New US Envoy to Thailand Walks Tightrope Amid Alliance Strain

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New US Envoy to Thailand Walks Tightrope Amid Alliance Strain

US-Thai relations have entered a new tumultuous phase.

New US Envoy to Thailand Walks Tightrope Amid Alliance Strain
Credit: Flickr/US Department of State

Thailand-United States relations have entered a new tumultuous phase, just two months after Washington’s appointment to Bangkok of a veteran diplomat with a remit to repair damaged ties. U.S. ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies’ innocuous remark on the ruling military junta’s unprecedented use of lese majeste charges to stifle free speech and imprison critics of the monarchy has sparked a firestorm of high-level rebukes and anti-U.S. protests calling for the senior envoy’s expulsion and an end to perceived American interference in domestic affairs.

Davies’ comment, made during a wide-ranging and mostly upbeat speech to Bangkok’s Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on November 25, was couched in adulation for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who the envoy referred to as a U.S. “native son” in recognition of the 87-year-old Thai monarch’s birth in Boston. While the U.S. admires and respects Bhumibol, Davies said, it also believes no-one should be imprisoned for “peacefully” expressing their views. Thailand’s royalist junta deems any criticism of the crown as a threat to security and has harshly stifled public discussion of the monarchy ahead of a delicate royal succession. Bhumibol turns 88 on December 5 amid rising concerns for his faltering health.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha insinuated that Davies’ critical comment may jeopardize future trade relations, significantly at a time his government weighs whether to join the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral trade pact. Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, the junta’s deputy leader, told reporters Davies’ should “think twice” before speaking on monarchical matters. Royalist protesters, meanwhile, threatened to ramp up anti-U.S. actions if the junta failed to respond with sufficiently punitive measures. The protests were allowed to proceed despite the junta’s hard bans on free assembly and expression, hinting at official complicity in the nationalistic uproar.

The rebukes and threats have chilled what some saw as an incipient warming trend after bilateral ties arguably hit their lowest point in decades after the 2014 coup. Davies’ ambassadorial predecessor, Kristie Kenney, took a hard line against the coup-makers, a position the State Department has maintained through persistent calls for a speedy return to democracy. Prayut’s regime has justified its clampdown on the need to restore stability after nearly a decade of debilitating street protests, though many believe the coup was staged with a hidden agenda to ensure royalist generals are in charge to steer the succession.

Before Davies’ fateful speech, the treaty allies seemed poised for a fresh diplomatic start. Prior to his arrival in Bangkok, Davies received personal calls from Privy Councilors, royal advisers to the monarch, welcoming his appointment to the kingdom, according to a source familiar with the situation. That royal treatment contrasts with Kenney’s initial reception in 2010, when she was scolded by influential Privy Council President Prem Tinsulonanda for the leak of confidential U.S. Embassy cables, including one that detailed the statesman’s views on heir apparent Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s suitability for the throne.

The kerfuffle over Davies’ comments has underlined high-level divisions over how best to balance Thailand’s China and U.S. relations. Beijing and Washington have aligned with competitive royalist power centers, with Deputy Prime Minister Prawit’s defense ministry pushing for deeper strategic ties and more arms deals with China, the advisory Privy Council keen to repair ties to the U.S., and premier Prayut prevaricating while leaning fitfully towards China during bouts of U.S. criticism of his rule. Some analysts sense the strong nationalistic reaction to Davies’ speech may have been orchestrated by the regime’s pro-China element to derail Davies’ charm offensive before it gained momentum.

Davies had earlier expressed his willingness to work on 95% of the bilateral relationship, insinuating that only 5% of the full spectrum of strategic engagement was barred under U.S. law limiting ties with military regimes that grab power in democracy-suspending coups. He during his FCCT address that his job as ambassador – a post that remained symbolically vacant for nearly ten months – was to find ways to “highlight the importance” and “enduring nature” of the relationship. “I come along, I’m a different kind of guy, I have to have a different style,” Davies said in differentiating his diplomacy from Kenney’s.

There are hints that new approach may entail a less stringent advocacy of democratic principles in defining the relationship. Davies said that the U.S. hopes Thailand’s roadmap to democracy will be “surefooted” and “swift”, consistent with Washington’s drumbeat call since the coup to quickly hold new polls. At the same time, the envoy insinuated the U.S. would be willing to countenance a “Thai-form” democracy, one that reflects the country’s ancient culture and traditions, including reverence for the monarchy. He said it would be “idiotic” for the U.S. to try to export a Jeffersonian model of democracy to Thailand, though it’s unclear if Washington would fully re-engage a Thai-style democracy that maintains a strong political role for the military.

Davies denies his more nuanced approach aims to counter China’s post-coup gains vis-à-vis the U.S. The envoy plays down the notion that Beijing and Washington are locked in a “Great Game” rivalry for influence in Thailand, saying such an analysis was “way too 19th century” and irrelevant to the 21st century’s era of globalization. Davies told the FCCT that last month’s first ever China-Thailand joint air force exercises “is not something that keeps me up at night, nor should it” – even as the U.S.’s annual Cobra Gold multilateral military exercises, the region’s largest, are downgraded for a second consecutive year. Before the coup, the U.S. and Thailand held over 50 joint military exercises per year, according to Washington-based Congressional Research Service.

Some Bangkok-based analysts believe the U.S.’s initial critical stand on last year’s coup was in part a reaction to the U.S.’s already dwindling access to Thai military facilities, including the strategic U-Tapao air base. In May, Thailand denied a U.S. request to fly surveillance flights over Thai airspace to locate and provide assistance to Rohingya migrant boat people, citing reasons of national security. At the same time, Thailand’s defense ministry is weighing whether to allow China to lead a multi-billion dollar refurbishment of its Sattahip naval base, a concession that could give Beijing new naval access to the Gulf of Thailand and a strategic southern flank in the contested South China Sea. If Davies is truly not looking at Thai-U.S. relations through a competitive Great Game lens, China clearly is.