Washington seeks reset of US-Thai ties, with eye on China

Trump-Prayut meeting offers US chance to stop Thailand from slipping into Beijing's orbit

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will meet United States President Donald Trump at the White House today, with the meeting offering the US a chance to make up lost ground in Thailand.

"The Trump administration needs to focus on Beijing's growing power in (Thailand), and begin responding before its ally slips permanently into China's orbit," Mr Benjamin Zawacki, author of a forthcoming book on Thailand's ties with the US and China, wrote last week in the Foreign Policy journal.

Thailand is the US' oldest ally in the region and their relationship goes back to 1833; during the Vietnam War, US forces used Thai airbases. But the Americans' criticism of the 2014 coup that ousted an elected Thai government soured bilateral ties, with Thailand meanwhile drawing closer to China.

Bangkok and Beijing have stepped up trade and military cooperation - they held their first joint airforce exercise in 2015, with Thailand buying military hardware such as submarines from China.

"Thailand was not going to budge, their domestic issues are what they are," Mr Zawacki said in an interview. "The US veered first. Ambassador Davies has been very proactive in trying to mend ties," he said, referring to Mr Glyn Davies, the US envoy to Thailand. "There is almost a breath of fresh air with the Trump administration because it comes with no baggage," he added.

The need to stop Thailand from slipping into China's orbit is not unrecognised in Washington, where ideology has taken a back seat under Mr Trump despite protests from pro-democracy groups.

In August, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson became the most senior US official to visit Bangkok since the military seized power. In the same month, the State Department cleared the sale of Harpoon missiles to Thailand for an estimated US$24.9 million (S$33.8 million).

Mr Murray Hiebert, senior adviser and deputy director of the South-east Asia Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an article: "One Prayut-Trump meeting likely will not heal all the bruised feelings among the Thai political elite, but it can at least make it possible for the United States to compete again with China for influence in this strategically located country."

Thailand is likely to hold a general election next year to enable the return of a civilian government - albeit one constrained by a Constitution written by conservatives picked by the military. This gives the US a token ideological off-ramp as well, analysts say.

"The problems Thailand had with the Barack Obama administration are gone, though the Trump administration (has) its own set of waves to navigate," said Dr Rafael Frankel, a vice-president and Asia expert at the Bower Group Asia consultancy. "Still, unless there are unexpected problems, this visit is viewed as an opportunity for a strategic reset of US-Thai relations."

At the meeting, the issue of North Korea is also expected to loom large. The US will hope for Thailand's assurance in cutting off Pyongyang's income and isolating it diplomatically - which Bangkok will have no problem with, analysts say.

Another issue to be discussed is the US' trade deficit with Thailand, which imported US$10.4 billion worth of American goods last year, but exported some US$29.5 billion.

Thailand is one of 16 countries being scrutinised by the Trump administration due to high trade deficits.

But Thai Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak will be armed with a proposal for a US-Thai strategic partnership committee to boost trade and investment as well as cooperation on technology and education. He would have learnt from previous leaders' meetings with Mr Trump, where they highlighted their countries' investments in the US, and lined up business proposals and trade deals, say analysts.

"The meeting should go well. The Thais have done their homework and will demonstrate that the US-Thai relationship provides value two ways," said Dr Rafael.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2017, with the headline 'Washington seeks reset of US-Thai ties, with eye on China'. Print Edition | Subscribe