By Murray Hiebert —
Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s visit to the White House on October 2 could mark a significant step toward normalizing Thai-U.S. relations, which have been strained since the Thai general toppled an elected government in May 2014. Washington responded by suspending some military aid and downgrading, although not canceling, military exercises, including Cobra Gold, the largest multilateral exercise in Asia.
President Donald Trump invited Prayuth to Washington during a phone call in late April and pressed the Thai leader to curtail Thailand’s trade with North Korea in an effort to pressure Pyongyang to suspend its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Trump, according to Thai government sources, congratulated the general for restoring political stability in the wake of the coup, a reference to the fact that Thailand had been in the midst of months of disruptive political protests when Prayuth and his troops intervened.
Thai-U.S. relations date back to at least 1833, which makes Thailand the first country in Asia with which Washington had diplomatic ties. Bangkok was a partner with Washington during the Cold War, allowing the U.S. military to use Thai bases to execute the war in Vietnam.
U.S. criticism of Thailand after the coup prompted Bangkok to move somewhat closer to China. The Thai military announced a series of military equipment purchases from China and launched several joint military exercises. In 2015, the two countries held their first-ever joint air force exercises, and in 2016 Thailand held joint military exercises with China at the Sattahip naval base. In January 2017, the Thai military signed a $383 million deal to buy its first Chinese submarine, with orders for two more expected for a total value of $1 billion. And in June, it ordered 34 Chinese armored personnel carriers to complement an earlier order for 28 tanks.
Soon after taking office in January, Trump administration officials said Washington would seek to reinvigorate ties with its two treaty allies in Southeast Asia, Thailand and the Philippines, which for different reasons had fallen onto a rocky patch at the end of the Barack Obama administration.
Prayuth earlier had agreed to visit Trump in mid-July, but the Thais postponed the trip a week out, saying privately that they did not have time to prepare for a successful trip. In August, U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson made a five-hour stop in Bangkok, marking the highest-level visit by a U.S. official since the military seized power. U.S. Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry Harris had visited in February as part of the Cobra Gold exercise.
The White House said in an announcement on September 26 that the two leaders “will discuss ways to strengthen and broaden bilateral relations and enhance cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.” The United States is Thailand’s third-largest source of imports after China and Japan, and U.S. companies have long been among the country’s top investors. The Southeast Asian nation had a $19 billion trade-in-goods surplus with the United States in 2016, prompting the Trump administration to include Thailand on a list of 16 countries targeted for investigation.
If Prayuth borrows a page from the playbooks of the earlier White House visits by the prime ministers of Vietnam and Malaysia, he can be expected to witness the signing of some large Thai business deals with U.S. companies before his meeting with Trump. The Malaysian and Vietnamese leaders were heartedly congratulated by Trump for their deals with U.S. firms during their photo opportunities in the White House.
Senior Thai officers are known to have come window-shopping for additional U.S. military equipment in recent months, prompting speculation that Prayuth may announce some military purchases during his visit. In August, in another signal that the United States was softening its stance toward Bangkok, Washington approved the sale of Harpoon missiles to Thailand following approval in July for the purchase of four Black Hawk helicopters that had been suspended following the coup.
Prayuth’s arrival in Washington can be expected to provoke criticism from human rights groups and some members of Congress, but likely not from the Trump administration, which has downplayed the previous administration’s focus on democracy and human rights. Tillerson has said that U.S. security and economic interests should trump human rights in U.S. relations.
The prime minister will hurry back to Bangkok after his visit to participate in two high-profile events on the Thai political calendar: the cremation later in October of highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died almost a year ago; and the coronation of his son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, widely expected in December. The new king, technically a constitutional monarch, requested changes to the new draft constitution soon after he assumed the throne, demonstrating that he expects to be politically involved.
Prayuth is expected by many analysts in Bangkok to call elections sometime in 2018. Some see the general’s more frequent trips to the countryside in recent months, his opening of a Facebook account, and the ongoing series of expressions of support from political groups around the country as the opening salvo in the election campaign. For the time being, Prayuth has the field to himself because the largest political parties, Puea Thai and Democrat, have been banned from engaging in political activities since the coup.
Prayuth cannot technically run for office because under the rules spelled out in the new constitution drafted by allies of the military he would have had to resign from the appointed legislative assembly by July. Nonetheless, he could still be appointed as an “outside” prime minister if no political party wins a majority in the lower house of parliament in the elections. In that case, Prayuth could be appointed prime minister by the appointed Senate as long as he also gets at least half of the votes in the lower house.
One Prayuth-Trump meeting likely will not heal all the bruised feelings among the Thai political elite, but it can at least make it possible for the United States to compete again with China for influence in this strategically located country at the heart of mainland Southeast Asia.
Mr. Murray Hiebert is a senior advisor and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @MurrayHiebert1. This post originally appeared in the September 28, 2017, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.