Obama Should Invite Yingluck to Washington Soon

President Barack Obama should invite Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra to the White House before the end of 2013, which marks the 180th anniversary of the two countries’ bilateral relationship. Thailand is one of the United States’ five allies in Asia, and the other four have all been invited to Washington in recent years. Thailand is a leader in ASEAN but has not had a meeting in the Oval Office in eight years, while the leaders of Brunei, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam have met the U.S. president in Washington over the past year and half, as has Myanmar’s leader.

The time for the Thai prime minister to be sent an invitation to Washington has come. Despite Thailand’s longstanding cooperation with the United States across a broad spectrum of areas, including military ties, public health issues, trade and investment, and education and culture, no Thai leader has been invited to the White House since September 2005, when former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra visited. Thaksin was toppled in a military coup the following year, which put U.S.-Thai relations on hold for a number of years.

Yingluck, Thaksin’s sister, was elected Thailand’s first female prime minister two years ago. She was widely assumed to be Thaksin’s proxy, but she has grown in stature as prime minister in her own right. A visit to Washington would help celebrate Thailand’s return to democracy, even if it is still a stormy one. Yingluck recently took over the portfolio of defense minister, presumably to deepen her ties with the military, which has long had deep suspicions about her brother’s ambitions. So Washington will get not only a prime minister but also a defense minister when Yingluck visits.

Yingluck currently faces protests at home over a bill being debated by the Parliament of Thailand that would grant amnesty to those involved in political violence since the 2006 coup. Should those demonstrations grow into a political crisis, a visit to Washington might prove impossible in the near future. But that seems unlikely and an invitation should be extended.

A visit by the prime minister would be an opportunity to promote trade and investment opportunities with the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia. The Asia Pacific’s other heavyweight, China, clearly recognizes the importance of courting the leader of Thailand. Beijing has invited Yingluck to visit China twice between now and mid-September. China has long been a major investor in and aid donor to Thailand, and the Thais currently serve as the ASEAN coordinator for China, a particularly important role as ASEAN presses China to negotiate a code of conduct on the disputed South China Sea, also a priority for the United States.

Thailand was the first Asian nation to establish diplomatic ties with the United States, starting with the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1833. In recent times, Bangkok allowed the United States to uses bases in Thailand during the Vietnam War and granted U.S. military planes refueling and overflight rights during the war in Afghanistan.

Today Bangkok is home to one of the largest U.S. embassies in the world, reflecting the myriad areas in which the United States and Thailand cooperate, both domestically and regionally. The United States and Thailand have deep military-to-military relations and this year the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group in Thailand is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Thailand and the United States cohost the annual Cobra Gold military exercise, the largest multilateral exercise in the world and the longest-running U.S. military exercise in the Pacific.

As for bilateral trade, the United States is currently Thailand’s third-largest trading partner behind Japan and China. U.S. companies had invested more than $466 million in net foreign direct investment in Thailand through 2011, making the United States one of the largest foreign investors in the country.

Stepped-up commercial relations could be explored during the prime minister’s visit. Yingluck told Obama when he visited Thailand right after his reelection last November that Thailand would like to explore joining the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade talks, and Japan’s recent entry has heightened Thai interest. Peter Petri, a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, projects that Thailand would enjoy the second-highest overall GDP gain, of 7.6 percent, of all TPP members if it were to join. Only Vietnam is projected to benefit more, with a 13.6 percent boost to GDP.

To join the TPP, Yingluck would have to work hard at home to build support for the regional trade grouping. The Thai parliament would have to approve Bangkok’s decision to join in advance of negotiations, and Yingluck would have to overcome considerable Thai business and domestic opposition to free trade agreements. Thailand and the United States began bilateral free trade talks in 2004, but they became bogged down, with Thai protestors even burning the U.S. lead negotiator in effigy, before the 2006 coup prompted the United States to formally withdraw from the negotiations. A visit by the prime minister would give the U.S. administration the opportunity to explore in depth what it would take to prepare Thailand to join the TPP.

A White House meeting would also provide an opening to explore new avenues for Thai-U.S. cooperation in third countries. The Thailand International Development Cooperation Agency recently signed an agreement with the U.S. Agency for International Development to do joint assistance projects in third countries.

When U.S. regulations prevented the United States from paying for flights for several military health experts from Myanmar to come to Bangkok for a meeting in late August to discuss health concerns like the growing incidence of drug-resistant malaria in Myanmar, the Thais quietly agreed to pick up the tab. Thailand can also fund the participation of Myanmar police officials in training opportunities at the State Department-supported International Law Enforcement Academy in Bangkok, where police from Myanmar could participate in classes on topics like rule of law and border control and combating human trafficking, narcotics, and terrorism.

A visit to Washington could be used to boost cooperation between the two countries on science and technology and also wildlife protection, an increasing priority of the Thai government and a topic raised repeatedly by Yingluck during her just-completed visit to Africa. The Thai Zoological Association and the U.S. Smithsonian Institution are slated to sign an agreement on wildlife conservation in Bangkok in August that is expected to include provisions on cooperating to help Myanmar develop its capabilities to tackle wildlife trafficking.

A meeting between Obama and Yingluck in Washington would give both countries an opportunity to celebrate this year’s anniversary of the United States’ oldest relationship in Asia, and to explore increased cooperation in many areas, including joint ventures in neighboring countries, politics and security, trade and investment, science and technology, and wildlife conservation. It is important that Washington send Yingluck an invitation for a meeting in the White House for later this year before she sets off on her next visit to China in late August.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the August 8, 2013, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th & K Streets.)

Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Noelan Arbis is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Murray Hiebert
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program

Noelan Arbis