WASHINGTON, D.C. – Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s White House visit earlier this month was read by some as a major thawing in the U.S.-Thailand alliance, which had frozen since a military junta seized power in May 2014. In fact, the summit meeting between the two leaders should be understood as just the latest step in the ongoing recalibration of the alliance that was already underway, and one that continues to face some challenges ahead that the two treaty allies must carefully manage.
Despite the initial chill in the U.S.-Thailand alliance following the May 2014 coup, ties were far from frozen solid and there had in fact already been an uptick towards the end of the Obama administration, with both sides restarting their strategic dialogue and resuming several military interactions (See: “Exclusive: US-Thailand Alliance Under Strain”). This process continued on under U.S. President Donald J. Trump, with the attendance of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) chief Admiral Harry Harris at this year’s Cobra Gold exercises in February — the highest ranking military official to do so since the coup — and the White House invitation extended to Prayut in April.
The Trump-Prayut summit was thus just the latest step in an already ongoing process of recalibration, albeit a big one since it is the first White House meeting granted to Thailand since the coup and the first meeting between the two leaders. And that process of recalibration still faces some major challenges that both sides will need to address in the coming months.
On the security side, advances continue to be made in several areas including exercises, high-level exchanges, and even sales, with Harris’ February visit and the approval of Harpoon missiles being cases in point (See: “What’s Next for US-Thailand Military Ties Under Trump?”). Five of the nine substantive points in the joint statement issued by the two sides following the Trump-Prayut summit focused on the development of security ties, covering not just issues making the headlines of late such as North Korea or the ongoing situation in Rakhine State, but also the South China Sea (See: “Should North Korea Be Kicked Out of the ASEAN Regional Forum?”).
Yet this also masks fundamental differences between how each side perceives and addresses security threats. These differences have already begun to surface. The United States asked Thailand to “do more” in certain areas like North Korea, while expressing concern about its treaty ally’s closer alignment to China (See: “Does Thailand’s Chinese Submarine Purchase Really Signal US Drift?”). For Thai officials, this is hardly the first time they have heard U.S. burden-sharing concerns being expressed. And although Bangkok is happy to play a role on regional issues ranging from cybersecurity to the Rohingya issue, some of these asks are even harder and riskier to deliver on to make when there is still so much uncertainty around the Trump administration’s own foreign policy in general and Asia policy in particular (See: “The Ticking Clock on Trump’s Asia Strategy”).
The challenge is arguably bigger in the economic realm. On the U.S. side, the Trump administration had drawn attention to challenges in the bilateral economic relationship early on by including Thailand, Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, on its list of 16 countries with which the United States has run the highest trade deficits. U.S. and Thai officials continue to work through ways in which this can be managed, with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross making a visit to Thailand in late September right before the summit. Yet as Trump noted in his remarks at the summit meeting, this continues to be an area of concern for his administration.
On the Thai side, bilateral economic ties matter for the Prayut government particularly in the context of boosting the Thai economy and the regime’s overall legitimacy. Thailand wants more U.S. businesses to invest there, and Prayut made his case not just in meetings with the Trump administration but also in an address directly to the business community in an event organized by the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Though there continues to be interest among U.S. companies in doing so, it is also true that Thailand’s growth rate is still well below its potential, lags behind its regional peers, and continues to be a question mark in the longer term amid concerns about its future political stability.
That feeds into the political dynamics at work in both Thailand and the United States. Thailand’s full restoration to democratic governance following the May 2014 coup is still underway, with repeatedly-delayed elections now set for November 2018 and several key developments out till then, including an ongoing royal transition following the death of revered monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej. As the junta attempts to delicately manage this transition, it may take steps domestically that could exacerbate rights concerns among some actors in the U.S. foreign policy process, thereby limiting or at least frustrating the Trump administration’s ability to get the alliance to realize its full potential (See: “Why Thailand’s Next Election May Not Matter”).
But Thai officials, not unlike some of their Southeast Asian peers, are keen to point out in private that the Trump administration is a sobering reminder that concerns about domestic politics in the alliance can cut both ways. Though Trump has made some overtures to Southeast Asian states – including committing to holding a series of White House summits and attending multilateral meetings in Vietnam and the Philippines next month – the administration’s populist bent, coupled with the lingering uncertainties around its outlook with midterm elections approaching at home next year and crises brewing abroad, will only reinforce the caution still held by some in the Thai government and elite (See: “Trump’s Real ASEAN Test”).
To be sure, challenges like aligning threat perceptions and managing domestic political developments are not new to the U.S.-Thailand alliance, with both countries having one of the oldest relationships among Washington’s list of allies, partners, and friends that dates back centuries (See: “Which Country is the Oldest US Ally in Asia?”). Yet as they have done before, both sides will need to manage them carefully if they are to achieve the “common security” and “common prosperity” they touted in their summit joint statement.
Prashanth Parameswaran is Associate Editor at The Diplomat based in Washington, D.C., where he writes mostly on Southeast Asia, Asian security affairs and U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.