WASHINGTON, D.C. – Since Donald Trump’s surprising win in the U.S. presidential election last November, some have hoped that there might be greater room for warmer U.S.-Thai relations which had grown frostier following a coup and the rise of the junta-led government in May 2014.
Though the expected summit meeting between Trump and Thai junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha later this month certainly offers room to further boost an alliance relationship that had been under some strain, there are also lingering challenges that remain (See: “Trump’s Big Asia Summit Month?”).
As I have noted before, it is important not to exaggerate the extent to which the Prayut-Trump meeting would constitute some kind of thaw in the U.S.-Thailand relationship (See: “Trump and the US-Thailand Alliance”). Close observers of the alliance know that in spite of the initial chill that followed after the May 2014 coup, ties were far from frozen, and there had in fact already been an uptick towards the end of the Obama administration, with both sides resuming their strategic dialogue at the end of 2015 (See: “Exclusive: Managing the Strained US-Thailand Alliance”).
That said, a Trump-Prayut summit would no doubt constitute a boost for both sides. For the Trump administration, it would be an early opportunity to improve an underperforming treaty alliance that had been under strain and build out its approach to Southeast Asia and Asia more generally (See: “Trump’s Real ASEAN Test”).
For Prayut, apart from any legitimacy that can be read to be conferred to his government, his first White House visit gives him a chance to address some of the economic and security concerns that Washington has and boost a relationship that is important for its own sake but also within the context of finding a balance of alignments within Thai foreign policy to boost its prosperity and security (See: “Asia Needs New Strategic Equilibrium: Thai Junta Chief”).
Turning to substance ahead of the summit, things seem to look brightest on the defense side. Though fundamental differences remain in several areas including threat perceptions with respect to China, both sides have already begun touting individual deals, including a longstanding one on the sale of Black Hawk helicopters to Thailand.
Though the general trend line here is notable, it is not that surprising and has been going on since the end of the Obama administration, whether one looks at defense sales, exercises, high-level exchanges, or even cooperation in areas like cybersecurity, which are all on the uptick. As an example, with respect to defense sales, U.S. officials had already begun quietly reviewing and approving some defense transfers on a case-by-case basis, which is why we saw instances like the sale of Evolved SeaSparrow Missiles and associated parts to Thailand surface as early as October 2015.
On the economic side, things are more complicated. On trade, earlier this year, the Trump administration included Thailand, Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, on its list of 16 countries with which the United States has run the highest trade deficits.
And on investment, while U.S. businesses continue to express interest in Thailand, as was clear during the meeting last month between Prayut and an U.S.-ASEAN Business Council delegation, the deeper reality is that the country’s growth rate is still well below its potential and it lags behind its regional peers, while concerns remain about its future political stability. As U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies told The Bangkok Post in an interview recently, both countries are working hard to eliminate some longstanding irritants and hope to make at least some progress.
Things also remain tricky on the democracy and human rights front. The fact that a junta leader is being granted a summit at the invitation of the White House will not be a point missed by rights groups and other observers who were already concerned about the administration’s commitment in this area.
This is particularly the case since Thailand’s domestic political context remains unchanged, with the ruling junta continuing to drag its feet on the country’s full restoration to democratic governance and tinkering with the rules of the game to produce a political outcome favorable to its interests if and when an election is held (See: “Why Thailand’s Next Election May Not Matter”).
So even though a Trump-Prayut summit meeting presents an ideal chance for the United States and Thailand to make some much-needed improvements in their strained alliance relationship that can benefit both sides today, the underlying strategic challenges will likely take much longer to resolve.