Friday, April 6, 2012

Thailand looks beyond the US alliance

Thailand is losing out big time in the fast shifting strategic landscape due to its leaders' inability to break away from the vicious political cycle at home as other countries in the region gain higher levels playing fields and strategic values. The lack of foreign policy focus of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's administration - trapped in her charm syndrome - further erodes the country's competitive prepositioning. In the past seven months, Thailand was also conspicuously absent from international scene but was compensated by the wide publicity of photogenic and well-dressed Thai leader. Fortunately, in past weeks, the government has begun to pay attention to the future relations with the two superpowers - US and China.

In agreement

At last week's closed door brain storming on Thailand's strategies toward the US and China in the next five years (2012-2017) at an undisclosed location, three dozen representatives from concerned agencies (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Commerce, et al), private sector and academia agreed unanimously that Thailand must look beyond the US alliance and strengthen engagement with China as they lamented the uselessness of their strategic ties, which thrived during the Cold War.

Indeed, today their relations have more to do with less-strategic matters and mostly on ad-hoc basis such as disaster rescue and relief operations. Reactions from the participants were mixed when it came to the future US policy and desire towards Thailand.

Thailand needs the US

It is obvious that Thailand needs the US both for economic and security reasons but they cannot say with any certainty that the US needs its benign ally. Some even questioned the US sincerity towards Thailand which no longer occupies the hearts and minds of the US policy makers. Some of them even proposed laws to punish Thailand over the years. Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar are their new focus in Washington. In contrast, without any significant branding of the cooperation with the US, Singapore has shown how a small country can maximize its collaboration and fill its future strategic needs with the superpower. As always, the Thai-US relations look very good on papers dwelling on the past achievements as they do not have shared strategic objectives to be pursued in the future. In the case of China, the discussion was never boring as participants always had something to say what both countries could do together.

There was a strong consensus Thailand would be much closer to the middle kingdom than the US in the short and long terms. It is interesting to note that while they all appreciated the rise of China and its growing influence in the region, they recommended strongly that Thailand need to stand firm when negotiating with China to preserve national interest.

Most importantly, they must not afraid to turn down proposals that are imperil to the country's collective well-beings. In the next five years, China's economic and political clouts in the continental Southeast Asia would be greatly augment with wide-spread transportation connectivity linking all trading hubs in Southern China to Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore. Since the investment will mainly come from China's pockets, they felt that Beijing was dictating the terms of reference to its favor.

Therefore, Thailand and neighboring countries within the network, especially Laos, must resist China-only concessions proposed on various infrastructure projects. By 2017, China plans to build a combined of nearly 1,000-kilometre of high-speed railways in the two countries. Economists and trade officials had strong warnings that one-side privilege linking to multi-billion development packages would backfire and hurt China's reputation in the long term.

Still groping

Next year Thailand and the US will commemorate the 180th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. They are still groping for something worthwhile to celebrate on.

As one of the region's oldest US ally, the Thai security officials felt strongly that Thailand failed to reap benefits proportionate to its strategic values, much heralded by countries that have no ally status.

After long delay, the two countries have finally scheduled a strategic meeting at the ministerial level in Washington DC on 15 June to savage their relations and to work out a new strategic framework that would go beyond the Thai-US alliance under the 1962 Thanat-Rush agreement. With the US increased presence and renewed attention toward Southeast Asia, Thailand hopes it can reinvigorate ties with the US and add additional strategic values. With common approaches, the Thai-US profile could be raised further in the region.

To do so, the overall Thai-US friendship must be on a firmer ground without nagging issues that sought to undermine their relations. For instance, the quarrel over the issue related to freedom of expression and diplomatic mud-slinging over recent terrorism warning have all but undermined their traditional and longstanding trust and confidence. In fact, such squabbling among allies should be considered normal in the past. However, the Thai establishment these days has become less tolerant because other major powers such as China and India are more understandable and sympathetic to them than ever before. Back in the late 1990's, when the country faced financial crisis, the US stood idle by. This scare looms large in the background. Whenever it came up, it turned the US into a hypocrite. At this juncture, Thailand needs all sorts of moral supports from abroad and the US should be the main driving force.

Open secret

Indeed, Thailand's relations with other major powers have all but improved. It is an open secret that they have been more willing to accommodate with Thailand's political shenanigans which miraculously further deepen confidence and trust.

Toward the end of brain-storming session, it is clear that there is an urgent need for Thailand to add strategic dynamism to its stalled relations with the US while trying to vigorously manage China's more direct and assertive multidimensional overtures, especially in sensitive areas of security cooperation. The country's famous blending with the wind diplomatic practice must be adjusted to fit in new global environment.

These days, big powers give value and response to clear-cut policies even those they disagreed rather than vague commitments which could be pleasing to the ears - the quality Thailand excels.
The Nation, Bangkok

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