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Reenergizing the Thailand-US Relationship

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Reenergizing the Thailand-US Relationship

Recent high-level engagements have improved the mood music in the relationship; that momentum needs to be sustained.

Reenergizing the Thailand-US Relationship

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo (facing camera, right) leads a delegation of President’s Export Council (PEC) members in meetings in Bangkok, Thailand, Mar. 13, 2024.

Credit: U.S. Department of Commerce

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin met in Thailand this month to discuss ways to strengthen Thailand-United States commercial relations, highlighting potential collaboration on semiconductors, clean energy, and sustainability, including cooperation on civil nuclear energy and electric vehicles.

Earlier in March, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink visited Bangkok for security-focused talks. In a press briefing, he said, “I came away from our two days of dialogues in Thailand as optimistic as I’ve ever been about the U.S.-Thai alliance… I was really struck and impressed by the depth of our security relationship and our military-to-military ties… the U.S.-Thai alliance is as strong as it’s ever been.”

These positive signals were sorely needed, because in many ways the bilateral relationship has atrophied of late. Its rejuvenation should be a priority.

Raimondo’s and Kritenbrink’s visits were important in this respect, and they followed other Cabinet-level visits to Thailand, and by Vice President Kamala Harris, over the past couple years. The Biden administration should build on this momentum by inviting Srettha for a White House meeting, notwithstanding the Thai prime minister’s recent self-imposed temporary halt to foreign travel.

Such an invitation has been under discussion since last fall but hasn’t been issued. It is not clear that it will, or that Washington is putting much priority on it. That needs to change.

The Thailand-U.S. relationship, and friendship, goes back to the 1833 Treaty of Amity and Commerce, well predating U.S. relations with any other country in the region. As a major non-NATO ally, and the only U.S. treaty partner on the Southeast Asian mainland, Thailand’s strategic importance is clear. As the second-largest economy in the region, its commercial significance is tremendous.

Some context is in order here. The past decade hasn’t been an easy one for the relationship. Army Commander Prayut Chan-o-cha seized power in a 2014 military coup, which deposed then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was democratically elected. Since U.S. law mandates certain restrictions, the coup and its aftermath made it impossible for the United States to continue business as usual, particularly in the military assistance realm, training, and other high-level engagements.

While important aspects of military cooperation continued during this period, these developments unavoidably undermined the Thailand-U.S. relationship. At the same time, however, Thailand buttressed its economic and strategic relationship with Beijing, including through defense linkages.

In elections last August, in which Prayut did not run, Thai voters turned out in force. Electoral changes pushed through during Prayut’s tenure prevented the Move Forward Party, which garnered the largest share of votes, from forming a government, but the Pheu Thai Party, which captured the second-largest share of the vote, was able to do so in a coalition with other smaller parties. This brought Srettha, a prominent Thai businessman, to the helm of the new government, and created an opportunity for a reset in Thailand-U.S. relations.

Indeed, following his election, the State Department congratulated Srettha. It added:  “This year, we celebrate 190 years of formal diplomatic relations, making the U.S.-Thai partnership one of our oldest relationships in the world… We look forward to working with the Prime Minister to build on [the 2022] U.S.-Thailand Communiqué on Strategic Alliance and Partnership, and to further strengthen the enduring alliance between the United States and Thailand.”

The Economic Relationship

The economic and security arguments in favor of generating new energy in the relationship are compelling. Thailand has the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia behind Indonesia, and two-way trade with the United States totaled $72 billion in 2023.

Thailand is a manufacturing hub for electronics (Seagate and Western Digital are among the country’s largest foreign employers), automobiles (Ford), and increasingly, EV production (dominated by Chinese manufacturers, although Tesla is actively exploring a presence), cloud and digital services (Google, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM), U.S. retailers, consumer brands (too numerous to mention), and the list goes on. All told, Thailand hosts roughly $20 billion in U.S. investment. As the United States seeks to diversify investment outside of China, Thailand is an attractive, logical, and welcoming host to such investment.

On the flip side, Thai investment in the United States is small but growing, reaching $2.9 billion in 2022, and employing roughly 5,000 Americans. Thai Summit produces auto parts in Michigan and Kentucky; Banpu Power runs two power plants in Texas generating more than 1,500 MW of electricity, and recently announced investments in U.S. carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) projects. The EGCO Group has investments in power generation facilities in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, with others under consideration. The popular Red Lobster seafood chain is owned by Thai Union Group.

In its Thailand Vision 2030, Srettha’s government has outlined goals for transforming Thailand into a global hub in tourism, wellness and medical services, agriculture and food, aviation, logistics, future mobility, digital economy, and finance. This means opportunities for U.S. companies, which are leaders in these areas.

Thailand has bilateral free trade agreements with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India, Peru, and Chile, and is a member of the ASEAN regional free-trade and economic bloc, which itself has free trade agreements with Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong, with others under discussion. Thailand is also a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), whose members include ASEAN, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, and South Korea. These countries collectively represent 30 percent of the world’s population, and a similar portion of its GDP. Thailand’s participation in these agreements, combined with its strategic location in Southeast Asia, enhances its strategic position and attractiveness to U.S. and other foreign investors.

Law Enforcement, Military Cooperation, and Non-traditional Threats

Other aspects of Thailand-U.S. cooperation are vital. Take law enforcement: Through the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in Bangkok, established in 1998, the United States and Thailand have collaborated on training over 22,000 criminal justice sector officials from across Southeast Asia on various topics including counternarcotics, cybercrime, and trafficking. This cooperation has strengthened Thailand’s capacity to address regional and transnational crime, making it an essential partner in counternarcotics efforts.

This year, the Royal Thai Armed Forces and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command co-hosted the 43rd Cobra Gold military exercises, the largest multilateral defense training in the region, with more than 10,000 troops from 30 nations taking part. The Cobra Gold exercises are part and parcel of U.S. security cooperation with Thailand and with partners across the region.

The United States has been actively collaborating with Thailand to combat both cyber scams and human trafficking in neighboring countries by improving legal frameworks, enhancing victim protection, and leveraging technology for better coordination and support.

The Mekong River, and the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on it, is under severe threat from upstream damming, downstream saltwater encroachment, and climate change-induced droughts. U.S. cooperation with Thailand is vital in addressing threats to this priceless natural resource, including through vehicles such as the Mekong-U.S. Partnership and Friends of the Mekong.

Then there’s Myanmar.

Following Myanmar’s February 1, 2021, coup d’etat, and the horrific violence that has followed it, Thailand has been involved in diplomacy with the military junta, and with efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to conflict-affected regions. Thailand hosts roughly 120,000 refugees who have fled Myanmar in recent decades, including many thousands who have fled since the 2021 coup. It shares a 1,500-mile border with Myanmar, and that unalterable geographic reality governs its interactions with Naypyidaw.

The United States and Thailand may not always agree on how to best handle Myanmar’s internal conflicts and human rights atrocities, but Washington has no interest in seeing a failed state in Southeast Asia, and Thailand has no interest in having one on its border. They need to find ways to work together in the hope of ending Myanmar’s agony.

Summoning History

It is a disservice to the Thailand-U.S. relationship to focus only on the difficult recent history; the relationship goes back 191 years. Nor is helpful to compare today to the halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s when the Cold War and U.S. military involvement in Vietnam knitted Thailand and the United States close together.

What is helpful is articulating a vision for the future of the relationship. Trade and investment relations are vast, and Thailand plays an economically central role in the region. Non-traditional threats, from narcotics to human trafficking to climate change, as well as turmoil in Myanmar, all demand Thailand-U.S. cooperation.

The threats and challenges are clear. The opportunities are substantial. The recent momentum has been positive. And the interests in a rejuvenated relationship are mutual. These interests would be well served by inviting Prime Minister Srettha to the White House.