The United States Makes Up Critical Terrain in Thailand

Thailand has been showered with attention from the United States in recent months after Thai officials privately complained last year that senior Biden administration officials seemed to be passing by Bangkok during their travels to the region. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited in July, a month after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stopped in Bangkok. Blinken signed a joint communique on a strategic alliance with his Thai counterpart, while Austin sought to strengthen military ties between the nominal allies.

A month earlier, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha participated in a summit in Washington with President Joe Biden and other Southeast Asian leaders. In June, Thailand joined 12 other countries in signing up to the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a diverse trade platform that will now be negotiated among partners over the next 18 months.

Blinken and Thai foreign minister Don Pramudwinai signed a U.S.-Thailand Communiqué on Strategic Alliance and Partnership, the first comprehensive effort to broaden the terms of the 1962 Thanat-Rusk communiqué in which the United States committed to support Thailand against communist threats. The new communiqué expanded relations beyond a military partnership to address the threats of climate change, expand law enforcement cooperation, deepen collaboration on cybersecurity and technological innovation, and advance global public health. Paragraph 6 references a U.S. and Thai agreement to protect human rights and promote free and fair elections. Separately, Blinken and Don signed a memorandum of understanding on supply chain resilience.

On his earlier visit, Austin expressed a desire to bolster interoperability between Thai and U.S. forces and support Thai military modernization needs. The two countries agreed to incorporate space and cyber cooperation into bilateral exercises such as Cobra Gold.

Suddenly, Washington is making up for lost time in Thailand. The Biden administration appears to have decided not to allow its democracy and human rights agenda to trump strategic considerations in its dealings with Bangkok. U.S. officials are again showing up following the Trump administration, during which Southeast Asia was not a top priority, and after the worst of Covid-19 appears to have passed. The diplomatic optics have changed dramatically with the Thais now hoping that Biden will visit in November when Thailand hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

Are ties with Thailand back on track after slipping into a period of drift since the 2014 Thai coup when Washington shunned Bangkok’s military junta? In the years since the coup, the United States focused more on neighboring countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, which are at the forefront of China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea. Bangkok drifted closer to China, which happily hobnobbed with junta leaders avoided by many in the West.

On cue and to remind Washington that Thailand has another superpower suitor, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi rolled into Bangkok between the Austin and Blinken visits to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership between Bangkok and Beijing. In diplomatic circles, a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership ranks higher than just a strategic partnership, a difference downplayed by U.S. officials. Then in mid-August, China dispatched jet fighters to Thailand to facilitate its fifth Falcon Strike air force exercises at a military base in Udorn, which was used by the U.S. air force during the Vietnam War.

But not all has been a bed of orchids between Thailand and China. Beijing is frustrated that Bangkok has dragged its heels over the Thai segment of China’s proposed high-speed train through mainland Southeast Asia. Thais are not convinced that the railroad would give their economy much of a boost, and they would like to open bidding to international tenders to supply rolling stock and rail equipment rather than depend on China for all the technology.

Thais are also not impressed that China, with barely any notice, holds back water behind its 11 dams in the upper Mekong River inside China during the rainy season and then releases water during the dry season, causing alternate droughts and floods for farmers downstream. Recently, Thailand’s $1 billion controversial submarine deal nearly came undone when Beijing informed Bangkok that Germany, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was refusing to sell China the engines promised in the original deal. In recent days, Thai military officials have hinted they might have to accept Chinese engines.

In the wake of the coup eight years ago, the Thais also ordered tanks and armored personnel carriers from China. But the Thai military seeks to diversify its military acquisitions between various countries including Israel, Sweden, South Korea, Russia, and the United States. Recently Thai officials have begun discussions on whether they should buy F-35 combat aircraft from the United States, prompting domestic debates about whether these jets, like the submarines, are cost-effective, considering that Thailand has largely cordial relations with its neighbors.

China remains a much bigger trading partner with Thailand than the United States, although U.S.-Thai trade picked up during the Covid-19 pandemic. U.S. companies’ investment in Thailand still overshadows that of Chinese firms, but Huawei remains a key player in building Thailand’s 5G network. Thailand gains easy market access to China through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which excludes the United States. Thailand does not have a trade agreement with the United States, although it has signed up to start negotiations including the United States in the IPEF.

Bangkok and Washington have been allies since they both signed the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty in 1954, and Thailand supported the U.S. war effort in Vietnam by providing soldiers and access to Thai air bases. In 2003, Washington named Bangkok a major non-NATO ally in the U.S. war against terrorism. But over the years, Thais have grown critical of the United States for failing to support Thailand during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, criticizing the military for a series of coups—most recently the one in 2014—and carping about labor abuses and infringements of intellectual property.

Like many of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Thailand today has frustrations with both Beijing and Washington and seeks to balance relations between the two superpowers. At the same time, Bangkok seeks to hedge by developing closer ties with regional powers such as Japan and India.

Thailand today seems to be seeking more of a partnership with the United States than an alliance arrangement. For this to work, the two countries will need to find ways to build trust and explore opportunities to cooperate by building closer economic ties, confronting cybersecurity attacks, and seeking to provide aid to the people of Myanmar who are suffering from 18 months of civil war and an economic downturn.

Murray Hiebert is a senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies

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