Behind the new surge in the Thai-US alliance
THE YINGLUCK government - or to be more accurate, the government of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra - is doing everything it can to get US President Barack Obama to stop over in Bangkok, however briefly, before or after he attends the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh in mid-November.If he wins a second term that same month, Obama is likely to return to the region - he visited Indonesia in 2010 and again the following year for the Bali summit - to sustain the high-profile Asian policy his administration has pursued over the past two years. If he does not win, which is unlikely, the whole US "pivot" to this part of the world could be stalled. Mitt Romney would need to spend months re-establishing confidence that US security policy will continue on a similar track, even though US leaders from the Republican and Democratic parties are non-partisan on the overall Asian policy.
Last week's visit to Bangkok by General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces, created a buzz over the still undefined scope of Thai-US security cooperation under a new strategy. As usual, lots of confused news and comments were written on the nature of the ties in the Thai media, especially on the under-utilised alliance, framed by the Manila Pact (1954) and the Thanat-Rush Agreement (1962). Almost all opinions were mired in Cold War thinking with plenty of questions over US ulterior motives. The most naive argument, however, was that the meeting was linked to the desire to obtain a US entry visa for Thaksin, who plans to visit the US and impress American policy-makers with his "invincibility". Thailand, this theory contends, must be willing to cooperate with the US on the use of U-Tapao airbase and beyond.
Two key points must be remembered - at both the policy-making and implementation levels. First of all, the initial ministerial-level strategic talks between Foreign Minister Surapong Towichukchaikul and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be held in Washington this week. After a long delay, the much-anticipated meeting will review the whole gamut of US ties with its oldest Asian friend.
The US proposal to set up a Centre for Humanitarian Assistance and a Disaster Centre must be viewed in this context as part of the strategy to revitalise Thai-US security and strategic cooperation. Additional use of and increased access to U-Tapao for humanitarian purposes will be governed by a new, separate agreement. It will take some time to complete, as the Thai side will be responsible for drafting the terms of reference and a memorandum of understanding. When Clinton visited Bangkok last November, this issue was discussed and agreed with the Yingluck government.
Future implementation of any new Thai-US cooperation would require vetting and approval by the Pheu Thai-dominated Parliament, which is currently bogged down in a quarrel with the Constitution Court. The charter's Article 190, which makes it necessary for the government to seek approval from Parliament on foreign relations, is part of constitutional amendment efforts. This provision was included in the 2007 charter to serve as a check and balance instrument against the executive branch making decisions on its own. Ironically, it was a direct response to Thaksin's dominant role in foreign policy-making decisions.
The request by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or Nasa, to use U-Tapao as a meteorology centre is a new one. Although Thai agencies including the Royal Rainmaking Project discussed this weather-monitoring proposal with Nasa officials a while ago, they have not yet made any public announcement. Once the news made headlines, it immediately stirred up deep-seated suspicions among Thais and other countries as to its "real intent and purpose". This kind of bilateral non-traditional security cooperation has been previously conducted with Japan, Hong Kong and other countries. But they are not the US. The proposed operations would take place over two-month periods beginning in August.
Admittedly, the Thai-US security network has long been neglected due to a lack of common security threats and domestic distractions at both ends. The outcome of the Washington meeting should indicate the perimeters of the renewed alliance's commitments.
Now that the two countries are on the same page, they must also show that their promises and plans are deliverable. As such, the hoped-for US presidential visit to Bangkok later this year would unavoidably serve as a barometer to test US sincerity and goodwill towards Thailand. Diplomats know the great difficulty of convincing a sitting US president to visit their countries, when core US interests are not critically affected. Obama's first visit as president to Indonesia in 2010 took place after two postponements, much to Jakarta's chagrin. The well-paid lobbyists of Thaksin and his sister's government are helping their clients persuade the White House to give Thailand a chance. Apart from promoting the Yingluck government's image, a presidential visit would be a big boost for the alliance, as Thai-US relations reach their 180th year next year.
To get the ball rolling, a huge turnaround on Thai positions will be necessary to register and seize US policy-makers' attention on key issues including longstanding sensitive topics such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) proposals. Security and legislative agencies have already given a green light to the PSI pending an official announcement. The latest thinking on the TPP is quite simple - Thailand needs to show willingness to join it and start negotiations with the nine members before it is too late. They have finished the first chapter and have at least 30 more to go before the comprehensive TPP framework is completed. Thailand has nothing to lose by joining.
For the longer term, Thailand must show vision and determination to become an effective alliance partner as part of the US re-balancing policy in Asia, in particular in relation to the rise of China. Within a few months, the Philippines has successfully engaged and got the Americans excited again about their security cooperation. The government of President Benigno Aquino recently said that it would allow the US use of air and naval bases in the Philippines with prior permission and consultations on a case-by-case basis.
The sudden surge of strong Thai-US defence rhetoric is reminiscent of the similar policy and approach toward the US pursued by Yingluck's brother right after the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. After initial hesitation and faulty security moves, Thailand quickly joined the US global anti-terrorism campaign, highlighted by the arrest of Hambali, the regional head of al-Qaeda, in Ayutthaya and the dispatch of Thai troops to Iraq in 2003. A planned second deployment was scrapped after two Thai soldiers were killed in Karbala in southern Iraq. In return, Thailand got fast-track negotiation of a Thai-US free-trade agreement (the talks collapsed in 2005) and non-Nato US ally status along with the Philippines (the only two countries to have this status in Southeast Asia).
Obviously, the new surge of activity has raised concerns in China, which has maintained close ties with Thailand. The Yingluck government and Thaksin have traditionally been supportive of China as far as economic interests are concerned. Whenever security matters are involved, Thai military leaders are in charge. Thai Defence Minister ACM Sukampol Suwannathat is one of Thaksin's most trusted lieutenants. Undoubtedly, he has Thaksin's agenda in mind. The hush-hush manner in which the latest attempt to reinvigorate the US-Thai alliance has been conducted - which is akin to the campaign to pass the reconciliation bills in Parliament - could backfire. It lacks the much-needed transparency and consultations with other stakeholders - including the opposition Democrat Party - that are prerequisites in a democratic society.
Thailand's relations with the US and China are its most important bilateral ties. They pose both challenges and opportunities in both the economic and security spheres. If Thailand continues to fool around with strategic ambiguities and sit on the fence as it has done in the past, without a clear strategic vision toward the two superpowers, it will never be more than a pawn in the chess game of great-power cooperation and competition.