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"Thailand’s Rebalancing or “Shopping Diplomacy” for Legitimacy?" by Pongphisoot Busbarat

2017/58, 6 October 2017

The visit of Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to Washington from 2 to 4 October 2017 signalled the normalisation of Thai-US relations since the coup in 2014. On the surface, it looked as if Bangkok is trying to rebalance its foreign policy to Washington. But, on closer examination, the visit was pretty much a clever tactic to ingratiate the military leadership with the Trump Administration in order to strengthen its own legitimacy. Therefore, it was not at all surprising that trade deals that overwhelmingly favours the US were the main outcome of the visit.

Thailand’s “shopping diplomacy” included, among others, the purchase of 28 Boeing aircrafts and 155,000 tonnes of coal. The normalisation of bilateral ties also gave the green light for US arms sale to proceed, including four Blackhawk and Lakota helicopters, Cobra gunships, five Harpoon Block II missiles and the upgrading of F-16 fighter jets. In addition, Thailand will invest US$6 million in Ohio, a move which is expected to recreate more than 8,000 American jobs. Meanwhile, the ban on American pork into Thailand was also lifted.

Prime Minister’s visit to the heart of American politics is tantamount to US endorsement of his government – a priceless political prize which raises the regime’s international standing.  The one-sided trade deals also serve to support Trump’s “America First” agenda that aims to reduce trade deficit and create jobs in the US.  

From a political-strategic perspective, the Thai and US militaries are net beneficiaries through the resumption of regular activities and exchanges. Whilst the US military stands to regain access to Thailand’s military facilities and cooperation, the Thai military can again purchase arms from its primary military equipment supplier. As expected, the US was silent on Thailand’s fraying democracy and widespread human rights violations in Thailand.

Discussions on the North Korean issue were more intractable. Washington sought Thailand’s assistance to persuade ASEAN member states to downgrade ties with Pyongyang, but were left disappointed. To begin with, Thailand’s trade with North Korea is moderate at best. Even though there are some North Korean business interests in the country, Thailand is unlikely to re-evaluate its relations with North Korea. Thai exports to North Korea are mostly either agricultural products, which are not listed under the UNSC sanction list or are labelled as Chinese products. Bangkok would most likely observe Beijing’s position before taking any decisively actions on this issue.

While the visit to the White House may usher in improved bilateral Thai-US ties, its future is still fraught with challenges. Firstly, tensions could resurface if Thailand’s trade surplus with the US does not improve, thus exposing Thailand to possible retaliation by the US. However, such punitive actions by the US will elicit stronger negative reactions in Thailand similar to the experience in the 1990s even before the financial crisis, and weaken bilateral ties

Secondly, it remains to be seen if President Trump’s executive decisions to improving ties with Thailand will pass muster with Congress and other vested interest groups in the US. For instance, US law forbids Washington from extending full military assistance to foreign governments that came to power by way of a military coup. Trump may find his hands tied by Congress and existing laws, which curtails the US’ full normalisation of relations with Thailand. Notwithstanding Thailand’s eagerness to normalise ties with the US, it will continue to keep the China card close to its chest as long as the US card remains uncertain.

Dr Pongphisoot Busbarat is Visiting Fellow with the Thailand Studies Programme at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.