By Geoffrey Hartman & Amy Searight —
Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha will meet with President Donald Trump on October 2 as part of Prayuth’s first bilateral visit to the United States since the former army chief took power in a 2014 coup. Trump extended a White House invite to Prayuth in an April telephone conversation. The visit was originally scheduled for mid-July but was postponed to allow the Thais more time to prepare. U.S.-Thailand relations have been under strain since Washington strongly critized Thai military leaders after the coup, suspended military assistance, and downgraded diplomatic and military engagements.
Q1: What are the challenges in the U.S.-Thailand relationship?
A1: The U.S. relationship with Thailand—the oldest U.S. ally in Asia and one of its two treaty allies in Southeast Asia—has been strained since a May 2014 coup that removed the democratically elected government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The subsequent prosecution of Yingluck for negligence involving a rice-subsidy program overseen by her government was viewed by many as a politically motivated means of further weakening the Shinawatra family and their popular Puea Thai Party. Yingluck’s older brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has been living in exile outside of Thailand since 2008 after being toppled in a 2006 coup and found guilty of corruption. In addition to cracking down on political parties, the military government since the 2014 coup has put severe restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly in Thailand, handing out lengthy prison sentences to individuals who publicly criticize the government or royal family, and banning all political gatherings of more than five people.
Q2: What was the state of U.S.-Thai cooperation at the end of the Obama administration?
A2: The Obama administration responded to the 2014 coup by calling for a rapid return to civilian government and democratic elections in Thailand, goals that have still not been met over three years later. As required by law, it suspended the $4.7 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs. The administration also curtailed military engagements, including cancelling the 2014 Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise in Thailand and excluding the Thai military from the 2014 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise. The United States scaled down the 2015 Cobra Gold exercise—the largest multilateral exercise in Asia—and removed the live-fire portion of the exercise. A number of other exercises and training engagments with Thai military and police were also curtailed. High-level U.S. visits to Thailand were restricted following the coup, but Prayuth did visit the United States twice in 2016 to participate in the ASEAN Leaders Summit at Sunnylands in California and the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.
Washington’s tough stance in response to the coup angered and frustrated Thai leaders. They complained that countries like Egypt were not treated as harshly following the military overthrow of civilian governments, and they signaled their disappointment by slowing military cooperation in areas such as U.S. military access to Utapao Air Base. They also signaled a growing interest in military cooperation with China by launching new joint exercises and training programs and by announcing the planned purchase of three Chinese submarines in what would be the most expensive acquisition of military equipment in Thailand’s history.
The Obama administration gradually resumed military excercises and training engagements, while continuing to insist that bilateral relations would not get fully “back to normal” until democracy was restored. CARAT Thailand resumed in 2015; the Thai military was invited to participate in the 2016 iteration of RIMPAC; and the live-fire portion of Cobra Gold was restored in 2016. By the end of 2016, the administration approved the plan for U.S. Pacific Command chief ADM Harry Harris to visit Thailand in February to open Cobra Gold 2017, the most senior U.S. military officer to visit Thailand since the coup.
Q3: How has the Trump administration approached the U.S.-Thailand relationship?
A3: The Trump administration has said it seeks to reinvigorate ties with the two U.S. treaty allies in Southeast Asia, and its outreach to Thailand so far reflects this goal. President Trump called Prayuth in April as part of his initial outreach to Southeast Asian leaders, which also included calls to Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte and Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, and extended invitations to all three leaders to visit the White House. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in August met with Prayuth in Bangkok, the highest-level U.S. visit to Thailand since the coup. Prayuth’s White House meeting will be the first by a Thai prime minister since 2005. The Trump administration has also normalized military cooperation, restoring all military engagements other than those legally restricted such as IMET and FMF and approving the sale of four Black Hawk helicopters and Harpoon missiles.
Q4: What does Prayuth hope to accomplish in this meeting?
A4: There are indications that Thailand’s long-promised elections may finally take place in 2018, and Prayuth will likely be looking to burnish his image ahead of being named prime minister by the appointed Senate, as is allowed in the country’s new constitution drafted by allies of the military. Thailand was one of four Southeast Asian countries on an April Trump administration list of countries with large trade surpluses with the United States, and Prayuth will likely announce deals with U.S. companies to assuage this concern, as his Vietnamese and Malaysian counterparts did during their White House visits. North Korea will likely also be on the agenda for the meeting, following up on Tillerson’s August calls for Thailand to do more to crack down on North Korean front companies operating in Thailand.
Mr. Geoffrey Hartman is a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Dr. Amy Searight is senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow her on twitter @AmySearight. This piece also appeared as a CSIS Critical Questions here.
Mr. Geoffrey Hartman is a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.