A chance to revitalise
The visit of US Adm Harry B Harris Jr, head of US Pacific Command, to Thailand next week is an opportunity for both Thailand and the US to reset a stagnant, strained relationship. The visit will also be a significant symbol of the new Trump administration's commitment to the Asia-Pacific Region, and to Southeast Asia in particular.
The visit is in conjunction with Exercise Cobra Gold, the region's most important multilateral military exercise and a concrete symbol of US-Thai regional leadership. Although planned in the final months of the Obama administration, Mr Harris' visit to Thailand will be a crucial marker for the Trump administration. He will be the most significant US government official to visit Thailand since the 2014 coup.
In much the same manner as Secretary of Defence James Mattis' "first week in office" visit to Japan and Korea, and Secretary of State Tillerson's recent calls to his Japanese, Korean and Australian counterparts, Adm Harris' visit should also put to rest concern that under President Trump, an isolationist America will retreat from Asia into a xenophobic "Fortress USA".
Despite some contentious campaign rhetoric, President Trump and his National Security Team are well aware that America is -- and must remain -- a Pacific nation with strong economic, military and cultural ties to the countries of the Asia-Pacific.
Historically, America has shown a strong commitment to Asia and that support has been bipartisan and consistent. The commitment did not begin with President Obama's Pivot, or even with President George H W Bush's East Asia Strategy Initiative in the late 1980s. This longstanding commitment is best exemplified by America's first treaty in Asia, with Siam in the reign of King Rama III in 1833. America's "investment" in the region has been immense. Beyond investment of national treasure, that investment includes the blood of thousands of young Americans whose sacrifice bought independence, freedom, democracy, and rule of law for friends and allies here.
Although overlooked by most news media reporting and many of his critics, Mr Trump reaffirmed this commitment (as well as concerns about improving relations with Thailand) during the 2016 campaign. Key documents include the Republican Platform and articles in foreign policy-related publications by Mr Trump's National Security Team. Mr Trump's "Peace Through Strength" policy defined in these publications means forging tighter bonds with America' allies and a greater -- not a reduced -- commitment to the region.
Adm Harris' visit comes at a delicate -- but potentially promising -- moment. Under the Obama administration, Thai-US relations went from simple atrophy into a highly destructive dynamic. Thailand was once "central" to US strategy in Asia -- a treaty alliance partner holding "Major Non-NATO" status. But as it became consumed by internal politics and "diversification" its foreign policy portfolio, Thailand factored less and less into Washington's calculus.
As regional security analyst Benjamin Zawacki noted, Thailand's 2014 coup d'état was both a result of declining US influence in the country and the cause of relations hitting historical lows. "Standard Issue" US support for democracy and human rights was, in Thailand's hyper-partisan political environment, seen as taking sides against the Thai military leadership in their titanic struggle over the kingdom's future.
Mistrust seeped into the bilateral relationship, and negatively coloured many Thais' views of America. To quote one Thai army officer, "We bled with you on the battlefields of Korea, in Laos, in Vietnam, and in the War on Terror. But when we needed your understanding during a [deteriorating security situation], you didn't treat us as your friend and ally: you constantly scolded and humiliated us!" Other Thais noted that the Obama administration eagerly reached out to the Cuban, Iranian, and other dictatorships at the same time it was publicly lambasting Thailand.
This acrimony created space for China and Russia to exploit, portraying their authoritarian regimes as alternative security partners.
Although relations have stabilised somewhat since the appointment of Ambassador Glyn Davies and the Thai government's progress along the Roadmap back to democracy, the relationship has, at best, muddled along.
On the US side, there's been no clear policy direction. That must change. While the Thai government is likely reassessing options in light of the new administration, the United States might look beyond Adm Harris' milestone visit and implement the following steps to reinvigorate the alliance.
1. The US must commit to presidential attendance at the royal cremation ceremony for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the architect of the modern US-Thai relationship. The Trump administration must show full understanding of the Thai people's reverence for the departed monarch -- and show it at the presidential level. In doing so, it will also acknowledge the essential contribution of the American-born King Rama IX to more than 70 years of close Thai-US relations. World leaders and heads of state from around the globe will attend the royal ceremony, and US attendance will be one of its most important markers on the importance of the US-Thai relationship.
2. The US should increase the pace of senior engagement. Adm Harris' visit is highly significant, of course, but very soon the US should send a very senior administration official (such as a cabinet secretary) to Thailand to demonstrate progress in relations. At the highest levels, the previous administration met with Cuban and other brutal dictators, compared to whom Thailand's departures on human rights are relatively modest. Thai-US relations demand at least equal attention.
3. Current laws should be changed to permit professional international military education and training (IMET) for Thai officers in the US. IMET is one of the best tools we have for promoting US values. It is absurd to "punish" allied Thai military officers by denying them access to our educational institutions -- and thereby push them into schools (and authoritarian mindsets) offered for free by the PRC and Russia.
4. More controversially perhaps, open the policy to sell arms and ammunition to military and police units in Thailand. Equipment modernisation is a key priority for Thai military and civilian leadership. After the coup, the US maintained an official policy of a case-by-case review for all such decisions. However, in practice, the US has not approved the transfer of small arms weapons, ammunition and some military vehicles since the coup. US companies have lost hundreds of jobs (500-800) and tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, and US market share. President Trump won the election, in part, on the promise of jobs: There's no useful outcome in continuing this unofficial policy that is costing American companies jobs, so the US should begin providing these materials once again.
5. Seriously begin long-stalled bilateral trade talks. President Trump is a businessman: and he's made it clear he is not opposed to trade per se, and is willing to move ahead with bilateral deals. With Thailand as the centrepiece, show that partnership with the US brings privileges on the economic as well as military realm.
6. Open strategic talks to reexamine the purposes and opportunities codified under the treaty alliance and 2012 Joint Vision Statement for the US-Thailand Defence alliance.
We know where the Thai-US Relationship has been since the first treaty in 1833. Set the vision for where we take it from here.
Kerry Gershaneck is The Distinguished Visiting Professor at Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, a Senior Research Associate at the Thammasat University Faculty of Law 'German Southeast Asia Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance', and a Senior Associate at Pacific Forum CSIS.