(Commentary) – The joint statement issued after the 5th Thai-U.S. Strategic Dialogue in Washington on June 14 indicated that future relations are moving forward in the right direction.
A few days later, the whole bundle of promises hit a snag. Mud-slinging between the government and opposition Democrat Party in recent weeks over the use of U-tapao airbase facilities showed any Thai-U.S. initiative these days is not going to proceed easily without sufficient transparency and consultation with all stakeholders. Washington refused to help bail out Bangkok during the financial crisis back in 1997 and that inflicted a deep wound on the Thai psyche – they do not trust the U.S. government as they used to .
That helps explain why the strategic dialogue agreed to set up a working group to promote people-to-people exchanges, which would be the first of its kind. After more than 180 years of diplomatic relations, the governments still need advice on ways to increase exchanges between their two peoples. Without any political spin, Thais and Americans can get on together very well. However, when bilateral issues are framed with patriotism, it is quite easy to whip up anti-American sentiment here.
For the first time, Thailand raised the issue of a visa waiver to facilitate visits by Thai tourists and others to America. The long queues in front of the US consular office on Wireless Road continues to be a sour point on longstanding relations. Russia is the first and only major power to waive visas for Thai passport holders.
Washington's dialogue was frank and unscripted, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Affairs, Kurt Campbell, and Foreign Permanent Secretary Sihasak Phuangkhetkeou were very much in sync with one another. This time they managed to discuss the whole gamut of Thai-US relations, especially areas that needed to be strengthened. Bilateral ties, particularly security cooperation, have suffered greatly following the 2006 coup. Security consultations, which were a pivotal element of the alliance, were temporarily suspended.
After a long delay, Washington finally agreed to host the second round of Thai-U.S. Senior Defence Talks – a good move that will improve the morale of Thai army leaders.
They have previously complained consistently that the U.S. has failed to support the latest effort to build up defence capacity as a non-Nato ally. Lists of ammunition and weapon systems that Thailand submitted sometime ago were ignored by Washington for quite some time. At one point, Sihasak even asked Campbell what was the purpose of being a non-Nato ally if the U.S. simply did not respond to Thai requests at all.
The dialogue this time allowed both sides to shed light on their intentions and strategic outlook, especially Thai concerns over the US presence in Asia. Campbell spent the first half of one day talking about the U.S. bid to rebalance and increase its presence in Asia. He stressed that it was not focused on a military increase or presence per se, but rather on a holistic approach of the US engagement in Asia. That explains why the US values its alliance with Thailand and its commitment. He added that U.S. State Secretary Hilary Clinton would lead a big team of top investors and business leaders to this part of the world to boost ties further.
In return, the Thai side welcomed the increased engagement and acknowledgement of Asean centrality in the regional schemes of things. Sihasak expressed confidence on the role of China in the region, trusting that Beijing will become a responsible global player. He stressed that both the U.S. and China know how to navigate their relations and together they would do their best to avoid colluding or cooperating to harm countries in Asean. The U.S. trusted Thailand's constructive role as incoming coordinating country for China-Asean relations (2012-2015) in solving South China Sea conflicts.
To further strengthen security cooperation, a second working group has also been set up to study terms of reference for the use of U-tapao airbase as part of Thailand's proposed plan to establish a centre for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Thailand first raised the possibility of serving as a hub for regional humanitarian assistance in times of natural disaster with the World Food Program under the U.N.-Asean framework back in 2005. Due to the Thai political turmoil in 2006, subsequently Malaysia's Subang Airport facility was chosen instead.
Since then the idea of setting up a centre for such a purpose has been on the government's agenda. In the beginning, the Thai Royal Navy wanted the centre placed under a bilateral framework but the U.S. wanted to transform it as a platform for multilateral cooperation. After the tsunami catastrophe in December 2004 and natural disasters in the Philippines and Indonesia, the profile of U-tapao was raised due to its central location in mainland Southeast Asia in search and rescue missions.
The annual Thai-U.S. joint military exercise, Cobra Gold, has been concentrated on humanitarian and disaster relief practices involving multinational forces. The U.S. which has had regular access to U-tapao facilities for decades would like to have a formal arrangement and stand-by operating procedures with the Thai government for times of humanitarian crisis. The U.S. side pointed out during the strategic dialogue that previous emergency assistance was considered by other countries as "coincidental" activity. Washington wants to change that kind of perception.
In addition, the U.S. is urging Thailand to cooperate and help third countries such as Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia with bilateral and multilateral frameworks as in the Lower Mekong Initiative. Such expansive engagement would bolster the U.S. footings on continental Southeast Asia.
At the moment, it is still a bone of contention. The Democrat Party had urged the government to come clean on the use of U-tapao. In fact, the opposition should know better than anyone, since the discussion started under the Abhisit government.
Since the Thai side is preparing the terms of reference concerning access and use of the airbase, they can literally lay down conditions as they wish. After all, U-tapao has been transformed into an international airport for chartered planes for the past several years.
But efforts to reinvigorate Thai-U.S. cooperation, especially strategic ties, are extremely difficult as they are easily distracted by domestic squabbles and political spin. If the trend continues, the U.S. plans to look elsewhere. In private talks, Cambodia has been mentioned often as an alternate country, as its leaders are more willing to accommodate America's new security needs.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a commentator on Southeast Asian politics and culture.