Houston, We Have a Problem: U-tapao’s Impact on US-Thai Relations

By Kate Bissonnette

Thermal image of floodwaters approaching Bangkok on October 23, 2011, taken by NASA's Terra spacecraft.  Recent controversies over NASA’s request to use a base have thrown a kink in the efforts to revitalize the US-Thai alliance. Source: NASA image in the public domain.

Thermal image of flood waters approaching Bangkok on October 23, 2011, taken by NASA's Terra spacecraft. Recent controversies over NASA’s request to use a base have thrown a kink in the efforts to revitalize the US-Thai alliance.

The summer started off well for US-Thai relations, with a high profile visit by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey in Bangkok June 5, in which he called Thailand a “very credible, welcoming military partner,” followed by meetings between Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul and Secretary Clinton in Washington, DC on June 13, and the fourth Strategic Dialogue the following day. For both the United States and Thailand, there has been a considerable effort to reinvigorate the relationship, which migrated to the backburner of Asia Pacific in recent years. Then, the Thai government’s decision on NASA’s use of U-tapao, or lack thereof, seemed to put a damper on the forward momentum of the relationship.

During General Dempsey’s visit, NASA requested use of the U-tapao Airbase for a climate study, which would be run jointly between the civilian U.S. space agency and Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency, or Gistda, Thailand’s equivalent.  The goal of the study was to examine cloud composition and climate change in Southeast Asia, and would be beneficial toward predicting and preventing major disasters like the devastating 2011 floods.

The request quickly became muddled with several other issues and controversies, including a request by the US military to use the base for humanitarian search and rescue operations, and the United States granting a visa to fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which was granted irrespective of the U-tapao issue July 6, in exchange for use of the base. The opposition Democrat Party railed against the request, saying it could have military objectives, calling it a threat to national sovereignty, and expressing concern over how the move would be perceived by China. All this, despite the fact that the initial discussions and arrangement of the study occurred prior to the Yingluck administration.

NASA said it needed a response by June 26 in order for the mission, which was scheduled to take place in August and September, to move forward. That same day, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra relented to opposition demands and passed the issue on to the Thai Parliament, essentially allowing the deadline to expire. NASA then canceled the mission in response.

It is not likely that the events around U-tapao will catastrophically impact the 180 year old U.S.-Thai alliance, or take the possibility of future scientific cooperation completely off the table. However, the incident indicates a continuing problem for Thailand and its foreign policy. For years following the 2006 coup, the internal chaos of domestic politics limited the government’s ability to craft a thoughtful and useful foreign policy, and relations between Thailand and other countries lagged. This culminated in the embarrassing cancellations of the Fourth East Asia Summit.

The US relationship was no exception; in the early 2000s, Thailand was seen as ASEAN’s golden child, and was particularly lauded in Washington circles as the next leader of Asia. Since then, the prospect of a Thailand FTA diminished to naught, and US ties with other ASEAN powerhouses like Indonesia began to overshadow our oldest regional partner.  However, with the US pivot to Asia, and the democratic election of Yingluck in the summer of 2011, the relationship appeared ripe for revamping, and significant efforts have been made on both sides, such as Secretary Clinton’s November 2011 visit. Prime Minister Yingluck has pursued a more active foreign policy than her predecessors, and tightened the lag in Thailand’s ties to its neighbors. But as her time in office has worn on, efforts at reconciliation have become increasingly contentious, and attempts to rewrite the constitution, which was crafted in the non-democratic, post-coup government, have raised hackles. Tensions between Bangkok’s political factions are increasingly high, and there is concern about whether Bangkok can be a reliable partner in the face of domestic constraints.

Many aspects of the partnership are moving in the right direction. Last year, bilateral trade increased 13 percent, while US exports to Thailand increased by 22 percent. The two countries agreed to support cultural exchanges, such as Fulbright Scholarships, through a working group that would augment the Strategic Dialogues. The military relationship remains strong, with Thailand continuing to host the Cobra Gold military exercises. But incidents like the government’s handling of NASA’s request hamper the forward momentum.

Thailand’s Army Chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha , supported NASA’s use of U-tapao, and said the U-tapao decision was a loss for Thailand, but that it would not impact the military relationship.  On the other hand, Secretary Clinton chose to not include Thailand in her upcoming trip to Asia. While the Secretary was there in November 2011, the decision has raised some eyebrows.

Prime Minister Yingluck is in many ways constrained by circumstances, and in many more ways constrained by the opposition’s ability to appeal to public sentiment. The U-tapao decision was at best a poorly handled mishap in the renewal of US-Thai relations. At worst, however, it was a clear message that for all the good intentions of recent developments, Thailand’s ability to be a credible partner still falls victim to the tumultuous politics that hold it captive.

Ms. Kathleen Bissonnette is a research intern with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program covering Thailand.


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