US-Thai summit aims to restore ties, but deep issues remain unresolved

By Song Qingrun Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/10 18:53:39

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha accepted US President Donald Trump's invitation and will visit the US this month. This will be his first official visit in his three years as prime minister.

The main reason for the invitation is that the US wants to repair relations with its two military allies in Southeast Asia, Thailand and the Philippines, and maintain its military and diplomatic position in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Obama administration often wielded the big sticks of "democracy and human rights" when dealing with these two allies. For example, after the incumbent prime minister of Thailand took office after a coup, the Obama administration leveraged military aid and cooperation, trade cooperation and the prospect of high-level reciprocal visits to demand that the Prayut government hold an election to return power to the people as soon as possible. Thailand publicly protested America's interference in its internal affairs.

After Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office, he cracked down on drug use with an iron hand, prompting the Obama administration to sharply criticize his government for human rights violations. The Duterte government openly slashed back with its own strong criticism.

The Obama administration offended its two allies in Southeast Asia, making the Philippines and Thailand tilt toward China, which not only affected America's military and diplomatic actions in the Asia-Pacific region, but also caused the US to lose its dignity as a superpower on the world stage. Trump's foreign policy is more pragmatic than that of his predecessor. The Trump administration recognized that the US cannot harm its overall interests to pursue the empty target of "democracy and human rights" in the form of interference with other countries' domestic affairs. The US realizes it must change its policy on the Philippines and Thailand to reverse the unfavorable situation.

The Trump administration has not yet introduced a systematic and clear policy on Southeast Asia, thus countries of the region do not understand and are not satisfied with Trump's foreign policy. Therefore, the US will put its focal point of policy in Southeast Asia on its two allies - Thailand and the Philippines, hoping to boost the overall development of relations with other regional countries.

In addition, through improving relations with the Philippines and Thailand, the Trump administration wants to persuade other countries in Southeast Asia to be more active in cooperating with the US to put pressure on North Korea, support the US in maneuvering the South China Sea issue, and help the Trump administration sell more weapons to these countries and achieve important policy objectives in the Asia-Pacific region.

After Prayut received the invitation, he immediately ordered Thailand's Ministry of Commerce as the main responsible department to collate relevant information about investment and trade, economic relations and intellectual property rights between Thailand and the US, and made detailed preparations for his visit. Why was he so eager?

First, Trump's invitation is like "rain after a long drought" for the Prayut government's diplomacy, which was isolated after suffering pressure from the Western world for three years. This visit to the US is a rare opportunity for improving Thailand's diplomatic ties.

Second, economic and trade cooperation with the US will help boost Thailand's economy. During Prayut's visit, he will focus on consultations on trade issues. Since Prayut has been in office, the annual GDP growth rate in Thailand has been low. The US has long been an important trading partner for Thailand, and could potentially help improve the situation.

Third, this visit may also help the military alliance between the US and Thailand, restoring the two countries' military cooperation to normal, by gradually restoring America's partial military assistance to Thailand and resuming US training of military officers in Thailand. 

Does Prayut's visit mean that relations between the US and Thailand will change from cloudy to sunny? The answer should be yes. The two leaders will improve bilateral relations through this meeting.

However, their relations have been chilly for three years and there are many problems. For example, Thailand has been pursuing a balancing diplomacy, unwilling to align solely with any big powers. Thailand has diverse sources of weapons imports, so it doesn't want to be overly reliant on the US. The two countries' divergences and conflicts of interest in democracy, human rights, intellectual property rights, economy and trade and other issues cannot be solved through a summit meeting.

The author is an associate professor and PhD, Institute of South and Southeast Asian and Oceanian Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.


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