Promise and Peril in the U.S.-Thailand Alliance

Srettha Thavisin was formally elected as prime minister on August 22 by Thailand’s parliament, capping off months of political intrigue and horse-trading following the country’s May 14 general elections. Srettha, a real estate tycoon who was named as one of the Pheu Thai Party’s three candidates for the premiership in the run-up to the May elections, has come into office with a tenuous mandate. His 11-party coalition not only includes the conservative, royalist, and military-aligned parties that propped up the former Prayuth Chan-ocha government, but also excludes the pro-democracy Move Forward Party, which won a plurality of seats in the election and previously tried—and failed—to form government with Pheu Thai and six other parties.

The Biden administration has been slow to engage with Srettha and his new government. Although the State Department issued a formal statement following the latter’s rise to the premiership, this marks a stark contrast to Biden’s prompt and personal outreach to the incoming leaders of other allied countries, including South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. That both Biden and Srettha passed on attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and East Asia Summit meetings in early September represents yet another missed opportunity for the two leaders to engage. While Biden and Srettha met briefly on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in mid-September, the two leaders are playing catch-up to build ties. And with Srettha already holding a standing invitation to visit China from Xi Jinping, the United States needs to make up for lost time.

The Biden administration’s hesitant approach to the government in Thailand makes it abundantly clear that the U.S.-Thailand alliance is punching below its weight. While the United States’ alliances in Asia have flourished in recent years, the U.S.-Thailand alliance has largely languished. This state of inertia is all the more striking given the recent revitalization of the United States’ only other security alliance in Southeast Asia: the Philippines.

Part of this stagnation can be ascribed to the political turmoil that erupted in the aftermath of Thailand’s 2014 coup. The United States initially shunned the post-coup junta, only to later increase engagement when it became clear that Washington’s efforts to encourage a return to democracy were having little result and were instead impacting broader strategic goals by alienating Bangkok. Even while the United States came to accept the reality that it needed to engage with the Thai junta, and despite last year’s U.S.-Thailand communiqué on Strategic Alliance and Partnership, the alliance remained adrift—Washington held the government in Bangkok at arm’s length, while Thai leaders remained too preoccupied with domestic politics and internal instability to put serious thinking into foreign policy and the role of the alliance.

Although the Srettha government represents a tentative—albeit flawed and imperfect—step toward a more democratic Thailand, this stagnation will likely persist. While the optics of engaging with the Srettha government are arguably better than the optics of engaging with the previous Prayuth government, the fact remains that a majority of Thais opposed the formation of the Pheu Thai-led ruling coalition and resent the fact that the Move Forward Party and its now-resigned leader Pita Limjaroenrat were effectively denied the chance to govern despite their mandate. Washington will need to work around the fact that Thailand’s now nominally democratic government came to power through what many Thais view as a subversion of the democratic process. And the Srettha government will face internal political pressures similar to or even stronger than the pressure previous governments faced. It must contend with both a conservative military/monarchist flank within government that will seek to extract concessions from Pheu Thai in exchange for continued support (and to avert yet another coup) and from a progressive opposition that can boast more popular support than it can.

Ultimately, Srettha’s government is anything but stable. Public frustration at how the government came to power and the conservative establishment’s maneuvers to block Pita from securing the premiership not only underscore the central thesis of the Move Forward Party—that the role of the military and monarchy in government are undemocratic and must be reformed—but also may push more Thais to support the progressive party the next time they go to the polls. This tension could erupt into further political unrest if Thailand’s conservative establishment pushes forward with efforts to disband Move Forward, which is what happened to its predecessor, the Future Forward Party, in 2020.

The Biden administration needs to strike a fine balance—approaching and engaging the Thai government as normal and finding ways to pragmatically cooperate with the ruling coalition, while recognizing that the situation is unstable. As a first step, the Biden administration could expand cooperation on the issue areas highlighted in the 2022 U.S.-Thailand communiqué, including climate change, law enforcement cooperation, cybersecurity and technological innovation, and global public health. Moreover, with Thailand a member of the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, furthering economic cooperation should be a key objective for both sides. And at a time when many Thais feel that the government in power does not reflect popular will, the Biden administration needs to double down on initiatives that engage with the Thai public and civil society. No matter what, the regular functions of the U.S.-Thailand alliance will continue. But the Biden administration will need to decide whether a business-as-usual approach will suffice, or whether it should ramp up political capital, time, and attention in pursuit of realizing the alliance’s potential.

Andreyka Natalegawa is an associate fellow for the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.