US-Thailand Relations on a Razor’s Edge

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US-Thailand Relations on a Razor’s Edge

Further delays in polls could lead to a more punitive US response.

US-Thailand Relations on a Razor’s Edge

Glyn Davies, the newly confirmed US ambassador to Thailand.

Credit: Flickr/Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Could a further postponement of elections in Thailand trigger a more punitive U.S. response to last year’s democracy-suspending coup and subsequent heavy-handed military rule? Recent reports indicate the ruling junta’s roadmap to elections could be delayed from September 2016 to April 2017 if the military-appointed National Reform Commission rejects next month a draft constitution that aims to reorder the country’s turbulent politics. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha vowed upon seizing power in mid-2014 to restore democracy by late 2015, but as delays mount that narrative seems more geared to ease international pressure than reinstate civilian rule.

The U.S. has been a consistent critic of the coup and its authoritarian aftermath, a position the State Department has advanced on democratic principle to the detriment of the wider strategic relationship. U.S. envoys have doggedly emphasized the need to quickly hold new polls to restore normal ties, including a full resumption of now suspended high-level strategic dialogue, downgraded joint military exercises and trainings, and curtailed sales of certain types of weaponry and defense equipment.

Washington’s failure to appoint, for nearly a year, a new ambassador to Bangkok, although more a function of congressional gridlock than targeted policy, has been viewed by many Thais as a symbolic rebuke of the military’s takeover. Former U.S. envoy for North Korea policy Glyn Davies’ delayed appointment to the post was finally confirmed last week by the Senate. Davies’ experience in the diplomacy of confrontation and isolation vis-à-vis Pyongyang, viewed in Washington as a rogue state, has signaled he will likely amplify rather than reduce the pressure on Prayuth’s rights-curbing regime.

Washington’s stand on democracy marks a turn from its open engagement of military coup-makers who overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra’s elected government in 2006, a kid-gloves policy some believe emboldened military top brass to maintain an independent political role even after returning power to a popularly elected administration in 2008. That was witnessed during Prayuth’s highly autonomous tenure as army commander starting in 2010 until he effectively appointed himself prime minister after last year’s coup. The draft constitution now under debate aims in measures to legalize the military’s future political role.

The United States’ previous engagement with military coup-makers aimed to sustain access to strategic facilities, including use of its U-Tapao airbase to refuel warplanes transiting to Afghanistan and Iraq, and as a secret ‘rendition’ site for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to interrogate detained terror suspects. The decision to engage rather than isolate in 2006 was also strongly influenced by U.S. ambassador Ralph “Skip” Boyce, a charismatic Thai speaker who had cultivated close personal ties to royalist generals and top palace advisers.

Outgoing U.S. ambassador Kristie Kenney has been equally influential in reversing that course, a reflection of her personal affinity for Yingluck and her political camp, as well as Washington’s shifting strategic priorities in the region. Kenney’s initial refusal to meet with Prayuth’s coup-makers, viewed by some as a kneejerk response at the time, now seems more justified in light of the junta’s hard curbs on free expression, political assembly and other civil liberties. And while Thailand has been a key ally in the U.S. ‘war on terror’ campaign, Bangkok is clearly a less willing partner in Washington’s bid to counter China’s rise through it’s “pivot” policy.

After a decade of political turmoil and concerns about future stability due to an uncertain royal succession, there are rising calls in Washington to leverage the coup as an opportunity to disengage with Thailand and bolster relations with countries more aligned with the “pivot,” including Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam. While the Philippines is an established democracy, Thai officials see a double standard in rising U.S. engagement with Myanmar’s and Vietnam’s chronic rights-abusing regimes while sanctioning their democratic retreat, professed as temporary. Many Thais sensed similar hypocrisy in Washington’s decision to maintain Thailand’s lowest Tier 3 status on this year’s Trafficking in Persons report while elevating Malaysia and maintaining Myanmar to Tier 2 watch list in spite of their likewise egregious roles in the Rohingya refugee crisis.

Policy mavens in Washington are calling for even stronger measures. Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert at the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, advocated during testimony to a House of Representatives subcommittee on June 11 for the U.S. to relocate regional hubs for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and drug interdiction operations from Bangkok to neighboring countries if elections are postponed beyond September 2016. Hiebert also called for the appointment of a special envoy to Thailand, separate from the ambassador, to speak regularly with military leaders about both sides’ concerns and perspectives. Some have suggested that retired ambassador Boyce, now a chief executive at Boeing in Singapore, would fit that mediator role.

The Pentagon would clearly prefer a more diplomatic approach. In a strongly worded Wall Street Journal op-ed, Desmond Walton, the U.S. Department of Defense’s senior representative to Thailand from 2012-2015, argued that Washington’s singular focus on an immediate return to democracy has jeopardized recent gains in modernizing the two sides’ security relationship and threatens to undermine the effectiveness of the “pivot” by unnecessarily antagonizing and alienating a proven strategic ally. Walton wrote that Prayuth’s government has responded by strengthening security ties to China and imposing new restrictions on the “unfettered access” U.S. forces have historically enjoyed in the country’s “only reliable access point to mainland Asia.”

Reports that Thailand aims to purchase three Chinese-made Yuan Class S26T submarines, valued in sum at around US$1 billion, is emblematic of that strategic shift. Some analysts believe post-sale service and maintenance of the vessels could serve as an entry point for Beijing to develop a strategically significant presence at Thailand’s Sattahip naval base on the Gulf of Thailand. So, too, could the terms of a deal under consideration by the Ministry of Defense to allow China to lead a multibillion dollar modernization of the naval facility. While Prayuth’s decision to temporarily freeze the submarine purchase may have been a nod to Washington’s concerns, more punitive measures in response to his lacking democratic credentials will likely push his military government even deeper into China’s strategic embrace.