New US president and Thai foreign policy
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New US president and Thai foreign policy

After Americans cast their ballots today, Southeast Asian nations will have to deal with a new US presidency. Notwithstanding whoever wins the election, Thailand and its Asean neighbours will need to come up with strategic positioning and get their acts together.

Under the leadership of outgoing President Barack Obama, the US has given higher priority to the region. With the exception of Brunei, Mr Obama has visited all Asean countries. His concrete accomplishments in the region include the rebuilding of the US's long-lost ties with Myanmar, the normalisation of ties with Vietnam and warmer relations with Laos as he was the first sitting president to visit the small, landlocked country.

Some may link Mr Obama's favourable policy toward Asia to his Indonesian roots, but for the US, the move is necessary to counter the growing influence of China in the region. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China has enhanced its influence and hides no intention of projecting power beyond its borders. As Napoleon Bonaparte warned, "China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world."

The South China Sea tensions and Southeast Asia's interests will remain contested terrain.

Despite the renewed interest in the region, the US's top priorities remain unchanged: the Middle East conflicts and terrorism threats from the Islamic State (IS). The lingering peril of homeland security has obsessed and directed its foreign policy. At the same time, its own domestic politics has become too toxic and has paralysed decision making in Washington. The unilateral superpower has weakened and is being challenged.

Suranand Vejjajiva was secretary-general to the prime minister during the Yingluck Shinawatra government and is now a political analyst.

The plate will be just as full for the next US president, whoever wins the election.

Hillary Clinton is an old hand. As former Secretary of State, she has made good impressions on Asean members during her visits. She has demonstrated the US's strong commitment to its "pivot to Asia". (Ms Clinton's adviser Kurt Campbell's book The Pivot -- The Future of American Statecraft in Asia is a good read to get a glimpse of what to expect under a Clinton administration.) Asean members are put forward as becoming US economic and security partners while allies such as Japan and South Korea in East Asia will stay important.

Both Mr Obama and Ms Clinton have visited Thailand. Mr Obama had an audience with His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2012 on the eve of 180th anniversary of bilateral relations. During the visit, he and then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra agreed that "the alliance is rooted in the shared commitment to democracy, rule of law, universal human rights, open societies and a free market, which has bonded the people of the two nations closely together". They also reaffirmed the United States-Thailand strategic dialogue as the critical framework to shape the agenda for bilateral relations.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, will be erratic in handling foreign policy. Both Asean as a regional grouping and Thailand will not even be on his radar. His tough talk with China will either be just hot air or spark direct confrontation -- both equally dangerous. His inexperience will cost time and may lead to untoward decisions he has to make under pressure to prove himself.

If Mr Trump is elected, he needs to listen to advice of the State Department. Remaining as stubborn as he has been during the election campaign will not be helpful. He will be short of the considerable finesse required for the leader of a superpower nation to deal with the complex world.

And finesse is indeed needed for a new US president to handle relations in Southeast Asia. The region is different now from what it was during 2011-2012.

The leader of the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is unpredictable and rogue. Malaysia is bogged down by domestic corruption allegations. Indonesia seems to have lost its flair. Myanmar looks promising but must manoeuvre the minefields. Vietnam has regained the US's trust but has been caught in the middle as a new buffer between the superpowers. Cambodia's Hun Sen faces stronger opposition. Thailand is back under military rule with an unclear roadmap to democracy.

It is probably correct to assume that the new US president, whoever wins, will be weak and governing a divided nation. At home, she or he will have to work to heal the country deeply polarised as a result of a harsh campaign. Abroad, the US will be bogged down with Syria and the IS, and the confrontation with Vladimir Putin's Russia.

In Asia, North Korea will be the first priority for the US. That means the South China Sea conflict will be an afterthought. The Chinese sphere of influence could be enlarged without deterrent.

Asean members have to get their acts together. The regional grouping must identify its shared interests to move forward in unity. Asean's strong economic identity will provide leverage in trade and investment.

It will be easier for Asean, as a united bloc, to sway the European Union, the US and China. Enhanced unity will place the grouping in a better position to negotiate with other economic blocs. Joint security solutions are needed as they will form the basis for increased economic cooperation. Without a coordinated approach, each Asean country will become a pawn on the international chessboard.

With the 45th US president, a new viable and well-thought foreign policy is needed more than ever in Thailand. After the 2006 coup d'etat, we have spent too much time explaining ourselves to the world rather than being proactive and strategic in our positioning.

And not since the Thaksin Shinawatra administration has Thailand had a progressive foreign policy. Then, international acceptance and the nation's credibility was at its highest in decades. Thailand was starting to become a key player and an agenda setter in the international community. Now, it is the opposite.

Historically, Thailand has played a vital leadership role to iron out compromises among Asean members. That role should be revived.

It is essential that Thailand carves out a clear role in the international community. We cannot run our foreign policy on a day-to-day or issue-by-issue basis. We have to set agendas based on our national political, economic and security interests, and effectively synchronise them. That means sitting down with stakeholders -- government agencies, the private sector and non-governmental organisations -- and map out a foreign policy based on long-term national interests.

Stop making excuses and start setting agendas. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs needs to return to its job of building Thailand's international credibility. That includes working with the international media and not viewing those with different opinions as enemies of the state.

To create leverage, we need to be credible. Ultimately, a return to democracy is essential to rebuilding credibility and integrity. Free and fair elections must be held. International human rights standards must be observed and rule of law enforced. Such is the basis of being a responsible world citizen.

Suranand Vejjajiva was secretary-general to the prime minister during the Yingluck Shinawatra government and is now a political analyst.

Suranand Vejjajiva

Former secretary-general to the prime minister

Suranand Vejjajiva was secretary-general to the prime minister during the Yingluck Shinawatra government and is now a political analyst.

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