US envoy talks up Prayut invitation

US envoy talks up Prayut invitation

Davies tries to clear up 'misconception'

US ambassador Glyn Davies (photo by Chanat Katanyu)
US ambassador Glyn Davies (photo by Chanat Katanyu)

The US Ambassador to Thailand has shed light on US President Donald Trump's invitation to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to visit Washington, saying people have a "misconception" that Washington halted diplomatic relations with Bangkok following the coup.

"People have a bit of a misconception about our relationship. They think the relationship ended after the coup, that we stopped working together. That's not true," Glyn Davies told the Bangkok Post during an exclusive interview.

"It's true that our previous administration criticised the coup. Three years after the coup, you had a referendum on your constitution. Your government has said there will be elections next year. So this allows opportunities to talk more with each other," he said.

Mr Davies said despite the past criticism of the military government, the relationship has continued as usual, citing the sale of military equipment to Thailand this year.

"Our military ties have been strong. We have sold almost US$1 billion (about 34 billion baht) worth of arms to Thailand just over the last ten years," he said.

"The Thai government bought Black Hawk and Lakota helicopters from the US after the coup. And the US also sold missile systems and naval equipment to Thailand. In 2017 alone, US$261 million worth of military deals are in the works," the US ambassador said.

Army chief Chalermchai Sittisart on Thursday said the government's request to purchase four more Black Hawk helicopters from the US has already been agreed to.

The Thai army wanted the four helicopters to complete its 16-helicopter fleet.

They will be bought gradually, starting this fiscal year to the 2019 fiscal year. Gen Chalermchai did not reveal the price but a source from the military said the four helicopters would cost 3 billion baht.

The envoy also mentioned areas of continued cooperation including fighting human trafficking, transnational crimes, child exploitation and terrorism, and the Cobra Gold military exercises.

Ambassador Davies, who took the post in 2015, denied that the US stance towards Thailand under a military government has changed recently, particularly after Mr Trump in April invited Gen Prayut to meet him at the White House.

Although the exact date of the meeting has not been announced, it is expected to take place this month.

He said the White House usually announces the exact date only a week and a half before the day.

He added that the US will host the 6th US-Thailand Strategic Dialogue in Washington this month. The event was last hosted in 2015.

As clarification on the reduced cooperation and assistance after the military coup in 2014, the ambassador said, "Our laws state that when a civilian-elected government is overturned by a military coup, certain aid must stop.

"And that goes for all countries of the world. For instance, the International Military Education Training and Foreign Military Financing stopped after the military government took over in Thailand."

He added that a few million dollars of aid could not be compared with the kind of cooperation that has continued between the countries.

He said Thailand is no longer dependent on US military assistance, and it was not a problem that the Thai government sponsors its military personnel's education in the US.

The ambassador admitted that the sale of helicopters and military equipment helped balance the trade between the US and Thailand.

"These kinds of big deals can help the trade balance, but we hope that it can go beyond that to resolve some long-standing trade irritants that we have had for many years," he said.

Besides security issues, trade and investment is an expected topic that the leaders would likely discuss if they meet.

President Trump earlier announced his intention to fix trade deficits with 16 countries, including Thailand, that have a trade surplus over the US.

From January to April, Thailand's exports to the US was worth $9.5 billion while it imported $3.3 billion in goods from the US, leaving a $6 billion deficit for the US.

Last year, from the $40 billion trade of goods between the two countries, Thailand gained a $19 billion trade surplus.

"Our administration's policy is to find ways to balance that trade," he said.

"We will do that by working with the Kingdom of Thailand to eliminate trade barriers, barriers that exist to our agricultural products, to our pharmaceutical products and our services. The trade barriers have been there for a while and we want to eliminate them," he added.

The Thai government this year decided to buy three submarines from China and push for the Sino-Thai train project.

Asked whether he was concerned the Sino-Thai relationship would come at the expense of Thai-US relations, the ambassador said he did not think it was a zero-sum game.

Video by Kornchanok Raksaseri

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