US, Thailand Need 'Shared Vision' to Revitalize Ties

As Thailand’s domestic political crisis extends into its sixth year, a formerly strong relationship with the United States, dating back to 1833, struggles to find new energy. With greater U.S. attention to and “rebalancing” toward Asia, the United States has strengthened its relationships with South Korea, the Philippines, India, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and others. Thailand is a rare example of a U.S. relationship in Asia that has languished — to the extent that the most detailed history of the Obama Administration's Asia policy, Jeff Bader's Obama and China's Rise, concludes that "Thailand presented more problems than opportunities."

Foreign Minister Surapong Towijakchaikul met in Washington, D.C., Wednesday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in preparation for Thursday's fourth U.S.-Thailand Strategic Dialogue. In their joint appearance (embedded above), Surapong and Clinton described their intent to deepen bilateral cooperation on disaster assistance, trade, peacekeeping, human rights, people-to-people exchanges, and the environment. Indeed, these are useful ways forward. In her excellent National Bureau of Asian Research report, Southeast Asia expert Catharin Dalpino offers some more. 

But, changing the dynamics on U.S.-Thai relations in the short-term will likely prove difficult. The greatest immediate gains for both the American and Thai people are possible in the area of trade. But domestic politics in Thailand likely preclude difficult decisions on trade, and Thailand continues to study the potential costs and benefits of participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). 

There are also opportunities for political and security partnership. Military-to-military ties remain relatively strong through the Cobra Gold exercises and other cooperation. Thailand and the United States, as Dalpino notes, could find common cause in regional organizations.

For now, though, senior U.S. officials are forgoing trips to Thailand. And, there is only one argument that will reverse this trend — that American officials who visit Bangkok can expect concrete accomplishments. 

Take, for example, the two post-Cold War presidential visits to Thailand before 2006, which both achieved significant gains. In 1996, President Bill Clinton visited Bangkok, and announced a new bilateral tax treaty, recognized Thailand’s support for an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum agreement to lower tariffs on information technology-related goods, celebrated Thailand’s decision to become the first developing nation to no longer produce refrigerators containing chlorofluorocarbons, and publicized specific successes in development and counternarcotics cooperation. 

In 2003, President George W. Bush visited. The United States granted Thailand status as “major non-NATO ally,” and the two countries announced their intent to launch negotiations on a U.S.-Thailand Free Trade Agreement. As APEC host, Thailand helped secure APEC Leaders’ commitment to include a security and anticorruption agenda in APEC, while also advancing APEC’s work to promote economic growth.

The past six years in U.S.-Thai relations show that short-term gains are often politically and practically challenging. Yet, concrete accomplishments are needed to rebuild engagement at senior levels. The logical starting place to rebuild momentum, then, is the long-term. In the long-term, Thailand’s regional relationships and geography allow it to be a key contributor to one of the United States’ most important opportunities over the next 25 years — to incorporate South Asia more deeply into Southeast Asian-led Asian regionalism and East Asian economic cooperation.

The intersection of the reform efforts in Burma and India’s improvement in relations with its neighbors creates the conditions for geographically uninterrupted and new political, trade and infrastructure ties from India through all of South, Southeast and Northeast Asia. These enhanced ties would build on growing trade ties between India and East Asia. They would also respond to the reality that some of the most challenging issues — water scarcity, territorial disputes, maritime security, terrorism, proliferation, climate change, migration, human and other illicit trafficking — all cross the East Asia-South Asia “boundary.”

Creating a new shared vision, then, can succeed where cooperation has failed in recent years. If Thailand and the United States develop a shared vision around Thailand’s role at the center of a new, broader “Asia,” there may indeed be room for progress after all.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Stumpf
Matt Stumpf is Asia Society D.C. Office Director and former Special Asst to the USAID Administrator, State Dept nonproliferation expert and MacArthur Foundation Program Officer for Asian Security.