In the wake of the fire unleashed by the North Korean leader on the United States, President Donald Trump is left with few options to rein in Pyongyang: He must now reach out to former allies, push the narrative on democracy and human rights under the carpet and accept that the security challenge cannot be surmounted without the cooperation of countries in East Asia.
The US’s security hinges on its capacity to transform the geopolitics of the Asia Pacific region – this cannot be achieved without engagement. Thus, as the US re-envisions its relations with East Asian countries, it must reach out to its oldest allies in the region.
While the US has bilateral treaty alliances with five countries – Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand – in the Asia Pacific region, and numerous other long-standing security partnerships, including with New Zealand, Singapore and Taiwan, Thailand is the United States’ oldest Asian treaty ally. In fact, the United States and Thailand have been friends since 1833. This friendship matured in to a strategic and economic partnership post World War II, when the US had access to military bases during the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars.
US Looks Away After Thailand’s 2014 Military Coup
When the military (US-trained) of Thailand overthrew the Yingluck Shinawatra government, in the coup of June 2014), the USA chose to distance itself from Thailand and withdrew its grant to Thailand of USD$10 million per year soon after the coup.
The Obama administration, while being vocal in its criticism of the military’s seizure of power suspended training for military officers and some weapons assistance programs to Bangkok, it continued the annual Cobra Gold exercise in a smaller form and the CARAT Thailand naval training exercises in Thailand.1
That Thailand’s geo-strategic location is critical for the United States may not be comprehended by the State Department, but it is well understood by the Pentagon. The US’ turning away in 2014 was responded to by Bangkok bolstering its ties with Beijing, including buying some Chinese tanks and announcing that it would purchase Chinese submarines.
In the past few months, Thailand has approved purchases of more than USD $500 million worth of Chinese submarines, tanks and helicopters, besides construction of a new rail link. China has now increasingly used the strategic space vacated by USA to manoeuvre Thailand for its own core interests and ensure the latter’s primacy in the Belt and Road Initiative. Thailand has also reacted strongly to the US’ meddling in its internal affairs. The protest was articulated after Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Daniel Russel (speaking to students at a Bangkok university) called for more inclusive politics and the end of martial law.2
Thailand’s Geo-Strategic Eminence
Given the rising ambitions of China as well as the challenge posed by North Korea, Thailand’s position of geo-strategic eminence could not be ignored any more especially by Pentagon.
Even before Trump assumed the presidency on January 20, 2017, the Pentagon signaled towards restoring US troop participation in Cobra Gold to pre-coup levels. It also announced that Thailand would be visited by none other than the top commander in the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris. The visit took place in February 2017.
Thailand’s importance in arresting the belligerence of the North Korean leader comes not only from the fact that its largest embassy in South East Asia is in Bangkok, but also because Thailand is Pyongyang’s fourth largest partner, with USD $53 million in official trade with North Korea in 2016.
It is well known that Thailand and North Korea have a thriving trade partnership mainly because of North Korea’s desire to reduce its over dependence on goods from China. To quote George McLeod, a Thailand-based political risk consultant, “From Thailand’s perspective, the main concern is to avoid credibility damage from having the ‘Made in Thailand’ label on goods appearing in North Korea,” he said. “To avoid this, goods from Thailand are exported to two border towns” in China along the Chinese-North Korean frontier. According to McLeod these goods are then re-labelled as Chinese goods and exported by truck to North Korea. This trade is unofficial and undertaken mainly through individual businessmen.3
It is not surprising then that only a few weeks preceding US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s stopover in Bangkok, that US Ambassador to Thailand, Glyn Davies asked Bangkok’s military government to support international sanctions against North Korea. “As a leader of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), Thailand has an important role to play in the broad effort to signal to North Korea it will be isolated if it does not suspend its weapons programs and return to talks on the basis of a verifiable commitment to denuclearize,” Davies said.
The visit of Rex Tillerson to the Philippines, where he met the leaders of all the ASEAN countries was focused on seeking their cooperation in containing North Korea’s weapons and missiles programs. The next stopover for Tillerson was Bangkok. He became the top US official to visit Thailand since the nation’s military seized power from an elected civilian government three years ago, causing relations with the US to sour.
The response from Thailand was measured and non-committal. “Thailand is committed to its obligations to the United Nations and has clearly expressed its stance through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. So there should be no need to set any conditions for the country,” General Prayuth Chan-o-Cha, Thailand’s Prime Minister said, without elaborating.
The ASEAN statement was also as expected. It simply read as, “We reiterate our support for the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner, call for the exercise of self-restraint, and underscore the importance of creating conditions conducive for dialogue to de-escalate tensions.”4 A very restrained statement by ASEAN that did not specify any timeline or specific sanctions against North Korea.
Although the focus of talks between Tillerson and Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai was the North Korean crisis, the issue of cyber-attacks was also discussed. The talks which lasted for about 45 minutes was an attempt to refurbish relations and build some understanding on several aspects of the bilateral relations. The issue of human rights or governance were not discussed, presumably as the US does not want to be seen as interfering with Thailand’s internal matters at a time it needs to woo its ally for exerting pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.
The uncomfortable issue of Thailand’s trade surplus with the US was also not brought up.
Thailand’s foreign Minister’s statement that trade between North Korea and Thailand declined by 94 percent between January to June in 2017 as compared to the same period in 2016 was a positive assurance for the visitor. Tillerson also met Thai Prime Minister Prayuth during his visit, and paid his respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away in October 2016.
A Win-Win Opportunity
Could the Tillerson visit be viewed as one which could revive and revitalize bilateral relations? Both the US and Thailand need each other not only because of the North Korea factor, which has direct or indirect ramifications for all countries, but also due to the changing geo-politics in Asia-both in the continental and the maritime space.
China’s aggressive posturing has been witnessed by both South East Asian and South Asian countries, in no uncertain measure – From the South China Sea (directly impacting at least 4 South East Asian countries) to the recent Doklam impasse (directly affecting India and Bhutan, but signalling to India’s neighbours China’s relentless push for territorial gains).
Thailand’s growing closeness to China must not result in its compromising its sovereignty under the Belt and Road Initiative. Civil society groups, academics and intellectuals are increasingly suspicious of China’s infrastructure build through Laos, comprising not only acquisition of land but also the threats to livelihoods of the fishing communities due to the building of dams on the Mekong river and capturing of businesses in Thailand’s north to name a few.
Moreover, while both USA and China are the most important destinations for Thailand’s exports (A share of 11.4% and 11.3%, respectively), Thailand has a rising trade surplus with USA (increased from approx. USD $14 billion in 2013 to USD $19 billion in 2016); on the contrary, it has a trade deficit of approx. USD $17 billion with China.
The surplus with the USA in 2016 represented 68 percent of Thailand’s total trade surplus of $17.9 billion, a surplus which is imperative for Thailand’s economy. Boosting relations with USA also implies that Thailand may be able to negotiate out of the “crosshairs” of Trump’s trade policy which seeks stringent action against 16 identified countries with large trade surpluses.
As both economic and military ties between Thailand and China forge ahead, it is imperative that the former does not become subservient to China’s interests, but maintains its independent foreign policy and continues engagement under its ‘Look West policy’ both with countries as USA (former closest ally in Asia) and India, with whom it is celebrating seventy years of diplomatic ties. As stated by Paul Chambers, an advisor for International Affairs with Naresuan University in Thailand, “China today perceives Southeast Asia as within its economic and geopolitical orbit.
As such, Chinese trade, investment and aid are one of the highest in the region. For Beijing, influence across the region offers strategic flexibility,” he said. Again, words of caution by Ruth Banomyong, who said “China sees this area of the world as part of its hinterland. I wouldn’t be surprised if they consider Laos and Thailand as future provinces of the Middle Kingdom.” 5
General Prayut Chan-o-Cha would do well to accept Trump’s invitation to the White House this year. The visit would help not only to beef up both economic and military ties but also underline that Thailand has not closed itself to the West. Beijing, on its part, may caution Thailand not to fall into the “trap” that was being laid, to pit Bangkok against Beijing, by Washington, as part of its “pivot to Asia” doctrine. However, Thailand must counter assert that the visit to the White House is a win-win opportunity for both Bangkok and Washington.
*About the author:
Dr. Reena Marwah, Senior fellow, Indian Council for Social Science Research, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Govt. of India. Currently based at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies ( CSDS) and
Founding Editor, Millennial Asia- A Sage Publication ( A biannual Journal of Asian studies)
1. Sifton John Rex Tillerson and the Thai Regime, Bangkok Post, August 4, 2017, accessed on August 12, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/08/04/rex-tillerson-and-thai-regime
2. Sawitta Lefevr, Amy (2015), “Thailand warns U.S. to mind its own business over politics”, Accessed on 16 February 2015, URL: ehttp://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/28/us-thailand-politics idUSKBN0L10LZ20150128
3. Ehrlich Richard, AsiaTimes June 22, 2017,accessed on August 12, 2017; http://www.atimes.com/article/thailand-north-korea-ties-spotlight/
4. ASEAN Foreign Ministers Statement on the Developments in the Korean Peninsula, August 5, 2017; https://www.asean2017.ph/asean-foreign-ministers-statement-on-the-developments-in-the-korean-peninsula/; accessed on August 14, 2017
5. Penna Michele, China Starts Controversial Lao Rail Project, Asia Sentinel, March 7, 2017; https://www.asiasentinel.com/econ-business/china-laos-railroad-project/, accessed on 15/08/2017