Trans-Pacific View

Strengthening the US-Thailand Alliance for an Indo-Pacific Future

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Trans-Pacific View

Strengthening the US-Thailand Alliance for an Indo-Pacific Future

Beyond managing challenges, both sides can seize opportunities to reinforce an important relationship amid broader strategic trends.

Strengthening the US-Thailand Alliance for an Indo-Pacific Future
Credit: US Marine Photo

Talking to interlocutors in Bangkok over the past week reinforced an already clear reality: 2019 marks an important and busy year for Thailand’s domestic and foreign policy, with the country holding the ASEAN chairmanship and preparing to hold elections as part of a protracted political transition. But 2019 will also spotlight the state of the U.S.-Thailand alliance within that bigger picture, and it presents both sides with a time to not just manage existing challenges, but to build on opportunities to reinforce their relationship for the coming years amid the confluence of broader internal and external trends.

As I have observed before, though the U.S.-Thailand alliance was forged in the midst of the Cold War, the foundations date back much earlier. Thailand is often cited as Washington’s oldest ally in Asia because both countries inked a Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1833 after they officially established ties in 1818. While both sides are no strangers to efforts at recalibrating and managing the alliance over time, the past few years have nonetheless been quite challenging. An initial chill following the May 2014 coup and Bangkok’s growing ties with China gave way to a recalibration under the late Obama administration and the Trump administration. A highlight was the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha last year, the first summit meeting between the two treaty allies since 2012. But there remain uncertainties on both sides on the future direction and evolution of the alliance.

Within that broader context, policymakers in both Washington and Bangkok understand that 2019 represents a key year for the alliance. Some of this is framed in terms of managing potential challenges that can arise, with lingering uncertainties around Thailand’s expected election in Washington and concern about the evolution of the Trump administration’s approach on multilateralism and China policy in Bangkok. But thinking beyond 2019 and past just management or recalibration, next year will offer an important opportunity for the two sides to accelerate the process of shaping their ties for a shared future in the broader Indo-Pacific. Seizing that opportunity will require progress to be made on three main fronts.

The first piece of that involves both deepening existing areas of collaboration and adding new, future-looking ones as well. To their credit, officials on both sides have been advancing some of this at the working level despite broader challenges, including continued delays in Thailand’s return to democratic rule and some of the worrying protectionist instincts of the Trump administration on trade. On the security side, for example, areas such as cybersecurity and maritime security have seen quiet progress not only between the two countries, but more broadly in terms of opportunities for networking with other like-minded states such as Japan and India.

Yet there is also room to further bolster cooperation in certain areas. Nontraditional security challenges have long been an area where the alliance has sought to deepen existing collaboration, and where confidence can be built leading up to more ambitious areas over the longer term. On the economic side, both sides can also move more beyond addressing existing challenges in this area of relations onto areas of opportunity, including potential synergies between their joint focus on connectivity. There is a clear confluence between the Trump administration’s much-needed effort to ramp up U.S. infrastructure and development assistance efforts to the region and Thailand’s seriousness in turning its long-held strategic location as a hub among Asia’s subregions into tangible economic benefits and better relations with its neighboring states.

The second piece is managing domestic political concerns on both sides. The elephant in the room is of course Thailand’s ongoing domestic political transition, which, though often presented as a neverending wait for an election, is in fact part of a wider struggle between the military-backed royalist elite and parties linked to ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra that dates back more than a decade and a half. But there are other structural matters of concern too, including changing perceptions of segments of the elite and wider population about U.S. policy in Thailand and concerns about the relatively diminished place of Thailand within wider U.S. Asia strategy as the list of American allies and partners has grown over the years.

Addressing these issues will require give and take by both sides. While Washington’s concerns on rights are both fair and important, Thailand’s continued political transition will require the two countries to find a more sustainable and calibrated way to manage these issues within the broader relationship, rather than the more disruptive highs and lows we have seen in recent years. More attention also needs to be given by both sides to the education of elites and populations on the importance of the U.S.-Thai alliance for people’s daily lives as well as each country’s foreign policy. At times, Washington does not get the credit it deserves for contributing to Thailand’s prosperity and security, while Thailand’s valuable contributions to U.S. Asia policy more generally are often unbeknownst to the wider chattering class in the United States. This compounds the difficulty of sustaining collaboration during tough times for the alliance.

A third and final piece concerns the regional and global environment. It is certainly true that some aspects of the alliance are already plugged into the wider region and world, given the fact that Thailand has long hosted a significant amount of U.S. regional activity, has provided vital access to Washington in the advent of regional or national crises, and also continues to play an important role on certain issues in Southeast Asia, some which will be evident when Thailand chairs ASEAN next year.  But it has also been evident that the two countries have found it difficult to align on other key issues, such as addressing the challenges posed by China’s rise.

Some of that can be addressed by managing expectations on where and when alignment on regional and global issues is possible and how divergences can be worked through. But efforts can also be accelerated to deepen collaboration where convergences are clear. Some issues offer more opportunity than others, be it those previously discussed such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief or future-looking ones such as the issue of aging, which Thailand has included in its ASEAN chairmanship as an agenda item. Particular areas also can serve to structure thinking, be it the Andaman Sea or the Mekong River, both of which Bangkok has already been thinking more about. In pursuing further regional and global collaboration, both countries should be creative in considering a wide range of areas for potential collaboration and flexible as to the mechanisms used to advanced them – even if the result is that some cooperation is pursued independently by each side or through more public forms of partnership with other countries. In the past, obsession over form has inhibited the very functional cooperation that drove both sides to pursue collaboration in the first place.

Of course, one should not have any illusions: 2019 will be a busy year for both Thailand and the United States on various counts, and that the U.S.-Thailand alliance will continue to present its share of day-to-day challenges for policymakers to manage. But one would hope that both countries could also spend the time, energy, bandwidth, and attention required to sustainably build on an important relationship such that it advances both their domestic and foreign policy priorities more generally out to the future as well. That would ensure that the U.S.-Thailand alliance is reinforced not just for the interests of both sides, but for the wider Indo-Pacific region as well.