Last Thursday, Thailand’s army chief Chalermchai Sitthisart made headlines when he told reporters that the United States government had approved a Thai purchase order for four Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters, weeks before an expected summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (See: “A US-Thailand Alliance Boost Under Trump and Prayut?”).
Though some of the hype surrounding the sale is rooted in the misconception that defense ties had been severed following the Thai coup in 2014, as opposed to just being initially and temporarily downgraded in some areas, it nonetheless illustrates how both sides remain keen to forge ahead with defense cooperation in spite of ongoing challenges (See: “Trump and the US-Thailand Alliance”).
As I have pointed out before, though the May 2014 coup resulted in an initial strain for the U.S.-Thailand alliance, both sides worked to preserve ongoing cooperation and better manage the strained alliance (See: “Exclusive: Managing the Strained US-Thailand Alliance”). That goes for the defense side too, where, apart from suspensions and restrictions required by law, metrics in areas from exercises to exchanges had in fact been on an uptick, in some cases even dating back to the end of the Obama administration.
To cite just a couple of examples, both sides resumed their annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training Exercise (CARAT) in 2015 after an initial suspension in 2014, and U.S. Pacific Command chief Harry Harris attended the 2017 iteration of the Cobra Gold multinational exercises in Thailand in February – making him the highest level of U.S. officer to join drills since the coup. The two allies also continued their important but often overlooked work on other issues ranging from nuclear security to law enforcement to irregular migration.
U.S. defense sales also continued, even as the headlines in recent years tended to focus on Thailand’s deals with China, particularly its submarine purchase, which raised eyebrows among some in Washington (See: “Does Thailand’s Chinese Submarine Purchase Really Signal US Drift?”). The U.S. Embassy in Thailand recently affirmed that the value of U.S. sales to Thailand since the coup amounts to around $380 million.
That said, the Trump administration has certainly seemed more bullish so far on the U.S.-Thailand alliance. In April, Trump included Prayut in his list of three Southeast Asian leaders invited to the White House (the others being Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore), reflecting a desire to focus on shoring up longstanding U.S. treaty alliances and partners in Southeast Asia as much as developing newer partnerships with countries like Vietnam. Assuming the visit happens soon, Prayut would become the first Southeast Asian leader to visit the White House under Trump, following Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (See: “US-Vietnam Ties Under Trump in the Spotlight with Premier’s Visit”).
On the defense side, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis made clear in his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, as well as in his meeting with Thai Deputy Defense Minister Udomdej Sitabutr, that the Trump administration sees expanding military-to-military ties with Thailand as a priority as Washington looks to boost its alliance relationships, promote a more interconnected region, and strengthen U.S. military capabilities (See: “What Mattis’ Speech Revealed About Trump’s Asia Policy”).
We have also already seen examples of both U.S.-Thailand cooperation as well as Thailand’s own contribution to regional and global challenges at play this year early on in the Trump administration, whether it be through Bangkok’s hosting of a ASEAN workshop on cybersecurity in late June or the holding of the first U.S.-Thailand-Singapore trilateral CARAT exercise in the South China Sea in May, which has broader significance in the context of the growing multilateralization of U.S. drills in the region (See: “US, Singapore, Thailand Launch First Trilateral Exercise in South China Sea”).
How cooperation in these areas and others play out remains to be seen as the Trump administration’s Asia policy is still very much in flux, even on key issue areas like North Korea or China. Though the administration may be eager to lean on ASEAN countries like Thailand to join it in isolating Pyongyang or taking a tougher line toward China on matters like the South China Sea, differences on various nuances from threat perception to the merits of specific approaches can also cause friction (See: “The Real Challenge for US-ASEAN Relations Under Trump”).
But the Black Hawk helicopters have unsurprisingly made more headlines than any of these other broader and arguably more consequential defense-related developments. According to Chalermchai, procurement of the four additional Black Hawks – long-desired by Thailand’s military to complete its requirements – can be done through the 2018 defense budget, which has already been approved by the Thai parliament, and under the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. No further specifics were disclosed about the deal, including how long it would take for it to actually materialize as well as the exact cost.
Black Hawks are not new to the bilateral relationship. The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) had notified Congress of a sale of three UH-60L Black Hawks for $150 million in 2009, and four UH-60M types for $235 million in 2012. Black Hawks are also just one of several items that both countries will be considering in terms of defense sales. Thai defense ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantravich has said Thailand is developing and sharing a full list with Washington. Any potential deals will take time to actually materialize.
Yet there is no question that the Black Hawk sale would constitute a major defense deal following the May 2014 coup. That has implications not just for the bilateral defense relationship, but also within the realm of economic ties too as it would contribute to a slight reduction in the trade deficit the United States has with Thailand. As I have pointed out before, the Trump administration had included Thailand on its list of 16 countries with which the United States has run the highest trade deficits, and both sides have been working to try and address the issue.
Both sides are likely to publicly announce more details on the defense side in the coming months as engagements such as the Trump-Prayut summit and the U.S.-Thailand Strategic Dialogue occur along with other working-level meetings. As individual items get announced, it will be important to keep the bigger picture of defense ties in mind.