It is time for the US to reconsider its policy toward Thailand and seriously contemplate either ending the alliance or severely curtailing the treaty between the two countries. US policy toward Bangkok has been lost and ineffectual since the May 2014 coup.
American officials have sought falteringly a coherent policy approach to encourage the leaders of the military coup to resume elections and dissolve the junta led by PM General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, known as the National Council for Peace and Order.
Thailand and the US have maintained close ties since their original alliance treaty in 1833, expanding bilateral trade and military cooperation, while working to strengthen the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) multilaterally. Despite Thailand’s clear attempts to play off its relationship with China tokeep the US off balance, the contemporary crossroads demands a policy rethink and a reset in the relationship, pending a return to peaceful democratic elections in Thailand.
The current state of affairs, in which Thailand and the United States do not see eye- to-eye on human rights, democracy, and civic freedoms, does not necessarily reflect a permanent rift between the two countries. But in fact, US policy might benefit from a sharp reduction in ties, or the abolition of the alliance treaty, and the US might find it has more avenues to pursue effective policy toward Thailand if it first distances itself from its wayward ally.
Here are four reasons why such a move would not be so bad:
1. The military relationship between the US and Thailand is already compromised. Following the coup in May 2014, the Obama administration suspended $4.7 million in military assistance to the Thai government. Defense cooperation is likewise limited. In February, the US reduced its troop presence in the annual Cobra Gold exercises, held in Thailand, to 3,600 personnel, down from 8,400 in 2013. Furthermore, the Defense Department refocused the exercises on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief rather than on the use of lethal force, in the hopes of signaling disapproval to the Thai junta.
Moving forward, the US will likely rely less on Thailand as a defense partner as it boosts military relations with the Philippines, Australia, Vietnam, and even Myanmar. Therefore, abandoning Thailand’s military dictators will not weaken the overall US military presence in the region despite Prayuth’s tilt to China. In fact, it would likely help America’s image if Washington could be seen as aligning its actions with its values.
2. US-Thai trade is not what it used to be, and Thailand is not the economic powerhouse it once was. The steady flow of exports and imports between the US and Thailand hit its plateau five years ago, and in 2007, China overtook the United States. Today the US is Thailand’s third-largest export target. The US ranks frourth as its biggest import partner.
The Thai economy has experienced a slowdown as markets react to political instability triggered by the May 2014 coup. Factory production (Thai companies manufacture clothes, cosmetics, cars, and auto parts) has contracted every month except one since March 2013. Furthermore, the Thai baht weakened by 6.4 percent this year, and spending has slowed as consumer confidence hit a 14-month low in July.
Exports, which comprise 60 percent of the economy, dropped by 4.3 percent in the first quarter of 2015, for the third year in a row. The Governor of the Bank of Thailand has said that meeting the national goal of 3 percent GDP growth will be a struggle. Tourism, which is vital to the Thai economy, slowed in the wake of the coup as well. Western businesses appear hesitant to make long-term investments given the current political climate.
3. Thailand no longer represents a strategic outpost for the intelligence community. The release of the CIA Torture Report in December last year revealed details on the brutal interrogation techniques used by the CIA, including waterboarding, as well as the location of black sites, facilities the US used for the detainment of terrorists.
When the CIA captured al-Qaeda mastermind Abu Zubaida in March 2002 with the help of Pakistani intelligence officers, President Bush quickly approved a detention facility inside Thailand. Due to loud opposition from Thai officials at the time, the site’s location leaked. Though the New York Times refrained from publishing details, by December, the CIA was forced to close the facility.
While the US still cooperates with Thailand on tackling narcotics smuggling and human trafficking, Thailand is not an essential intelligence partner in the global war on terrorism. Thailand’s increasingly close military relations with China’s Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) complicate our ability to rely on the Thai military as a trusted partner on defense and intelligence matters.
4. It’s not the Cold War: US geopolitical strategy doesn’t need Thailand to contain China. Global political order has changed. Past Thai dictators proved reliable partners in the Cold War, but the US does not need strongmen in Bangkok to advance its interests in Asia.
The United States is no longer fighting a war against international communism. Washington and Beijing have come a long way since the 1972 overture brokered by Nixon and Kissinger on their secret trip to China, meeting with Zhou Enlai. The US and China now hold an annual Strategic & Economic Dialogue (SED), high-level discussions on bilateral relations.
The US has stepped up its partnerships with other regional powers as well. The US and Vietnam now enjoy increasingly warm ties and closer military relations since normalization in 1995. Australia and the Philippines have both acquiesced to increased US troop presence on their soil. Washington has supported Manila in its quest to resolve maritime disputes with China by submitting its case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
The US has also sought to strengthen the multilateral Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and has used ASEAN Regional Forum meetings to hold side dialogues with Chinese officials.
Finally, the US has a considerable opportunity to promote Myanmar’s peaceful democracy and build closer ties with Naypyidaw. Myanmar has made significant progress on democratizing since its army partially stepped out of politics in 2010, making way for the country’s second general elections in November this year.
Rights groups have urged the United States to continue to work with Myanmar’s leaders to encourage further liberalization and stability there. Enhanced cooperation with its partners in the Indo-Pacific means less need for US reliance on Thailand as an ally in the regional architecture.
For all these reasons, it is high time the US contemplates suspending the Thai treaty alliance. Rising defense cooperation with Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Myanmar, will obviate the US-Thai security alliance, but need not permanently end military relations. If and when the Thai generals move to restore democratic elections in their country, the US can use military assistance as an incentive to reinvigorate the alliance.
As trade between the United States and Thailand stalls, the US is working hard to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership, ensuring US stewardship in regional free trade. A return to democratic peace in Thailand would encourage foreign investors to come back to the country, boosting GDP and providing opportunities for American businesses.
Lastly, the balance of power in Asia today has shifted and no longer requires a Thai junta to quash Communist insurgencies in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Burma. The US is not pursuing a policy of containment regarding China, and Bangkok’s warming relations with Beijing need not threaten US interests in the region. The United States benefits from a plethora of alliances and strategic partnerships in the region, which China does not enjoy.
America will for the foreseeable future be the dominant power in the Pacific despite China’s pretensions. It must move away from a policy based on insecurity, seeking to placate Thailand’s coup leaders. The Thai generals might take more notice if the US cut the treaty alliance. The irony of the situation is that Washington would wield more influence if it were not beholden to its ally.
Hunter Marston is an independent Asia analyst based in Washington, D.C. He has lived and worked in Thailand and was a senior contributor and analyst for The Indo-Pacific Review.