Managing the Strained US-Thailand Alliance
A look at ongoing efforts to manage Washington’s oldest Asian alliance.
On December 16, the United States and Thailand will hold their first strategic dialogue in three years in Bangkok in a boost for an alliance that has been under strain following a coup last May. While the dialogue does represent a big milestone in the ongoing thaw of U.S.-Thailand relations, in truth this is just the latest in a series of steps the two sides have been taking to manage the relationship in post-coup context.
On 22 May 2014, the Royal Thai Armed Forces led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha ousted an elected civilian government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra after six months of disruptive political protests and installed a military junta.
Thailand is no stranger to coups: since 1932, the country has experienced nineteen; twelve of them successful, with the last occurring in 2006 and overthrowing Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother, a divisive figure who was popular at the polls but had drawn the ire of the country’s traditional elite and urban middle class. Civil-military dynamics are also not new to U.S.-Thai relations: the alliance itself was initially forged under Thailand’s virtual military dictator Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram – popularly known in the West as Phibun.
This time around, however, things are much more uncertain. Though festering concerns about Thailand’s post-Cold War political order – anchored around the monarchy, military and bureaucracy – have threatened to boil over in the past decade, it is now at a critical juncture with the impending royal succession of ailing, revered 88-year old King Bhumipol Adulyadej. Few expect the ruling junta to loosen its grip on power until it can ensure the succession – and the jockeying that is expected to follow it – goes smoothly (See: “Democracy Delayed, Domestic Uncertainty Continues to Haunt Thailand”).
That has created a dilemma for the alliance. From Washington’s perspective, since full resumption of ties can only occur with the restoration of elected government, its oldest ally in Asia is underperforming just as the United States is looking to deepen its engagement in the Asia-Pacific. In the eyes of Bangkok, antagonizing rhetoric and punitive measures from one of its closest friends when it is undergoing a critical transition has been most unwelcome, especially when other partners like China are more than willing to fill the void.
“The result is that the alliance has underperformed and Thailand is stuck in a domestic holding pattern,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor at Chulalongkorn University and one of the country’s leading commentators, told The Diplomat.
Yet in reality, even as these obstacles endure, U.S. and Thai officials have already been moving over the past few months to preserve ongoing cooperation as well as better manage the strained alliance between the two countries.
Security and Defense
Following the coup, the United States suspended some military aid – including $4.7 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Education and Training (IMET) and other assistance as required by Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act – and cut high-level military exchanges. But in truth, most other military links have remained intact; a recognition of both the centrality of Thailand to U.S. interests as well as the reality that China is more than willing to exploit any vacuum that Washington leaves.
To be sure, the security cooperation in the U.S.-Thai alliance today does not compare the heydays of the Cold War – during the Vietnam War, up to 50,000 U.S. troops were based on U.S. soil. But Thailand is still a critical American ally in the Asia-Pacific. For all its faults, the country is a capable military partner that serves as a valuable access point for U.S. forces, a critical platform for multilateral security efforts and a net security provider to help address global and regional challenges.
This importance – sometimes underappreciated – became clear following the coup when estrangement began affecting day-to-day cooperation usually considered routine. There were some difficulties in securing access following the Nepal earthquake in April, and an initial denial of a routine U.S. request to temporarily base maritime patrol aircraft in Thailand during the Rohingya migrant crisis in May, which saw thousands of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants stranded in crowded boats in the Andaman Sea and the Straits of Malacca (See: “Did Thailand Just Approve a New US Aircraft Basing Request?”). Those familiar with the decision-making process told The Diplomat that the message from Bangkok to Washington was clear: do not take your ally for granted.
And even though Thailand has been playing major powers against each other for centuries, Bangkok has certainly raised the eyebrows of some in Washington by accelerating the pace of its military cooperation with China following the coup. In June, as The Diplomat reported, Thailand awarded a bid to purchase three submarines to China, a move that surprised even some security experts in Bangkok (See: “How Did China Just Win Thailand’s Submarine Bid?“). Last month, the two sides also held their first joint air force exercise.
“Our relationship will go up a level during this exercise,” Group Captain Chanon Mungthanya, a Royal Thai Air Force spokesman involved in the drill, told Agence France-Presse.
When asked about these developments, Thai officials say they are responding to regular, high-powered Chinese delegations to Bangkok, and that they still do have their red lines with Beijing. Nonetheless, for seasoned observers, even though Sino-Thai military relations were already expanding even before the coup, there has clearly been an uptick in cooperation since.
“Clearly the Thais are expanding security cooperation with the Chinese, and I think this is partly aimed at demonstrating to the United States that they have other options,” Desmond Walton, a former military attaché to the U.S. embassy in Bangkok and former director for Southeast Asia at the National Security Council, told The Diplomat in an interview.
“We shouldn’t just shrug this off,” says Walton when asked how concerned Washington should be. “It shows that there’s real competition for influence out there.”
Balancing these geostrategic realities with rights concerns, U.S. officials have tried to keep most of the military-to-military relationship intact. After a lengthy debate within the U.S. government, a downscaled version of the Cobra Gold exercises – the largest annual multilateral exercise in the Asia-Pacific which Thailand hosts – was held last year (See: “US-Thailand Relations and Cobra Gold 2015: What’s Really Going On?”). Indications are that it will also be held in 2016, with planning between the two sides proceeding according to schedule (See: “Confirmed: US Will Hold 2016 Cobra Gold Military Exercises in Thailand“). As a result, though high-level military exchanges have been cut, Thai generals have still been going to Hawaii to participate in planning for the exercises.
The United States has also quietly been reviewing and approving some non-grant based defense transfers on a case-by-case basis as allowed under U.S. law. For instance, on October 29, it was announced that the State Department had approved a possible Foreign Military Sale (FMS) to Thailand of Evolved SeaSparrow Missiles (ESSMs) and associated parts totaling around $26.9 million. Such sales attest to Bangkok’s status as a major U.S. overseas defense market: over the past five years, Thailand is believed to have bought over $2 billion worth of U.S. equipment.
“These approvals are for a limited number of defense cooperation activities that are considered to be in our national security interests, and will promote interoperability with this treaty ally for decades into the future,” U.S. officials told The Diplomat in response to a detailed inquiry about the sales.
There are signs that the U.S. line has been softening further still. This August, the United States and Thailand quietly resumed a downgraded version of their annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise which was suspended last year following coup. Though the drills emphasized areas like HA/DR – a common way for Washington to signal a scaling down – they still featured notable firsts, including the firing of the ESSMs mentioned earlier from a Naresuan-class frigate.
In an email to The Diplomat, Arlo Abrahamson, public affairs officer at the U.S. Seventh Fleet’s Task Force 73 that helps oversee the planning and execution of the CARAT exercises, described the move as the kind of increase in complexity of training that Washington usually seeks with its allies and partners.
High-level military contacts are also showing signs of easing. On November 3, in a key development missed by most mainstream media outlets, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus meeting in Kuala Lumpur. It was the first meeting between the defense ministers since the coup.
While the meeting occurred in Kuala Lumpur rather than in Bangkok or Washington, such interactions outside of the capitals of the two countries typically set the stage for high-level defense visits further down the line. Given that, it is notable that Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Amy Searight will be attending the strategic dialogue in Bangkok this week. Another key indicator to watch for, experts say, will be the visit of the head of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), Admiral Harry Harris, given the importance of PACOM in the U.S.-Thai alliance.
Politics and Diplomacy
Politically, the coup ushered in a period of uncertainty about when the country will return to democratic governance. The timetable for the restoration of democracy slipped several times, with elections now only scheduled to be held in mid-2017, while restrictions on civil liberties – including freedom of assembly and freedom of speech – have continued under the ruling junta.
As Washington called publicly and privately for the restoration of democratic rule, that created friction with the Thai government. Tensions came to a head when U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel publicly rebuked the junta in a January 28 speech at Chulalongkorn University, urging it to end martial law and remove restrictions on civil liberty to promote a more inclusive political process. Coming just a few days after the impeachment of deposed premier Yingluck Shinawatra, Russel’s remarks struck a raw nerve and provoked a strong response from Thai officials, including Prayut himself (See: “Thai Junta Chief Blasts Top US Diplomat“).
“Thailand’s outrage over the comments…showed that the 182-year old relationship was in deep trouble and must be fixed as soon as possible,” Kavi Chongkittavorn, a prominent Thai commentator, wrote in The Nation days after the incident.
Following that incident, which some have described as a breaking point, both sides have clearly made an effort to mend ties. In February, Thailand appointed Pisan Manawapat as its new ambassador to the United States. In an interview with The Bangkok Post published following his confirmation, Pisan made it clear that his “urgent task” was to improve Thailand’s relationship with the United States (See: “Thailand’s Junta in Campaign to Mend US Ties”).
For its part, in April Washington finally nominated an ambassador to Thailand who was subsequently confirmed in September – ending a more than a year hiatus for the post (See: “US Nominates New Envoy to Thailand Amid Strained Ties”). From the outset, Glyn Davies appeared to strike a different tone from his predecessor Kristie Kenney, stressing a greater willingness to improve relations in spite of Thai domestic politics.
“I want [the] relationship to be at 100%. But that won’t stop me from working on the 95% of the relationship in the meantime,” Davies told the Thai newspaper The Bangkok Post in a November interview.
Even as both sides sought to improve ties through 2015, U.S. and Thai diplomats repeatedly stressed that the existing, wide-ranging bilateral cooperation between the two sides has not only continued, but in some cases even expanded, in areas like public health, law enforcement, counter-narcotics and climate change. The U.S. embassy in Bangkok, one of the largest in the world and comprising fifty American agencies, is often cited by the two countries as epitomizing the depth and breadth U.S.-Thai cooperation on bilateral, regional and global issues.
And indeed, collaboration has increased in some areas. On the environment, in May, NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched SERVIR-Mekong, a joint project to strengthen regional environmental monitoring in the five countries in the lower Mekong – Thailand, along with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. And on health, after hosting a regional meeting in May of the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) – a U.S.-led, multilateral initiative to tackle infectious diseases – Thailand was one of 30 partners that committed to work with Washington to achieve GHSA targets.
“The U.S. Mission in Bangkok welcomes this opportunity to build upon its enduring public health partnership with the Government of Thailand,” USAID noted in a press release on November 17.
As part of its ongoing charm offensive in the United States, Thailand has also gone through great lengths this year to showcase its importance as a partner for the United States – bilaterally but also regionally and globally. For instance, at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York in September, The Diplomat understands from those present, Thailand floated several proposals, most notably opportunities for greater peacekeeping capacity-building and training through the Peace Operations Center under the Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters in Thailand.
Irregular migration is another area where Bangkok has sought to demonstrate its utility. That is not just because of the Rohingya migrant crisis, but the discovery of mass graves in Thailand that had focused international attention on the country’s own human trafficking problem (See: “Thailand’s Mass Graves: A Turning Point?”). Earlier this month, Thailand hosted the 2nd Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean in Bangkok, following the first meeting convened in May when the refugee crisis first hit. While the proposals discussed – including one advanced by Thailand for a multimedia regional information campaign with the support of the International Office of Migration (IOM) – were quite modest, it did showcase the country’s capability and willingness to help solve regional issues.
The convening of the strategic dialogue in December 16 will be the most significant among the diplomatic moves both sides have made in 2015. The restarting of the dialogue, last held in 2012 and first publicly revealed following a meeting between U.S. deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken and Thai foreign minister Don Pramudwinai on the sidelines of the UNGA this September, is a clear signal that the relationship is moving further towards normalization. Apart from the symbolism, it also allows for dialogue across a range of issues at the highest levels, thereby facilitating the expansion of cooperation.
“The Strategic Dialogue is a sign of our continued commitment to the U.S.-Thai partnership,” the U.S. State Department spokesperson Katina Adams told The Diplomat this week ahead of the resumption of the dialogue. “We plan to discuss practical ways we can expand our cooperation to promote peace, security and prosperity”.
To be sure, irritants still remain in this dimension of the relationship. Last month, Davies’ inaugural address to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand erupted in controversy after he criticized the longer and tougher jail sentences meted out by the ruling junta for violations of the kingdom’s controversial lese majeste laws (See: “US Envoy to Thailand Under Lese Majeste Probe”). Even though Davies was hardly the first person to point out this worrying trend, the incident nonetheless highlighted the sensitive environment within which he would have to navigate.
Human trafficking is also on top of the list of outstanding concerns. With Malaysia’s controversial upgrading in July, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that sits at the bottom tier of the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report (See: “US Upgrades Malaysia in Trafficking Report: Boost for TPP, Blow to Rights?”). While problems remain, Thailand has since taken several steps to address the concerns outlined in the 2015 TIP report in the hopes of an upgrade next year. One Thai official told The Diplomat that if Thailand is judged on merit and the goalposts are not moved, the country is confident that it will be removed from the blacklist next year. As of now, it is still unclear, however, whether Bangkok’s efforts will be sufficient.
“Successfully combating human trafficking requires sustained, long-term effort,” a U.S. embassy spokesperson in Bangkok told The Diplomat when asked about its sense of where Thailand stands. “We continue to encourage Thailand to take robust action to address human trafficking, which will be covered in next year’s TIP Report.”
Unlike the defense or diplomatic aspects of the U.S.-Thai relationship, the economic dimension is largely free from constraints created by the 2014 coup. Indeed, amid the country’s economic woes, the ruling junta has been trying to boost trade and investment with the United States as well as other major countries like Japan and China.
Since coming to power, the ruling junta has struggled to get Southeast Asia’s second largest economy off the ground amid flat exports, low private investment and a weak baht. In September, the Bank of Thailand cut the country’s economic growth forecast for a third time this year from 3 percent to 2.7 percent.
To its credit, the government has been trying to improve this record, realizing that getting its economy in order is a necessary step to get the U.S. government and private sector interested. In August, Prayut reshuffled his cabinet, making Somkid Jatusripitak, a former finance minister, head of the economic team. Since then, Somkid has rolled out a series of reforms that make sense, including boosting the rural economy to reduce inequality and increasing investment in infrastructure development.
Abroad, the government has tried to send positive signals to United States about Thailand’s prospects as well as its desire to boost trade and investment. During his trip to the United Nations in September, Prayut gave a speech at a dinner with the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council outlining how Thailand planned to tackle the country’s existing challenges and increase its competitiveness. Prayut’s remarks, The Diplomat understands, centered around detailing plans for comprehensive structural reform and positioning Thailand as a regional hub for manufacturing, services and investment as well as addressing challenges like corruption and inequality through measures ranging from infrastructure development to the setting up of “clusters” and special economic zones.
“The Thais were clearly concerned and wanted to send a message,” one observer present at the meeting told The Diplomat.
And though Thailand is not one of the original members of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – whose twelve countries comprise around 40 percent of global GDP – Bangkok has been expressing its desire to be part the pact further down the line and join fellow ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. At a press conference in Tokyo in November, Somkid said Thailand was “highly interested” in joining TPP, echoing positive sentiments heard from the Philippines and Indonesia in 2015 (See: “Indonesia Wants to Join TPP: President Jokowi“).
To be sure, there are daunting challenges that will need to be addressed before Bangkok will be able to join the agreement. Nonetheless, the tone was a notable departure from the earlier ambivalence evident even just months earlier (See: “Does Thailand Really Want to Join the TPP?“).
While we have yet to see significant improvements in U.S.-Thailand economic ties, both sides have been indicating their willingness to make strides in this dimension of the relationship. For instance, on November 18, when Thailand’s Commerce Minister and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman had a meeting on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in Manila, the two discussed ways to improve U.S.-Thai trade and investment relations and agreed to hold a high-level Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) meeting soon sometime in 2016. Those talks could help address specific problems in the economic relationship and perhaps lead to boosts in trade and investment further down the line.
“Having these talks can help address concrete problems that U.S. companies face in Thailand and Thai companies face in the United States,” says Murray Hiebert, the former senior director for Southeast Asia at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Talking about improving ties, however, is easy to do. Ultimately, the promise of a stronger U.S.-Thailand economic relationship, one U.S.-based expert told The Diplomat, rests largely on the Thai government first kickstarting economic activity and getting a bump in GDP. Ultimately, it is through a mix of fiscal policy measures as well as other steps like boosts in infrastructure spending that will help drive domestic consumption, improve economic growth and then generate greater foreign confidence.
On the business side, there is still quite an uphill climb. According to this year’s annual ASEAN Business Outlook Survey released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Chambers of Commerce in ASEAN member countries, U.S. businesses’ satisfaction with the business climate in Thailand fell across 14 out of the 16 indicators of the business environment, with satisfaction decreasing by more than 20 percent in some areas. True, the survey was carried out before the government undertook several of its reforms. But paired with rising investor confidence in some of Thailand’s neighbors, the broader point is that Bangkok needs to do more to succeed in a more competitive landscape.
“In order to remain attractive to investors, Thailand will have to keep in step with neighboring countries as they open their economies and entice investors with attractive incentives,” Darren Buckley, President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand, said following the release of the report.
In a detailed interview with The Insider television program hosted by deputy government spokesman Major General Werachon Sukhonthapatipak in September, Buckley spelled out what the government needs to do in greater detail. While he acknowledged efforts to address top concerns businesses had cited in the survey – including political stability and corruption – he also highlighted the need for the government to tackle issues such as intellectual property rights and customs as well amending the Foreign Business Act and promoting investment in the services sector. And while he did acknowledge the importance of the government’s promotion of super-clusters and high technology investment U.S. firms, he has also said elsewhere that U.S. businesses need more information before moving.
These steps, Buckley said, would be “important to the American business community and…would also be helpful to driving the economy.”
The Road Ahead
Even amid the challenges following the coup, the United States and Thailand have been working hard both publicly and privately to manage Asia’s oldest alliance. But even with the resumption of the strategic dialogue this week, the trajectory for both countries remains unclear.
The most important unknown variable, of course, is Thailand’s own domestic politics. While Washington would like a full transition to democratic governance to occur, many expect the junta’s grip on power to remain firm into the future, with the royal succession presenting a potential challenge as well to the country’s stability. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai political scholar and vocal opponent of the coup now at Stanford University, sees this period as lasting for quite some time.
“It will be a long while before Thailand can return to some form of normalcy,” he told The Diplomat. “This will be a long drawn game depending on the actual royal transition.”
If this scenario is indeed what ends up playing out, it would be far from ideal. Washington would have to continue to tread a fine balance between registering its concerns on rights while pushing for greater strategic cooperation, all the while mindful that even a single statement could risk alienating the government, playing into shifting geopolitical realities in a way that could end up hurting Washington or favoring Beijing.
If, however, the two sides are able to successfully manage their strained alliance in a post-coup environment, there could be potential not only for continuing current collaboration but also expanding it in some areas. This could not only include TPP on the economic side, but even the strengthening of maritime cooperation in the Andaman Sea, which Walton, the former military attaché, sees as an underserved body of water given the challenges it encounters ranging from natural disasters to refugee outflows. Obviously, the strategic dialogue would be a good avenue now available for such ideas to be considered.
“We’re very clear-eyed about the challenges. But we believe it is important for us to sit down and have close and consistent dialogue between friends on all issues,” one Thai official told The Diplomat.
Ultimately, the key to managing the U.S.-Thai alliance today may rest in managing expectations about what both sides can achieve given current realities.
“Thai-US relations to a large extent were never going to be as staunch as in the Cold War era. But they still can be a solid and mutually beneficial relationship for Thailand’s traditional policy of balancing between the great powers and for the United States in its geopolitical engagements in Asia,” Thitinan, the professor, said.
Prashanth Parameswaran is Associate Editor at The Diplomat based in Washington, D.C., where he writes mostly on Southeast Asia, Asian security affairs and U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific. He is also a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.