision for American policy towards Asia. The political, economic and security issues confronting South-east Asia and its constituent countries merited no mention during the presidential campaign.

It is, however, possible to identify factors likely to bear on US-Thai relations in the years ahead. On balance, these factors point to likely stagnation in those relations despite the start of a new reign in Bangkok and the opportunity with which the eventual collapse of the political project of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta will present Washington.

Such is the thrall in which Mr Trump holds the pro-trade Republican members of both Houses of the US Congress that his party's supine majority in the Senate will not dare move to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement before President Barack Obama leaves office.

The NCPO government's interest in acceding to the TPP has signalled a determination to seek a counterweight to Thailand's flourishing relations with China. The diminished prospect that the TPP will take effect with the US as a member may deprive Bangkok of this strategic option.

The identity of Mr Trump's ambassador to Bangkok and of his choices for senior positions in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs and other bureaus at the Department of State, the Pentagon and on the National Security Council will help shape American-Thai relations in the years ahead.

One line of thought in Washington suggests that the Trump administration will draw further on appointees with experience in military intelligence in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Officials with this background might attach importance to historically close ties between the Thai and US militaries. Their approach might, ironically, dull the impact of Mr Trump's notoriously "transactional" approach to the world and provide at least some continuity to US-Thai relations at a time when China seeks to undermine American alliances around the globe. It might, however, attach less importance to aligning the US with the democratic forces to which Thailand's future belongs.

  • The writer is co-coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2016, with the headline US-Thailand: Stagnation and missed opportunities. Subscribe