A Future for U.S.-Thailand Relations?
By: John Schaus
The past 18-month period has seen remarkable changes throughout Asia. It has seen the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and the election in India of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with his exhortation for India to “Act East.” In security issues, it has seen hundreds of acres of islands created where previously nearly none existed, and it has seen countries across the Asia Pacific respond by seeking to bolster capabilities to patrol and monitor increasingly contested maritime zones. Together, these developments have spurred the United States to think strategically about Maritime Southeast Asia as a critical group of countries and, as President Obama announced earlier this month, to put in place policies to enable the United States to better partner with countries there.
However, in that same 18-month period, U.S.-Thailand relations have been at a strategic standstill. A coup by the Thai military against the democratically elected government resulted in the United States halting nearly all senior-level engagements with Thailand. Despite 182 years of diplomatic relations, the United States was willing to forgo high-level interactions with a long-time partner as a result of this suspension of its democratic process.
For over 50 years, the United States and Thailand have partnered on security challenges and diplomatic efforts, with Thailand long serving as a regional hub for U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia, including medical labs and military exercises. Decades of ties between the United States and Thailand suggest that both countries may have a large role to play in the foreign policies of the other. Though, without consistent dialogue to build common perceptions, the two countries could move in divergent directions instead.
As Thailand works through its political realities and, eventually, moves toward a new constitution and election, it is incumbent upon strategic leaders in both Washington and Bangkok—particularly those not constrained by the official positions of their governments—to look beyond the current period of stasis in the relationship and instead think together about what the future of U.S.-Thailand relations could (and possibly even should) look like 5 to 10 years from now
A simplistic view offers three alternatives. First, that the United States and Thailand continue their political estrangement, with the accompanying limitations on partnership and broader regional impact for both countries. Second, it is possible that the roller coaster of the past decade continues, with periods of stasis followed by periods of hopeful opportunity. Third, there is the possibility for a more enduring partnership built on a foundation of mutual interest.
Identifying the elements of that last alternative, and the steps each side can take to make progress toward that positive outcome, is something that should be done now.