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Thailand awaits Trump’s foreign policy team

Only 39 days remain for the US State Department to upgrade relations with Thailand after more than 942 days of a “You-do-as-I-say” campaign.

Like the rest of the world, Thailand expected that the Democrat presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, would win on November 8 and was pondering what would be US policy towards its oldest regional friend of 184 years when the Obama administration bids farewell.
At the time, the government concluded it would be more of the same.
Then a miracle happened: The real-estate billionaire Donald Trump was elected as the 45th US president, shattering global anticipation and effectively turning the future of US diplomacy upside down. For Bangkok, it was a blessing in disguise because it means a new foreign policy team will take over from the incumbent one. Obviously, Bangkok was also mindful of the remaining core State Department bureaucrats in charge with their die-hard negative attitude, who still treat Thailand as their personal hostage after the May 2014 power seizure.
When the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Daniel Russel visited here recently, he was extremely friendly, calling Thailand a “natural ally”, which resonated well with the military leaders. He made clear during a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwon that there was still room to promote Thai-US relations, even in the final wee hours of outgoing President Barack Obama.
Following Thailand’s national referendum on the new constitution in August, Washington has softened its overall policy toward the Kingdom. But there is a sticking point – the US attitude remains unchanged on issues related to civic liberties – while Bangkok has repeatedly argued that the country does not lack freedom of expression or respect for human rights. Somehow, in the current American policy-makers’ perspective, Thailand still remains an oppressive country. 
The saddest part is Washington’s persistence in perceiving the current political development in Thailand as an interruption of democracy. On the contrary, the Thai government views it as a continued evolution in strengthening the country’s long-standing democratic tradition. Without a new narrative of political development here, it is hard to envisage any positive move from the Thais.
At this juncture, Washington has been urging Bangkok to hold much delayed a high-level security and strategic dialogue with Bangkok before the new foreign policy team comes in after the January 20 presidential inauguration. So far, the Thai government has been recalcitrant in responding to the overture. 
Two contributing factors influence this Thai wait-and-see attitude. First of all, Thailand still views the current staffers who oversee Thailand affairs for Washington – including diplomats based in Bangkok – as hostile to the country. They continue to evaluate Thailand based on unilateral and stereotyped thinking. Now that the country has gone through a smooth transition with a new King and constitution, it is moving forward and wants to forge new relations with the rest of the world.
Second, any positive move by the Thai side would be considered as a reward for the current policymakers ahead of the change in new US administration. The last minute progress of Thai-US ties, as well as the proposed security and strategic dialogue, might or might not be considered by the Trump administration. After all, the new US president has different concepts and conduct of diplomacy altogether, especially in relation to Asia.
Thailand could benefit from Trump’s personal approach based on bilateral negotiations. Indeed, the incoming US administration has driven the Thai side to take stock of its overall relations with Washington. Bangkok finds it now necessary to highlight its strategic assets and reaffirm its commitments to the alliance.
As part of this new strategy, the government is reviewing the whole gamut of Thai-US relations and will soon come up with recommendations to engage the Trump administration. Internally, there could be more coordination and joint-study groups among ministries to make more effective policy recommendations and implementation.
Truth be told, Washington has taken advantage of the lack of coordination and shared information among concerned ministries and agencies on the Thai side. The aim: To push through its own agenda by approaching the sources directly without the government’s knowledge and acknowledgement.
The nature of Thai-US ties will also depend on the US’s engagement with the rest of the region. Of late, security and the strategic environment in Southeast Asia have changed dramatically, partly due to a myriad of pressing domestic issues with far-reaching regional implications. Myanmar, the Philippines and Malaysia all share similar symptoms. They will be three major game-changers in Asean in coming years that could also determine how the new US administration’s foreign policy outlook will look.
It remains to be seen, though, whether this regional dynamic will impact overall Thai-US relations.

Published : December 11, 2016

By : Kavi Chongkittavorn The Nation