The latest strong condemnation by Washington of Thailand's action over the Uighur illegal immigrants has dampened any future amelioration of Thai-US relations.
Thailand recalled a similar episode at the end of 2009 when it repatriated over 4,000 Hmong refugees back to Laos, ending four-decades of bitter Thai-Lao hostility. At the time, the US led the international community to severely trash Thailand, arguing the returnees would be prosecuted and tortured. In other words, it was all bad, violating human rights and relevant international laws — exactly the same tone used against Thailand these past weeks.
In retrospect, Laos proved to be a trustful friend fulfilling all the promises — with some lapses, of course — given to the Abhisit government and literally allowing some breathing room to Thailand in the global arena later on. What followed has been a rapid improvement in Thai-Lao relations, which had been stuck with the Hmong issue since 1975.
This time, US harsh reaction drew a rare response from Dr Panitan Wattanyayagorn, a security adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who pointed out that the US often offers self-serving comments on issues in its own interest. That spoke volumes of the current state of Thai-US ties. Despite the mutual desire to improve relations, Washington’s continued unwarranted political posturing continues to undermine the Thai government at every turn. Here are some additional examples often cited:
First of all, Washington’s inability to reconcile political developments since the coup in May 2014. This will continue to have a long impact on Thai-US relations, especially on the security alliance and multilateral security franchises. The US voiced threats after previous coups as a routine response — apparently not this time, even though the current environment is more favourable than before.
Let’s face the reality. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is not going anywhere soon, as he will continue to fulfil what he pledged to do. Like it or not, the Thai military is part of the country’s political DNA as its evolution has long demonstrated. Washington continues to view the military’s intervention as an illegitimate act. Therefore, with this different basic understanding, the two countries will drift further apart.
Second, the ultimate failure to build on progress in the renewed Thai-US strategic realignment in 2012, as part of the US rebalancing policy in Asia. The two allies urgently need to rebuild their security ties — basically unchanged since 1962 – so they do not get him by political posturing and uncertainty. For instance, there is still no combined defence and foreign ministerial meetings between the region’s oldest allies — a display of mutual recalcitrance. The US is now placing high strategic value on non-ally countries such as Vietnam, Myanmar and Singapore.
Thailand has been quick to adjust its strategic postures towards more embracing of key powers amid the US absence. Thailand mistakenly thought the US would apply the same standards of engagement to all allies, such as Egypt or Israel. Therefore, from now on, Thai policy makers are no longer acting “expediently” to help the US manoeuvre through their territory. The delay in permission for US flights in the Thai sky at the end of May during recent collaboration over the “Rohingya crisis” for maritime surveillance is a good example. In favourable times, it would have taken no time for such permission.
Third, it is all about Cobra Gold — the notion that the military exercise will continue, but scaled down as a consequence of the coup. Truth be told, as far as the 32-year-old Cobra Gold is concerned, it is the American troops, learning interoperability with selective friends, that are the main beneficiaries. The recent Cobra Gold was a humiliating exercise for the Thais as the US’s half-hearted and scaled-down participation did not go down well with the Thai co-hosts. The joint exercise next year is showing similar symptoms. For the Thai armed forces, the more respected officials are often missing from the annual exercise. In fact, they would not mind scrapping it altogether, if push comes to shove.
Fourth, Thailand has few friends in the US Congress and government. American lawmakers hostile to Thailand are in abundance in Washington these days as they continue to view Bangkok as pro-Beijing. The US State Department also sees the country as a disloyal ally. It has also completely lost all diplomatic finesse and charm in engaging Thailand after the Christmas of 2007. Where is the “Skip” control?
Fifth, Washington has not shown sufficient appreciation of Bangkok’s relentless efforts to stabilise the country and move towards democracy. This has been the biggest pitfall for Washington’s policy makers on Thailand, believing that the current military-run administration would yield to US pressure on the electoral process. Currently at odds is also the much delayed Traffic in Persons report, which prompted Prayut and related agencies to kick butts and prosecute wrongdoers and dramatically boost migrant workers’ conditions. If the TIP report is indifferent to the latest progress, it would be a severe blow to the current state of the relationship.
Interestingly, all other countries have shown more respect and conducted diplomatic ties “almost at near normalcy” with Thailand. If this trend continues, it will become normalised, which leaves little or no room for Thai-US relations. Thailand has changed greatly since last May.
Finally, the notion that Thailand is just “bluffing” in its engaging with China and Russia, especially over hardware procurement. Sooner rather than later, China and Russia as well as other arms exporters, will gradually edge out the US-dominated arms procurements in this country, disrupting the US oriented interoperability. Western pundits view Thailand’s planned purchases of Chinese and Russian arms as a reaction to the US rejection of domestic conditions — that this sentiment would soon disappear once the political woes have been fixed. Indeed, it is a wrong prognosis as there is no turning back this time.
Bangkok deliberately used this vacuum to diversify its arms arsenals as other Asean countries have done. Before long, there will be Russian-made jetfighters flying in the Thai sky and Chinese-made submarines under the Andaman and in the Gulf of Thailand. They will open shops to service jetfighters and submarines and also train the Thai armed forces. Who knows? There could be a series of “Dragon Gold,” or “Golden Bear” joint exercises on the pipeline.