Cloudy Forecast for U.S.-Thai Ties?

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Cloudy Forecast for U.S.-Thai Ties?

Thailand is delaying a decision on a NASA airstrip request. What does it say about relations?

The U.S. tilt back into Southeast Asia has made a hesitant start with Bangkok delaying a decision on a request for NASA to use the U-Tapao airstrip in Rayong, a former base used during the Vietnam War, for weather research and atmospheric studies.

The request is a very minor move in the overall scheme of diplomatic relations. But although the U.S. says it’s designed for weather research, critics argue there’s more to it than that – some mutter that the government in Thailand is aiming for some political gains, or else suggest that it’s really some kind of covert U.S. operation for peaking into China.

Neither claims have any credibility, but political head banging in Thailand got a whole lot louder when the opposition Democrat Party – which approved the project when in government – claimed the current government wanted a U.S. visa for the former leader Thaksin Shinawatra in exchange for the base.

Such an allegation was made all the more plausible with hints from Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, the current prime minister, at a possible return someday for her wayward brother, now a famously rich exile who can’t come home because of corruption convictions.

Yingluck told a throng of waiting journalists that this was a good project but that more details were needed, thus it would be put up for consideration by the cabinet at some point. The issue will also go before a joint sitting of parliament for debate, but without a vote.

NASA scientists had hoped to use U-Tapao in August and September as part of a regional collaboration that includes Cambodian airspace and Thailand’s Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (Gistda).

Democrat Party leader and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva wants the government to make public all details of the project and have the proposal considered in parliament in accordance with Article 190 of the Constitution. He has his wish.

The article requires that all agreements with foreign countries be considered by parliament, particularly when they are related to a change in territory or sovereignty over territory. China popped up as an issue because some politicians fear use of the base will further heighten tensions that have accompanied Beijing’s bulging bottom line. And the Americans have said they would like to use the base for disaster relief.

Such a base would have proved handy during the rescue effort that followed the 2005 tsunami.

But Science Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi spoke plainly and made some sense, saying NASA had initiated this project two years ago and was planning to go ahead with it because it was useful for weather research.

“NASA has the technology that we don't have. If the project is successful, we will have more knowledge on meteorology, which will enable us to predict weather more correctly, so we can prepare for floods,” he told local media.

This is a simple weather project and its delay must be viewed with some consternation in Washington. After all, if they can’t raise a weather balloon without a joint sitting of parliament, then what hope for an entire shift in strategic policy which would have Thailand, an old ally, close to its side.